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Stephen Orr, Incredible floridas (#BookReview)

March 23, 2018

Stephen Orr, Incredible floridasThe good thing about reviewing Stephen Orr’s latest book Incredible floridas is that you know the end at the beginning, so there’s no need to worry about spoilers. The end, the one that you read at the beginning that is, is that Hal, the 22-year-old son of artist Roland and his wife Ena, commits suicide. By the end, the real end that is, you have some understanding of why he does, but you are also left to think about the drive to create art and its impact on family, about parental love and father-son relationships, and about that notion that it takes a village to raise a child.

To make this work, Orr uses a flashback-style chronology. The novel starts in 1962, just after Hal’s death, and then flashes back to 1944, when Hal is 4. From there it moves forward in irregular bunches of years -1948, 1950, and 1956 – until we arrive again at 1962 where it takes us through the events leading up to the death. This, then, is not the book for those who seek excitement and plot. Rather, it’s for those who love character, are intrigued by families and neighbourhood relationships, and like historical fiction.

There’s more to it than this, however – and it relates to the artist-father Roland. He is clearly modelled on the Australian artist Russell Drysdale (1912-1981) about whom I wrote a couple of years ago. Roland’s work and career as described by Orr – his angular lonely figures in stark landscapes, and the decline in his reputation – is similar to Drysdale’s. And Drysdale’s biography – his having a son and daughter, his being rejected for war service because of a detached retina, and his son committing suicide at the age of 21 in 1961 – is similar to our fictional Roland’s.

And then there’s the title. “Incredible floridas” rang a bell with me, and a little research brought it back. Peter Weir made a short film called Incredible Floridas in 1972. (It’s available on YouTube.) It portrays Australian composer Richard Meale (1932-2009) creating his work, Incredible Floridas, which was inspired by the 19th century French poet, Rimbaud. Curiouser and curiouser.

But, how much of this is relevant to Orr’s novel? Well, Meale’s work is an homage to Rimbaud, just as Orr’s is to Drysdale. And Weir’s award-winning short film has been described as “a wonderful tribute to artistic inspiration” which we can see in Orr’s book. Then there’s Rimbaud’s poem, “Le bateau ive” (“The drunken boat), which includes the words “incredible floridas”. It’s about inspiration and ecstasy, and their downsides, disappointment and disillusion. There are, in fact, several references to boats in the novel, paper ones and a painting Roland does of a child in a boat with panthers, another reference to Rimbaud’s poem, in the background.

And, while I’m at it, there are also allusions to Shakespeare’s Henry IV Pt I. Hal is nick-named Prince Hal, and the allusion is underlined by one character telling him to watch out for Hotspur. The irony, of course, is that our Prince Hal does not win out in the end.

I hope all this hasn’t been boring – or worse, off-putting. The book can be read very comfortably without knowing any of this, but I love the layers they contribute. Now, the novel.

“casualty of art”?

Set in mid-twentieth century suburban Adelaide – mostly – the novel tells of Hal’s growing up within a small community comprising, primarily, his family (father, mother and older sister Sonia) and neighbours Mary, her brother Sam, and her lupus-afflicted daughter Shirley who is ostracised and bullied by the neighbourhood kids. Other characters, who appear more sporadically, include Roland’s art school friend James, Mary’s cousin Trevor, and Hal’s grandmother Nan who works for Dr Bailey. These make up “the village” which raises, or tries to, Hal.

From 1944, when Hal is 4, it’s clear that he’s not an easy child. And it’s also clear that Roland is driven by his art – “art was an all-or-nothing proposition”. How these two are related is central to the book. Hal regularly feels he comes second, but Roland is not the stereotypical dark, inward-looking artist. Sure, he thinks about his work most of the time, and sure, he had his “periods … months on end when they barely saw him”, but he is also seen engaging with the family and making time for Hal. Finding the art-life balance is a challenge for creators, particularly when they work from home. Always being there doesn’t mean they are always available. Is Hal a “casualty of art” or are his problems something else?

When Hal is around 16 years old, directionless and acting erratically, sometimes violently so, Roland takes him on the first of several road trips because “he knew that Hal could only be made better under the stars” (albeit Ena thinks Hal “needs a proper doctor”). To a degree it works, but Roland can never quite get it right. Of course he thinks about art and makes sketches – creating a visual diary of the trip – while they travel, but he’s also there communicating with his son, talking about options, and not pushing him to be anything in particular. Unfortunately, Hal doesn’t see the love, the sacrifice, the wish for him to be “happy”. He just sees it as Roland “trying to improve his character”.

Stepping into some of the gaps left by Roland’s busy-ness is next door neighbour Sam. He becomes a second father to Hal, taking him to the racecourse, providing his own thoughtful counsel when Hal comes calling, and making significant sacrifices to help Hal. Nan’s employer, Dr Bailey, is also generous. But Hal just keeps on getting into scrapes – at school and in the neighbourhood. He has few friends because, as he himself realises, he doesn’t know how to be one. As Ena says in the opening section, “Hal was Hal, and his wires were crossed”.

While art and the artist’s life is an overall theme, this is primarily a book about men, about fathers and sons. And Orr portrays them so authentically. There are women here too, but this is the mid-twentieth century and it’s essentially a man’s world in which women’s agency is limited. All they can do, Ena sees, is to follow the men, and try “to make the unworkable work.” Similarly, poor Shirley sees the sacrifices Sam makes for Hal, who has treated her poorly, and wonders where she fits.

So what more is there to say? The writing is clear, evocative and, what I especially love about Orr, includes wonderfully natural dialogue. I’ll just share one excerpt (but it’s so hard to choose!). It comes from 1944 when four-year-old Hal and Roland visit an airforce base with Trevor Grant:

Uniform or not, things were looking up. Hal studied the plane’s wings and asked his dad, “D’yer reckon it’s got guns?”
“D’yer reckon I could look inside?”
“Prob’ly not.”
Grant and the other man approached them. The man messed his hair. “This is top secret,” he said. “Has Corporal Grant administered the oath?”
“No, sir.”
“Well, he will, later. And once you’ve taken it you can’t say nothing about this to no one, or else the government will come lookin’ for you. Got it?”
“Yes, sir.”
Roland noticed the same look on his son’s face, as Hal studied the two men. Like he’d just seen a comet for the first time. Something marvellous, new; a boy in a boat in a jungle full of panthers.

Incredible floridas is the third Orr book I’ve read, the others being The hands (my review) and Datsunland (my review). What keeps me coming back is his ability to capture ordinary, day-to-day human interactions, human hopes and fears, with such realism and warmth. There’s no judgement from Orr. He leaves that for the reader to consider.

Lisa (ANZlitLovers) is also a Stephen Orr fan and enjoyed this book.

Stephen Orr
Incredible floridas
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743055076

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

World Poetry Day 2018

March 21, 2018

Did you realise that today, March 21, is World Poetry Day? I’m not asking this to catch you out but more because I wonder how well promoted it is – particularly here in Australia? I must say that, as in previous years, I’ve heard very little about it. Perhaps, though, if I went to my local public library, they might be promoting it? You never know.

I have mentioned this day before, including dedicating a Monday Musings post to it in 2016, when I gave a brief explanation of the Day. It was designated for 21 March by UNESCO in 1999, but has been celebrated for much much longer, often in October to align with the birthday of the birth of the Roman poet Virgil. Its aim is to promote the reading, writing, publishing and teaching of poetry throughout the world. There is, as I wrote back in 2016, a Facebook Page for World Poetry Day, but the posts there are an eclectic bunch.

I enjoy poetry, but I don’t write a lot about it here. However, most years I write a few posts and I have a small book by a Tasmania poet on my TBR now that I hope to get to soon.

Now though, I’ll just share a three Australian initiatives I discovered via our good friend Google, and which cover us almost from cradle to grave!

Reading Australia

Leah A, Ten silly poems by a ten year oldThe Australian Copyright Agency’s wonderful Reading Australia, which I’ve mentioned before, is doing its bit. In late February it announced that it would spend “the entire month featuring the diversity and brilliance of our Australian poets, contemporary and classic.” They list five works for primary school students, including a picture book featuring a poem by Australian classic balladist Banjo Paterson, and five for secondary students, including a verse novel I don’t know by Steven Herrick, and works by well-known Australian poets Robert Adamson, Judith Wright, Bruce Dawe and Kenneth Slessor.  For each work, they provide teaching resources, along the lines of this one for Judith Wright’s Collected poems.

They also provide an “extra reading list” for those who want to explore further. This includes a verse novel for primary students, Bully on the Bus by Kathryn Apel, which won the 2015 Australian Family Therapists’ Award in the Young Readers/Picture Book category, and the now classic feminist anthology Mother, I’m rooted from 1975, comprising works from over 150 poets. They say about that that “You’d be hard-pressed to find a collection of poetry that so completely represents the diverse spectrum of being a woman.”

The website doesn’t make clear how they are making this is a month-long focus, but it’s a start – particularly for teachers who are uncomfortable with or unconfident about teaching poetry.

Coffs Harbour Regional Museum

Google also revealed that the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum (up there on the NSW mid-north coast) is celebrating  the day with an event they’re calling Celebrating World Poetry Day with a Rime and an Open Poetic Mic. The word “Rime” comes from their feature poem – Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – for their. The event, which has a sea theme, comprises an art exhibition named for Coleridge’s poem; a conversation between a poet and the exhibition’s artist; and the open mic session for people “to perform an original or much regarded poem – under 4 minutes please bards” (and sea-themed of course).

What I particularly like about this is that it’s example of the way regional museums and galleries work hard to actively engage their communities in culture, rather than simply present static exhibitions.

Golden Carers

You can probably guess what Golden Carers is – and you’d be right. Based in Brisbane, Australia, its tagline is “Supporting carers of the elderly worldwide since 2007”. The organisation caters for “Diversional Therapists, Recreation Therapists and other caregivers of the elderly, including volunteers”, but to get full access you need to pay. Fair enough.

Wonderfully, they have a page for the 2018 World Poetry Day, and provide a list of activity ideas which look doable for non-experts. The ideas include:

  • Ten Tips for Celebrating World Poetry Day
  • Poetry in Popular Song
  • Poets and Poems Quiz
  • Funny Poems by Roald Dahl
  • Multicultural Poems
  • Share Your Poems

There are resources for all the listed activities, behind the pay wall.

Before I conclude, I’d like to share some lines from a couple of poets* (one Australian, one not). Who would not benefit from thinking and talking about what Emily Dickinson has to say:

If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain …
(Emily Dickinson)

Or, Judy Johnson:

Listen to which footsteps

on the heart’s risers
produce a squeak

and which treads
are noiseless.

(Judy Johnson, from “Words, after an absence”)

And now, back to the UN and its aims for denoting this day:

One of the main objectives of the Day is to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities.

The observance of World Poetry Day is also meant to encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals, to promote the teaching of poetry, to restore a dialogue between poetry and the other arts such as theatre, dance, music and painting, and to support small publishers and create an attractive image of poetry in the media, so that the art of poetry will no longer be considered an outdated form of art, but one which enables society as a whole to regain and assert its identity.

What a comprehensive goal! I wonder if they are doing anything to measure whether or not the Day is achieving anything.

Happy World Poetry Day everyone!

* Emily Dickinson, from The School of Life’s boxed set, 20 poems; Judy Johnson, from Prayers of a secular world.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Mollie Skinner and DH Lawrence

March 19, 2018

I promised this post in yesterday’s review of Mollie Skinner’s short story, “The hand”, but have since been reminded that Bill (The Australian Legend) has already written about Skinner’s relationship with Lawrence. I’ve decided to continue with my plan, not only because it interests me, but because I hope to add to the discussion.

DH Lawrence, ML Skinner, The boy in the bush

First US edition, Thomas Seltzer, 1924

So, I suggest that you read Bill’s post (linked above), because I plan to avoid repeating what he’s said. However, you do need a little groundwork, and it is this. In 1922 Mollie Skinner was running a guest-house and nursing-home in Darlington, Western Australia, to which the newly arrived DH Lawrence, and his wife Frieda, had gone to stay. The end result of this meeting was the co-written novel, The boy in the bush. (You can read Bill’s review of this, too, on his blog.)

To avoid repeating Bill’s information which uses Paul Eggert’s introduction in the novel’s 1990 edition, I am drawing from – yes, you guessed it – my newspaper research in Trove, where I found some more contemporary commentary to complement Bill’s work. Contemporary commentary comes, of course, with the biases of the time, but is fascinating, both in spite of and because of that. Unfortunately, as is the way with newspapers, not all the articles have bylines.

ML Skinner, The fifth sparrowHaving said all this, the first article I’m using is not quite contemporary, having been written in 1973, and does have a byline, Maurice Dunlevy. He is writing because of a new Heinemann edition of the book, and seems to draw his information from Mollie Skinner’s autobiography, The fifth sparrow, which Bill’s Paul Eggert also uses, and from the Heinemann edition’s introduction by Professor Harry T Moore. (There is, it appears, no lack of critical analysis of this work!) Dunlevy notes the existence of previous writings on the pair, but also says that:

We can certainly be more sure of our facts than the reviewers were a half-century ago when they thought that Mollie Skinner was a man.

Presumably this was because she is cited on the book as ML not Mollie Skinner – though it’s pretty clear that she was well-known in her birth state of Western Australia. Interestingly, some editions of the book don’t have her name on the cover at all.

Anyhow, Dunlevy quotes Skinner’s description of Lawrence as:

a man-boy with the little red beard, scarlet lips, strange eyes flashing with amused lights, and an upright body held with dignity.

Dunlevy goes on the describe how the novel came about – Skinner’s showing Lawrence some of her work, his expressing approval of her writing and suggesting she write about a particular topic, and her eventually sending him her manuscript of the novel she called The house of Ellis.

He then reports that:

Lawrence thought the book had “good stuff” in it, but was “without unity or harmony”, “without form, like the world before Creation”. He offered to re-cast it and have it published under their joint names.

This recasting, apparently, included recasting the hero, Jack (who was based on Mollie’s brother) to be “not quite so absolutely blameless an angel”. This included his coming to believe he was entitled to two wives. Dunlevy reports that Mollie cried when she read of this change! He also writes that Lawrence recast what was essentially “a conventional, parochial romance of an English boy sent to Australia for a social gaffe” and who then turns hero, into

a much more complex and universal story, the story of an Englishman responding to the new freedoms, the new challenges, the new possibilities for living an unconventional life on a frontier not bogged down by traditions. It is also one of the few good examples of an “Australian” version of that situation so familiar in American literature: a boy’s initiation into manhood.

Nonetheless, Professor Moore does say:

The writing throughout is distinctly Lawrencean and the book should rank as a Lawrence novel, though Mollie Skinner’s extremely important contribution should be noted”.

But what of more contemporary commentary? As Bill noted, it did tend to be more parochial. Here’s one from a paragraph on Publications Received in Western Australia’s The Great Southern Herald (14 March 1925). The writer suggests that Skinner wrote all the lovely descriptive material, perfectly capturing “the scenery and scents of the bush” about Perth and Fremantle, but:

the narrative itself is a discredit to the Australians it attempts to depict. It is a story of sordidness and immorality with the characters speaking a mixture of Bowery and Cockney slang. The one thing, beyond all others, that the average Australian is remarkable for, is the purity of his diction, in this respect being far above the average Englishman, and it is an insult to characterise him as speaking the awful polygot which appears in “The Boy in the Bush.” The opening chapters of the book grip one with their descriptive power … [and] … stamp the writer as one who knows and loves the West. Of the rest of the story, the less said the better.

I do love the comment about the “average Australian” being “remarkable” for “the purity of his diction.” I’m not sure I’ve heard that said before. Anyhow, the writer concludes that Skinner “will shortly publish The Black Swan, written without collaboration, and which should offer better proof of her literary powers”!

Someone called Norbar, writing a little later in 1938, is a little more even-handed, writing:

STRANGELY different from other West Australian authors is Miss Mollie Skinner. Her work has an elusive character which is difficult to grasp. Its naivete, lack of discipline and neglect of construction have led many to dismiss it as worthless, yet the hypercritical D. H. Lawrence, one of the greatest figures in 20th century English literature, not only praised her first book but collaborated with her in a second and urged her to complete a third. Miss Skinner’s collaboration with Lawrence in “The Boy in the Bush,” however, besides dragging her into the type of controversy which would not normally have been associated with her work, has unduly overshadowed her own originality.

Norbar then says, confirming his criticism at the beginning of this paragraph, that it’s easy to find fault in her books but that “in none of them does she fall into the facile pattern of stock character and situation which fills the lending libraries.” After some further discussion of Skinner’s collaboration with Lawrence, and of some of her later works, s/he concludes with the following assessment, which is a good a place on which to conclude this discussion:

In Miss Skinner’s novels we find her considerable originality, spiritual perception and feeling use of words circumscribed at every turn by almost school-girl conceptions of situation and character, probably an unconscious legacy from a mid-Victorian middleclass sensibility which has lingered among the old families of Australia long after its wane in England. Whatever contempt men like Lawrence might feel for English intellectual aridness, Miss Skinner would have benefited from early introduction into a circle invigorated by the new realism inspired from Scandinavia and France, even if she had had to slough it off afterwards. But literary and spiritual currents had little effect on the respectable classes of Australia and Miss Skinner’s training and traditions were against her turning to the democratic crudity of the working class, the salvation of many Australian writers. She has, consequently, been left high and dry and her work bears the marks of her isolation.

An interesting insight into some thinking of the critics/reviewers of the day, n’est-ce pas? There are some things here worth teasing out another time.

M.L. (Mollie) Skinner, The hand (#Review)

March 18, 2018
ML Skinner, The fifth sparrow

ML Skinner, The fifth sparrow: An autobiography

Pam of Travellin’ Penguin blog read ML Skinner’s short story “The hand” for a challenge she was doing, and, when I expressed interest in it, very kindly sent me a copy. “The hand” is a mysterious little story – and by little, I mean, little in that it takes up less than 7 pages of the anthology, Australian short stories, that she found it in.

Now, the story is a bit tricky, and I think is best understood within the context of Skinner’s biography. She was born in Perth in 1876, but the family moved to England and Ireland in 1878. Mollie was a keen student and reader but had to abandon formal education in 1887 because of an ulcerated cornea, which resulted in her spending much of the next five years in a darkened room with bandaged eyes. After cauterisation partially restored her sight, she started to write poems and stories. Presumably this was around 1892 (ie 5 years after 1887?) when she was about 16 years old. Later she trained as a nurse, which gave her her main living. And then, the ADB biography (linked to above) says something interesting in terms of our reading of this story:  “she recognized within herself an intuitive power, or sixth sense.” A little later in the biography, we are also told that “Mollie believed that God’s hand on her shoulder guided her life. She dabbled in the occult”. She returned to Australia in 1900, though returned to England later to study. She also travelled to India, and served there and Burma during World War 1.

So to the story, which was first published in 1924. It is set in a “mining hospital back there in the west.” As there was “little doing” and the light too dim to read by, the Matron is encouraged to tell a story which she is “good at” doing. They – presumably the off-duty staff – ask her about her life in “those posts way back in the interior”. Was she ever frightened, they ask?

‘Of what?’
‘Well–the loneliness. And bad white men, and bad blacks. Of patients in delirium. Or some awful maternity case you couldn’t handle.’
‘I didn’t think about it. I did what I could. I was frightened once, though: and that, really, by a nurse screaming. A nurse shouldn’t scream.’

Interesting, the “bad white men, and bad blacks”, but I’ll just take that as another of those ways in which contemporary stories provide us insight into the times, and move on with the story. She then tells the story of the scream. She describes the small outback post, the sense of community they had, and the little L-shaped hospital which was open to the bush on one side, and the road and railroad on the other. There were two other nurses besides herself, one being Nurse Hammer “a regular town girl, very attractive, but unstable, untried.” On the night of the scream, our Matron story-teller was doing accounts while the two nurses were chatting with the patients. Our Matron’s mind kept wandering she says. She’s

very practical, really, and then liable to feel things in the air, things that other people don’t seem aware of. My father called it “unwarranted interference”; and told me to taboo it. But it gets hold of me sometimes: and this evening I was uneasy, aware of “something”. There seemed to be a sound.

But, she can’t identify anything, so continues to try to work. She hears Nurse Hammer go to bed, and then – the scream. The rest of the story concerns locating the scream – it was Nurse Hammer – and working out the cause of it – a hand has grabbed Hammer’s leg.

In the end, there’s a practical explanation for “the hand” but along the way there’s a sense of an awakening or at least, a growing up, for Nurse Hammer. Initially, the Matron is

conscious, not only of Hammer’s terrible fear, but of a deeper source, dark and secret within herself. I remembered how lovely she was. How men in the wards watched with furtive eyes as she walked past. I remembered the way she walked–how she avoided those eyes. I knew then that the girl had herself been tempted, that she was powerless, now, in this dark room, because in her own life she was passing through crisis.

The Matron finds herself praying that “whatever we found in this room would not be evil.”

Skinner builds up the suspense well, the darkness, the lantern going out, until eventually the cause of the scream is determined. Before it is fully explained though, Nurse Hammer has a little more to endure, but, says Matron,

I glanced at Hammer. the Nightingale light was flooding her face …

And the Matron goes on to use words that imply a biblical aspect to Hammer’s enlightenment – but if I say more, I’ll give away the story which I’m not sure I want to do (though unfortunately the story does not seem to be available online).

Interestingly, Skinner attracted the attention of DH Lawrence … but I think I might make this the subject of tomorrow’s Monday Musings! Meanwhile, I think the story is to be understood in the sense of a divine intervention intended to test and try Nurse Hammer, from which she emerges, in a sense, reborn and now a real nurse. (But, I could be wrong.)

AWW Badge 2018ML (Mollie) Skinner
“The hand” (1924)
in Australian short stories (1951)
ed. by Walter Murdoch and Henrietta-Drake Brockman
(pp. 148-154)

Sofie Laguna, The choke (#BookReview)

March 16, 2018

Sofie Laguna, The chokeThere are many reasons why I wanted to read Sofie Laguna’s latest book The choke. Firstly, I was inspired by a very engaging author conversation I attended late last year. Secondly, she won the Miles Franklin with her previous book The eye of the sheep (which I still haven’t read). Thirdly, its setting, the Murray River, is one of my favourite parts of Australia. For these and other reasons, I finally slotted it in this month, despite my growing backlog of review copies, and I’m glad I did. It’s an engrossing, moving read.

The novel is divided into two parts, the first set in 1971 when its first person protagonist Justine is 10 years old, and the second set three years later when she is thirteen years old and starting high school. It’s an effective structure. The first part sets up Justine and her physically and emotionally impoverished situation. She lives with her war-traumatised grandfather Pop on a struggling farm on the banks of the Murray. Her mother is long gone, and her father returns erratically. She has regular contact with her two older half-brothers who live nearby with her father’s first wife. Pop loves Justine, but he does not have the wisdom or emotional resources to guide – or even provide for – her as she needs. She is undernourished and poorly groomed. We are therefore unsurprised when Part 2 unfolds the way it does.

Now, I am a little cautious about first person narratives. It’s not that I don’t like them. In fact they can be highly engaging, but it did seem, for a while at least, that first person was becoming the voice du jour. However, Laguna’s choice here is inspired. She’s known for her ability to write young people and it’s well demonstrated here. Telling the story in Justine’s voice enables her to show Justine’s situation, without resorting to telling, which can so easily turn to moralising. Justine is the perfect naive narrator. She can only describe and explain the world as she knows it, so we readers must read between the lines to work out what is really going on. We work out, for example, that she is dyslexic by the way she describes her inability to read. We learn about the quality (often poor) of the relationships that surround her through her observations.

When I looked at [half-brother] Steve it was as if there was a ditch all around him too wide to jump. If you shone a torch into it, you’d never see the bottom. Steve couldn’t get across by himself; it was only Dad who could help him.

She might not understand the world – and it is this, along with her loneliness, which drives the crisis when it comes – but she’s attuned to the feelings between people.

One of the reasons this book so engaged me, in fact, is that it’s all about character. In the conversation we attended, Laguna said a couple of things about this. She said that it’s the characters and the tensions between and within them that drive the narrative and that character IS the plot.

“I got it wrong from the start”

So, who are these characters who drive the narrative? Justine is the main one, of course. She tells us that she was a breech birth – “I thought that was the right way to come out.” She understands by this that she “wrong from the start”, and she blames herself for her mother’s departure three years later. Her sense of being wrong – and feeling somehow responsible – is a recurring refrain in the novel. The other characters – her Pop, her sometimes-present father Ray, her mostly absent but significant aunt Rita, her friend Michael, her half-brothers, and the similarly dysfunctional neighbouring Worlleys – are all seen through her eyes. It is the tensions, stated and unstated, between them and their impact on her, that drive the narrative and the decisions she makes.

As well as a coming-of-age story, The choke is also a classic outsider story. Part one sets up Justine’s outsiderness, and chronicles, among other things, the friendship that develops between her and another outsider at school, Michael, who is taunted, bullied, because of his physical disability. Justine doesn’t have the words, but his disability appears to be cerebral palsy. The end of this friendship with Michael’s departure for the city ends Part One. This friendship plays multiple roles in the narrative. It helps develop Justine’s character. Her decision to stand up for Michael, having earlier wanted nothing to do with him, not only brings her a friend and marks her outsiderness from the cohort, but also shows her own sense of social justice. However, this friendship also exposes her low self-expectations and further reveals her neglect, because Michael’s family is a “normal” middle-class family. There’s a mum and dad, two kids, a proper house, regular meals and proper care. Justine is intitially embarrassed by the gap between their lives and hers, but when Michael eventually visits her home, she discovers he loves visiting it. He loves, for example, the chooks, Cockyboy and the Isa Browns.

By the time Part Two starts, her father Ray is in jail and Justine is starting high school. With Michael gone, she’s isolated at school and, while loved at home, continues to be neglected. The crisis is revenge-driven for something her father had done, but Justine, as the vulnerable female, is, of course, the target. It’s a gut-wrenching story of damage, neglect, abuse and, yes, also just simple misguidedness. Her Pop means well but is ill-equipped for the caring role thrust upon him. In the end, the story is also one of a failure of people and systems – including education – to identify Justine’s real situation.

And then there’s “the choke” of the title. I don’t always discuss a book’s title, particularly given that the author doesn’t always have last say on this, but for this book it’s highly relevant:

Down at The Choke the river pushed its way between the banks. The water knew the way it wanted to go. Past our hideouts, past our ring of stones, past the red gums leaning close enough to touch – it flowed forward all the way to the sea.

The “choke”, then, is a bottleneck in the river, a place, Justine says elsewhere, “where it would push through and keep going”. It is a physical place (based on the actual Barmah Choke) and a metaphorical one. Physically, it is a place of tranquility, of respite, for Justine. However, it also symbolises the things that threaten to “choke” her life, while at the same time hinting at hope, at the possibility of pushing through.

The choke is a book written by someone who knows exactly what she is doing. As I flipped through it to write this post, I noticed again and again the crumbs laid for us, the signs, in other words, that prepare the groundwork for what comes later. There is nothing wasted here. It is a grim story, but it is enlivened by its resilient young protagonist who finds the resources within herself to “push through” when life threatens to overwhelm. It may not have been shortlisted for the Stella Prize but I’m glad I decided to read it.

AWW Badge 2018Sofie Laguna
The choke
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN: 9781760297244

Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary Australian literary translators

March 12, 2018

Today’s Monday Musings was inspired by the shortlisting for the 2018 Stella Prize of Iranian-born Australian-based writer Shokoofeh Azar’s The enlightenment of the greengage tree. I first came across this book when Lisa (ANZLitLovers) reviewed it last August, commenting in her opening paragraph that the novel “is an exciting development in Australian publishing” because it was written in Persian by Azar and translated into English by Adrien Kijek for publication by Wild Dingo Press. I wonder how many other speakers of non-English languages in Australia would like to write – or do write – but are closed off from the majority of us because of a lack of support and money for translation?

I have written about translation here several times before, but in this post I want to specifically name some current Australian literary translators, many of whom are based in our universities. We do, in fact, have many literary translators, but I’m going to select just a few – somewhat randomly – to give a sense of the breadth of translators we have here.

Stuart Cooke and Juan Garrido Salgado

Sydney-born Cooke has lived in Hobart and Latin America, but is currently a lecturer in creative writing and literary studies at Brisbane’s Griffith University. The various bios I’ve seen for him describe him as a poet, critic and translator. I’ve picked him because one of his translation interests is the Aboriginal song poem. In 2014 he published a translation of George Dyuŋgayan’s Bulu line: a West Kimberley song cycle. His other translation interest is, apparently, Spanish. In 2007 his translation of Juan Garrido Salgado’s Once poemas, Septiembre 1973 was published.

And, just to complicate things a bit, this Juan Garrido Salgado is a Chilean immigrant to Australia (1990). His poems, says Red Room Poetry, have been widely translated, and he himself has translated works by Australian poets – John Kinsella, Mike Ladd, Judith Beveridge, Dorothy Porter and MTC Cronin – into Spanish. He has also translated five Aboriginal poets into Spanish for Espejo de tierra/Earth mirror poetry anthology (2008)!

Linda Jaivin

When I chose this post, one of the two translators to pop into my head – before I went to Google – was Linda Jaivin whose Quarterly Essay, Found in translation, reviewed a few years ago. American-born, she did Chinese studies at university in Rhode Island before spending time in Taiwan and Hong Kong. She’s perhaps a bit of a ring-in here because she doesn’t seem to have translated novels or other sorts of books, but she is a professional translator whose work has included subtitling (into English) Chinese films like Farewell My Concubine. She has written a memoir, The monkey and the dragon, about her experience as a translator in China. And, she’s an associate of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University.

Meredith McKinney

Ogai Mori, The Wild GooseThe other Australian translator I remembered, before Googling, was Meredith McKinney. The daughter of the great Australian poet Judith Wright, she has made a name in her own right as an expert in and translator of Japanese language and literature. She lived in Japan for a couple of decades but is now a visiting fellow in the Japan Centre at the Australian National University where she teaches Japanese-English translation. She has translated both classic and modern Japanese novels and short story collections. You can see a pretty comprehensive list at GoodReads. Her translation of Furui Yoshikichi’s Ravine and other stories won the 2000 Japan-US Friendship Commission Translation Award.  A few years ago I bought her translation of The wild goose by Ōgai Mori (Finlay Lloyd) but it still, unfortunately, languishes on the TBR.

Ton-That Quynh-Du

Pham Thi Hoai, The crystal messengerVietnamese-born Ton-that Quynh-Du came to Australia in 1972 under a Colombo Plan Scholarship. He has worked as a translator, court interpreter, and as an academic at Deakin University, Monash University and the Australian National University. His translation of Pham Thi Hoai’s novel The crystal messenger – a book that has been on my bedside TBR for some years now – won the 2000 Victorian Premier’s Award for literary translation. (This award is now, unfortunately, defunct. I believe it was called the SBS/Dinny O’Hearn Prize for Literary Translation, and was only awarded three times, in 1997, 2000 and 2003. What a shame.) His translation of this same author’s collection of short stories, Sunday menu, won the 2007 ACT Book of The Year Award. While he mostly translates into English he also does some translation into Vietnamese (as does Pham Thi Hoai, who now lives in Germany)

Kevin Windle

I chose Kevin Windle as my fifth example because I found, via Google, that last year, 2017, he won a rather prestigious award, albeit one not known to most of us Australians. It’s only awarded every three years by the International Federation of Translators (FIT), and is the Aurora Borealis Prize for Outstanding Translation of Non-Fiction Literature. A press release said that “his work, translating into English from nearly a dozen different languages, and across a wide range of subject areas, is described by his supporters as ‘reliably brilliant’.” How I’d love to be descried as “reliably brilliant”! London-born Windle has worked at the University of Queensland but is now emeritus fellow in the School of Literature, Languages, and Linguistics at the Australian National University, where his expertise is in Translation Studies and Russian. Indeed, the Words Without Borders website states that in 2014 he was awarded the inaugural AALITRA prize for literary translation from Spanish, and in 2015, second prize in the John Dryden competition for a translation from Polish. Although the Aurora Borealis Award was for non-fiction, he has apparently translated fiction, drama, literary biography, and linguistics and ancient history texts.

The above-mentioned press release for Kevin Windle’s Aurora Borealis win notes that the award aims

to promote the translation of fiction literature and non-fiction, improve the quality thereof and draw attention to the role of translators in bringing the peoples of the world closer together in terms of culture.

And that seems a perfect point on which to end, I think.

Do you read translated literature? I’d love to hear your favourites – or anything else you have to say about translation.

John Lang, The forger’s wife (#BookReview)

March 11, 2018

John Lang, The forgers wifeWhen new publisher Grattan Street Press offered me a review copy of John Lang’s The forger’s wife last November, I couldn’t resist, even though it is from their Colonial Australian Popular Fiction series. I say “even though” because, had it been written now, it would probably not have come under my radar. It’s very much in the popular vein. However, as a piece of work first published (in serial version) in 1853, it has much to offer modern readers.

It raises the question, in fact, of why read historical fiction when you can read from the time itself. I’m being a bit flippant here, I know. There is reason – there’s value in looking back, in revisiting the past with eyes from the present – but the question is worth asking, if only to focus our minds on context when we read.

Enough pontificating though, let’s get to the book – or, first, to the author. According to Grattan Street Press, John Lang was Australia’s first locally born novelist. I have in fact written about him briefly before, in a Monday Musings post, but I hadn’t had a chance to read him, until now. I mentioned in that post Victor Crittenden’s biography, because its title says a lot – John Lang: Australia’s larrikin writer: barrister, novelist, journalist and gentleman. Ken Gelder and Rachel Weaver’s Introduction to The forger’s wife provides interesting background to his life, some from Crittenden’s work. Lang, it seems, lived quite a peripatetic life, and had had a few books published by the time The forger’s wife was serialised.

Gelder and Weaver write that it’s generally accepted that The forger’s wife is “the first novel by an Australian-born novelist to feature an Australian detective.” They go on to suggest that it is “the first detective novel in the Anglophone world” arguing that it predates by around ten years The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix which has been seen as the first detective novel in English. The rest of their introduction – naturally, because the series is about popular fiction – focuses on the book as a detective novel. However, I’d like to discuss other things.

The novel is essentially a melodrama which, say Gelder and Weaver, follows “the fairly familiar pattern of a female emigrant’s tale.” It tells the story of Emily Orford, the rather spoilt only child of a well-to-do British army officer. Eschewing more suitable suitors, she falls for a man whom she believes to be Captain Reginald Harcourt, but who is, in fact, the forger Charles Robert. Immediately after their elopement, he is arrested and convicted of forgery, and transported to Australia. Emily, believing that Reginald is innocent, follows him to Sydney. Here, she luckily finds a few friends amongst the colony’s rough and tumble, one being the convict turned policemen-and-thief-taker (our detective), George Flower. She also reconnects with the scurrilous Reginald/Charles, who, despite getting into increasingly outrageous scrapes, manages to keep Emily believing in him. This is a 19th century melodrama so it all turns out alright in the end, though not necessarily exactly as readers might expect.

What I want to talk about now, though, is why this novel is worth reading – besides its credentials as a pioneering detective novel, that is. My reasons have to do with the insight it provides into colonial life. Think how much we learn about life in mid-nineteenth century England from Charles Dickens’ novels. So …

“this uncouth and cruel land” (Emily)

We learn a few things about early to mid-nineteenth century colonial Australia, starting with some vivid descriptions of town and country. We learn about the roughness, the struggle to survive which results in various combinations of theft, corruption, bribery. The novel’s themes include the survival of the wiliest, and the challenge of identifying who you can trust. The naive, trusting Emily would not have survived a minute without the initial help of Captain Dent from Lady Jane Grey, the boat she arrived on, and then George Flower who looks out for her.

We learn about how women make a living – some via the oldest profession. Emily, though, gives piano lessons. However, when she becomes persona non grata because of Reginald, she’s “compelled to do needlework, to knit socks and comforters”. We learn about convicts who become policemen versus those who become bushrangers. We learn about settlers taking the law into their own hands. George Flower, on the hunt for Reginald now turned bushranger, tells a well-to-do settler that settlers need to learn to protect themselves:

The Gov’ment’s a fool for paying for mounted police. You ought to learn the value of combination, and how to protect yourselves.

Later on the same page he says:

I wish to teach you settlers, and the Gov’ment, and bushrangers, a great moral lesson. I want to make you more independent and secure – bushrangers less numerous and daring – and Gov’ment more economic and sensible.

And, of particular interest to me, we learn about attitudes to the original inhabitants. In between the above two comments, Flower says:

You can club up to get rid of the blacks, when they spear your cattle or kill your sheep. Why can’t you capture your own bushrangers?

So, the settlers clearly have no compunction about getting rid of the blacks themselves. Presumably they are “easier pickings” and don’t warrant the respect of a lawful process? You don’t always need to read history, then, to know what went on. Sometimes fiction contains useful truths.

There are other references – or not – to indigenous people. A little earlier than the above scene, Flower is enjoying a lovely moment in a remote spot, where:

he discoursed for some time with [bushranger] Millighan on the grandeur of the scene, and the sweets of liberty. It was a beautiful warm day, and not a cloud in the sky. The foot of man had never before trod the ground on which Flower and Millighan were then standing.

I don’t think Lang was being ironic here!

Later, Flower returns to the same spot, where Millighan’s skeleton now lies. He treats the skeleton of this “brave” adversary with respect, leaving a note to ensure that when, in the future, the remains might be “stumbled across”, the finders will “not suppose he was some black fellow”!

And yet, a page later, there’s recognition of learning from these same “black fellows” when he makes a fire “as the Aborigines do, by rubbing two pieces of dry stick together until they ignite.”

The final reference to indigenous people also refers to cultural learning. We are told that Flower, now back in England, had become very “‘colonial'” not only in “outward appearance”, but also in “parlance”. “He had mixed a good deal with the blacks” and, while the Aboriginal language was not “thoroughly understood by the Europeans”, it had contributed “sundry worlds and phrases” which Flower used, to the incomprehension of his listeners.

So, while I found the story itself entertaining – indeed a thoroughly enjoyable read – it’s these unconscious insights into the times by a writer of the times that has made this book memorable. I would love to read more in this series.

John Lang
The forger’s wife
Parkville: Grattan Street Press, 2017 (Orig. serialised in 1853)
ISBN: 978098762304

(Review copy courtesy Grattan Street Press)

PS: I apologise for overwhelming your inboxes/reader feeds this week. There’s been a lot on. I’ll return to situation normal next week.