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Living under COVID-19 (5): Holds on happiness

September 26, 2021

It’s nearly a year since I wrote a COVID-19 post. I nearly wrote one a few months ago when things were going COVID-normal smoothly, by which I mean our lives were minimally restricted, with daily life being as free as we could hope given the world-wide situation. We (I mean we Ken Behrens) were visiting friends and family around Australia. We were dining out, going to the movies and theatre, playing sport, visiting museums and galleries, and so on. Gradually, even generous distancing rules had been removed. Certainly, we were not wearing masks. (We were, though, still sanitising and checking-in.) I wondered what I could say, given life in most other parts of the world was still comparatively more restricted. Life was generally pleasant.

But then, Delta made its way here and we were not prepared because we – for, mostly, political reasons – were too far behind in the “race” to vaccinate, and it left us exposed. Now, our two largest states, and my little Capital Territory, are locked down. It is the right thing, I believe, to prioritise health and life, equitably, while we get our vaccination levels up – but it’s not easy. It is in this environment that I remembered the inimitable Jane Austen’s suggestion that

It is well to have as many holds on happiness as possible. (Henry Tilney to Catherine Moreland, Northanger Abbey)

I thought to share some of my holds on happiness …

Only connect (EM Forster)

For most of us, the best “hold” is connecting with family and friends. Those who, like me, live with supportive others are lucky to at least have built-in company, but even we need some variety. It’s been said ad infinitum, but how lucky are we, compared to those who suffered through the Spanish Flu or the plague pandemics, in being able to remain in quality contact with others through WhatsApp, Telegram, FaceTime, Zoom, and so on.

For me, WhatsApp chats replacing a regular lunch with friends, FaceTime sessions with our son, his partner and our grandson, Zoom catch-ups and meetings, and emails, blogging, and common old phone calls with our daughter and others, are keeping me sane and connected. They can also provide some joy. Have you ever tried playing online hide-and-seek with a three-year-old? It can be done!

Other connections come from regular visits to our local PO to get the mail. We love our local post office workers. And to cafes for takeaway coffee and food. We love our favourite cafe owners too!

‘Twill do me good to walk (Shakespeare)

If connecting with people is important, equally so is exercise. It distracts the mind, keep us fit and tires the body (which is a useful thing in a constrained life!) Fortunately, we are allowed to exercise outside, and for most of us that’s walking. In some jurisdictions some sports are also allowed, but Mr Gums and I don’t do organised sports.

So, for us, exercise comprises walking in the nature park across the road, gardening, joining our zoomed Tai Chi classes – and, for me, doing yoga via my Yoga With Adrienne app. (You can also find her on YouTube if you are interested. She is delightful, and a good if imperfect substitute for my own wonderful teacher/neighbour.)

The thing about these activities is that, besides being good for our minds and bodies, they provide structure to our days. Structure, we learnt pretty quickly, is important to getting through endless days that look the same. Each morning, we say, “what are we doing today?” and make a plan of action (or inaction, as it sometimes is.)

Indulge your imagination (Jane Austen)

Exercise might distract the mind, but the mind and spirit also needs feeding, and again, technology is helping us out. Of course, there are books, and they are my mainstay, as they are for many others. But, most of us need more – whether this be movie outings with others, live music gigs and concerts, theatre, festivals of all persuasions – and it is these that have been so affected by COVID-19. However, it is also in these that technology has been best able to help (albeit not ideal).

It is also plague season again in London and the playhouses are shut. (Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet)

I don’t need to tell you about streamed movies. It seems that every time I turn around there’s a new service. I have no idea where to start with all that so, although we are a technologically-focused pair, we haven’t chosen one yet. There’s enough available on free-to-air so far to entertain and inform us, because if there’s one thing we’ve been doing, it’s been keeping informed.

I have written in previous Living with COVID-19 posts about online writers’ events. I haven’t attended many recently, but I did join the ACT Writers Centre F*ck Covid afternoon (and have written about that.) The participants included established and emerging writers, and they were so generously open and articulate about their work and practice.

We have also attended webinars (including one with Jenny Hocking about the Palace Letters, which is well worth listening to) and online and streamed concerts from Musica Viva and the ABC. This short video link featuring recorder player Genevieve Lacey and harpist Marshall Maguire will give you a taste of one concert we “attended”.

We have passed up so many other opportunities. If there’s one thing about this lockdown, it’s that the arts world has done its best to stay alive and to reach out to us in whatever way they can. I can’t wait to give back by attending their shows and applauding their efforts – in person! I just hope they can all survive until then.

Meanwhile, wherever you are, how are you surviving? How is life looking in your place?

Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran, These strange outcrops (#BookReview)

September 24, 2021

Bagging Canberra – often used synonymously for the Federal Government – is almost a national sport, but in recent years anthologies have appeared to counter this with more complex stories about this place. The first two I’ve read – The invisible thread, edited by Irma Gold (my review) and Meanjin’s The Canberra issue (my review) – commemorated Canberra’s centenary, but last year saw the publication of the evocatively titled These strange outcrops.

This anthology is the work of two young Canberrans, Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran, who founded Cicerone Journal. Established in 2018, it is, they say,

a Canberra-based publication that seeks to encourage an open curiosity about the world in a socio-political climate of disconnection and disenchantment. We aim to publish writing that is exploratory and thoughtful, and new and unusual.

The journal’s fifth edition will be devoted to speculative fiction, and is due soon.

So now, These strange outcrops, which is subtitled, Writing and art from Canberra. It comprises original short stories, poems, and visual art created by established and emerging Canberra writers, and has a specific goal, as the editors write in their Foreword. It “grew out of a desire to question media narratives that portray Australia’s capital city as a place of disconnection and insularity”. They note that with a population of 400,000, Canberra and the surrounding region is “home to far more stories and perspectives than are commonly depicted in the news”. They wanted, they say, to “challenge the prejudices and stereotypes” and “celebrate the varied lives and imaginings of this unique place”.

“blurry at the edges” (Owen Bullock)

They have achieved their goal, and with style. This publication is physically gorgeous, from the cover, with its iconic Canberra bus stop framed by two Canberra floral emblems (the Royal Bluebell and Correa), through its beautiful endpapers comprising a correa blossom pattern, to the care taken with the design of the individual pieces. I can’t imagine any contributor not being thrilled with the look of their contribution.

But, the main point is, of course, the content. It more than lives up to the appearance, by which I mean, the book is not just a pretty face. An important thing with anthologies is the order, and it’s clear that the editors thought carefully about this. They start with the physical Canberra, and its natural environment, which is one of the reasons many of us love this place, and conclude with the experiences of different members of Canberra’s diverse population. In between, are various explorations of a wide range of aspects of life in Canberra, from those common to us all (like Cheryl Polonski’s poem “Wintertime in Canberra” and Penelope Layland’s poem “Showtime”) to some that speak to more specific experiences (like Daniel Ray’s prose piece about that challenging post-Year-12 time, “Queanbeyan: Quinbean: Clear water”). Some contributions are movingly personal, while others are unapologetically political. The end result is an authentic whole, that shows Canberra to be a rich and complex place, a bit “blurry at the edges” but with enough commonality at the core that makes us real, regardless of what outsiders might think.

Now, I did have some favourites, and will share a few of them over the rest of this post. The opening set of poems, “Canberra Haiku” by Owen Bullock beautifully introduces the collection, with its series of little impressions portaying Canberra’s breadth, from flowers peeking through a cracked pavement to a tattooed bus passenger and a permaculture working bee, from magpies and our mountains and lake to heatwaves and “blurry … edges”. The next few pieces explore place, often with an awareness of what was before we came, such as Janne D Graham’s poem “Crace Park” which conveys a sense of wrongness in our “calculated spaces”. A sort of antidote – or comment on this – is Helen Moran’s vibrant painting “Rainbow Serpent sleeping in Lake George”, the Rainbow Serpent being significant to many First Nations Australia peoples. It mesmerises me, because, while looking simple, it evokes complex and conflicting ideas. Set against a dark blue and black background, the bright, cheery serpent also looks ready to pounce. At least, that’s how it appears to me.

Patricia Piccinini, Sky Whale, pic: Nick-D from Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0

Some of the pieces invoke wry humour to make their point, like Fiona McIlroy’s poem “sky whale” which uses the Patricia Piccinini’s Canberra-Centenary-commissioned hot-air balloon “The Skywhale” to reflect on attitudes to public art that challenges perceptions.

Canberra is
to have a whale of a time
in the Centenary
to live it up
to lighten up
kick up our heels
yet a flying
maternal mammal
is just pushing the

The wordplay throughout the poem is delicious.

“come so far, lost so much” (Joo-Inn Chew)

Some of the strongest pieces concern migration and racism. Canberra, like much of Australia, is a multicultural place. We have Ngunnawal and other First Nations people here; we have Australian-born residents who have come from around Australia for work; and we have migrants including refugees. We have – or had, before the pandemic – an annual, vibrant and successful Multicultural Festival, which celebrates this aspect of the region, but several pieces in the anthology convey the sadness and pain that must always come with migration, regardless of its cause. Anita Patel speaks in “What are you cooking?” of the sadness of losing her mother in another part of the world, so that even those weekly phone conversations are no longer possible, while Joo-Inn Chew’s poem “A new arrival at Companion House” talks of the hope contained in the birth of a baby to people who have “come so far, lost so much”.

Others are much darker, speaking to non-acceptance, such as Michelangelo Curtotti’s ironically titled poem “The welcome”. In one of those perfect segues, this poem is followed by Stuart McMillen’s graphic short story, “I used to be a racist”.

As frequently happens with anthologies, I’ve only cursorily dipped into the treasures contained within. I apologise to all those contributors whom I don’t mention here, but know that you’ve been read and heard. The best thing would be for more to read your work in this thoughtful, considered anthology. It can be purchased from Cicerone (linked above).

Meanwhile, let’s finish on Rafiqah Fattah’s defiant poem, “Generation selfie”, about the 16 to 25 year olds who are too often ignored or passed over:

And now, there is a tremor in the air
We are here

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Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran
These strange outcrops: Writing and art from Canberra
Canberra: Cicerone Journal, 2020
ISBN: 9780646814155

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 4: Literary nonfiction

September 20, 2021

Continuing my little Monday Musings sub-series on “supporting” genres, I’m turning next to a rather “rubbery” genre, literary nonfiction. It is tricky to define – and partly for that reason, it is not obviously well supported.

Literary nonfiction goes by a few other names including creative nonfiction and narrative nonfiction. This last one provides a bit of a clue to its definition, which is that it generally refers to non-fiction writing that uses some of the techniques of fiction, particularly, but not only, in terms of narrative style. Wikipedia defines it as “a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives.” It quotes Lee Gutkind, who founded Creative Nonfiction magazine:

“Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.”

In other words, it aims for a prose style that is more entertaining (but not at the expense of fact.) In my review of Anna Funder’s Stasiland, I wrote that she “uses some of the literary techniques – relating to structure, voice and language – more commonly found in fiction to tell her story”.

Well-known Australian writers in this “genre” include Helen Garner, Chloe Hooper, Anna Krien, Anna Funder and Sarah Krasnostein, all of whom I’ve read. It is a grey area, though, and I suspect each of us would draw the line at different places. However, I would include essay collections by Fiona Wright and Maria Tumarkin, and many hybrid memoir/biographies, like Nadia Wheatley’s Her mother’s daughter (my review)? Historians who write for general audiences rather than academia might also be included. I’m thinking here of Clare Wright and Inga Clendinnen, as possibilities. What do you think?


For some genres – literary fiction and crime for example – awards/prizes are a major source of support (in terms of money and recognition) but this is less so for literary nonfiction.

Anna Funder's Stasiland bookcover

Back in 2004, Anna Funder’s Stasiland (my review) won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. Now renamed the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, it is, says Wikipedia, “an annual British book prize for the best non-fiction writing in the English language”. Not surprisingly, winners include works from this literary nonfiction “genre”. Another winner I’ve reviewed here (though it’s not Australian) is Helen Macdonald’s H is for hawk (my review). Australians have not featured highly in this award.

In Australia, several of the state awards include a nonfiction category, and these have been won by literary nonfiction, though they compete with other forms of nonfiction like histories, biographies and other forms of life-writing, essays, and so on.

Major Australian Nonfiction Literary Prizes

None of the awards listed here are specifically for “literary nonfiction” but these are awards which may be won by such books.

Sarah Krasnostein, The trauma cleaner

Also relevant are awards that are not “specifically” nonfiction:

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughter
  • Mark and Evette Moran Nib Literary Award: this award for “excellence in research” and “in writing” has been won by books in this genre, like Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s consolation (2005) and Nadia Wheatley’s Her mother’s daughter (2019).
  • Stella Prize: while this multi-genre/multi-form prize has more often been won by fiction, nonfiction – and particularly literary nonfiction – does feature in its long- and shortlists. Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms, for example, was shortlisted in 2021.

But, is there more?

The issue, though, for writers is what support do they get when they come up with an idea? Are the sorts of fellowships, grants and writer’s residencies that fiction writers can access also around for nonfiction writers? Well, yes, there are, such as:

  • Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund is an unusual award that is open not just to writers but also to “literary sector workers”. It recognises the importance of travel to writing and literary careers. Awardees have included writers researching nonfiction topics – and, despite COVID, it is still being offered, with a round being made in June this year. To give some examples, in 2018, the aformentioned Rebecca Giggs received a grant for expenses related to a writing residency at the Rachel Carson Centre for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany. And, in November 2019, Tamara Lazaroff received some funds to research her experimental narrative non-fiction memoir Hermit girls on De Witt Island, Tasmania. 
  • Varuna Writers House Residencies are open to “committed writers from all genres”. With around 160 residencies a year, the alumni is extensive, but they include Gail Bell whose The poison principle (on my TBR) won the 2002 NSW Premier’s Prize for Non-Fiction and Patti Miller whose complex memoir, The mind of a thief, was longlisted for the 2013 Stella Prize.

There are more, but these two provide a good start.

Do you read literary nonfiction? If so, would you care to share some favourites?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography

Irma Gold and Susannah Crispe, Where the heart is (#BookReview)

September 17, 2021

I don’t normally review children’s books, particularly children’s picture books, but I do make exceptions, one being Irma Gold. I have multiple reasons for this. Irma Gold is local; she is one of the Ambassadors for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge; she writes across multiple forms (including, novels, short stories and children’s books, in all of which I’ve reviewed her); and, if you click my tag for her, you will get a sense of just how active she is as a writer, editor and supporter of literary culture, particularly in the ACT. Hence this exception!

But, there is another reason too, which is that Where the heart is not only a delightful book but it slots very nicely into her growing oeuvre. Before I discuss that, though, I’ll describe this, which is her most recent book. Gold explains on its opening page that it was inspired by the true story of Dindim, a Magellanic penguin which, in 2011, was washed up on an island village outside Rio de Janeiro. The bird had been caught up in an oil spill. The fisherman who found him, Joao, cleaned and cared for him until Dindim returned to the wild. However, ever since then, Dindim has returned, annually, to Joao to spend several months of the year with him. There are questions about where he goes, but in Gold’s story it is Patagonia. Patagonia is one of the theories, because it is a major breeding ground for these penguins.

This sort of detail, however, is not critical to the story. It is fiction after all. What is critical to the story is that it tells of the potentially disastrous impact of oil spills on animals. It also tells of the importance of wild animals being free. This is what Joao believed. He brought the penguin back to health and set him free. It’s just that the penguin had other ideas. It also tells of the friendship that can develop between humans and wild animals.

What makes this a gorgeous book is the way Gold tells the story. It’s simply told but the language is not condescending, and it naturally incorporates local culture. Joao and the penguin mend nets, eat sardine sandwiches, and go shopping together, with this “shopping” being at a village market stall. It’s also warm-hearted. It encourages us to think about kindness, tenderness and loyalty, making it a feel-good read. Yet, there is also a narrative arc that encompasses a variety of emotions, including a sense of fear and drama as Dindim journeys back.

Not far from Joao’s beach, the sky swelled and lightning jagged. Dindim rode waves and wondered if he would make it. He was exhausted.

A little bit of drama makes it fun to read aloud to littlies, which I look forward to doing when lockdowns end and I’m able to see our little grandson again!

However, this is a picture book, so for it to succeed the illustrations have to be good as well. Fortunately, they are. I think this is illustrator Susannah Crispe’s first book, though she has another coming out this year. I’m not surprised she has, because she has done a beautiful job with this one. The colours are bright and inviting, but are conveyed with a warmth and softness that support the story. This is nowhere more obvious than in the two facing pages that contain only penguins. The expected intense black-and-white of the penguins is there, yet muted, and the white space surrounding Dindim visually conveys the text’s description of the “ache” in Dindim’s heart. Crispe also incorporates lovely little details from nature in her illustrations, like hummingbirds, butterflies, turtles and albatrosses. These all support the story by adding to its sense of place, but they also create interest when reading to littlies. “Can you find the turtle”, etc!

What I’m saying, in other words, is that this picture book is just the right package.

Irma Gold Craig Phillips Megumi and the bear book cover

And there I’ll leave it to return to my opening comment on Gold’s oeuvre, because I am seeing a pattern. The obvious one – from her previous picture book Megumi and the bear (my review) and The breaking (my review) – is her interest in wild animals, and in the relationship between humans and animals. Closely related to this is an interest in conservation, animal rights and the environment. And then – yes, there’s more – overlaying all of this is the importance of friendship, between humans, and between animals and humans. There’s a quiet joy in this, which is something Gold said, in a recent conversation, that she wanted to convey. I believe she has, and look forward to what comes next.

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Irma Gold and Susannah Crispe (illus.)
Where the heart is
Chatswood: EK Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781925820874

Monday musings on Australian literature: the Australian 9/11 novel

September 13, 2021

With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 having been commemorated on the weekend, I thought I might explore how 9/11 affected – if at all – Australian fiction. Before I start, though, I have two provisos: one is that my focus will be fiction, not literature, or culture more widely; and two is that, like many of my Monday Musings posts, this will not be a comprehensively researched post, but one intended to throw out some ideas that we all might like to think and share our ideas about.

So, here goes, starting with …

What, if anything, is the 9/11 novel?

I didn’t find a definitive answer, but I’d say the “genre” encompasses novels which speak directly of 9/11 and those which are (or which seem to be, even) inspired by it.

Arin Keeble, from Nottingham Trent University, discussed these novels in The Conversation back in 2016, in an article titled “Why the 9/11 novel has been such a contested and troubled genre”. Keeble discusses the intense debate that these novels engendered, including the concern by some that the focus on 9/11 has “undercut the complex prehistories and aftermaths of 9/11, giving it inflated importance in the world narrative”. He notes that the novels that came out around 2006/7, by Don DeLillo, Claire Messud, Jay McInerney and Ken Kalfus, all explored the event through marriage and relationship narratives. He quotes from a critique by Pankaj Mishra, who wondered whether we are “meant to think of marital discord as a metaphor for post-9/11 America?” Keeble writes that Mishra and others criticised these novels ‘for their “failure” to engage with otherness and the geopolitics of 9/11’. Other critics and commentators weighed in, disagreeing. Read the article – it’s short – if you are interested.

The point that Keeble makes is that, regardless of how “polarised” the debate became, the impact was to ascribe “great importance to the 9/11 novel” and, as a result, to reinforce “the idea of 9/11 as a defining moment”. Writers like Zadie Smith, however, saw this emphasis on 9/11 as an example of “American exceptionalism”.

Other novels did come out with a more political and/or international bent, like Mohsin Hamid’s powerful The reluctant fundamentalist, but marriage and relationships are still at their centre, and they “continue to explore the way privileged Americans absorb and respond to trauma”. Keeble concludes on a book that he believes most aligns with Zadie Smith’s views, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding edge which “goes the furthest in challenging the singular importance attached to 9/11 in its intertwined historical narrative, weaving in the significance of the collapse of the dotcom bubble in 2000 and a history of the internet’s transition from an anarchic to a completely corporate space”.

I have read several non-Australian books “inspired” by 9/11, from Don DeLillo’s Falling man (2007) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely loud and incredibly close (2005) to Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005) and the aforementioned The reluctant fundamentalist (2007). Each is quite different, but Hamid’s is particularly memorable because of its point of view and the tone he sustains throughout.

Unfortunately, none of this furthers my 9/11-in-Australian-fiction topic. My excuse is that it was in The Conversation and it provides a good introduction.

And, in Australia?

However, some Australian novelists have contributed to the genre. This 2010 article published in JASAL by Jen Webb sounds interesting, from its abstract:

Australian fiction is, arguably, as diverse as the fiction of any other culture or era. But in a globalised world, though the stories we tell may remain inflected by the local context, they will necessarily be informed by transnational relations and geopolitical events. Like writers in the USA, UK, Afghanistan and elsewhere, some Australian novelists have taken arms against a sea of troubles, and produced work that directly and consciously engages that new genre, the post September 11 novel. Only a small number of Australian novels have been published in this genre – perhaps inevitably, given our distance from the scene – and they can be read as relying on the familiar features of the thriller, the detective, or the citygrrl genres that readers find attractive. However, I will suggest that they do more than this. In a reading of Andrew McGahan’s Underground, and Richard Flanagan’s The unknown terrorist, I will discuss the ways in which a very local ‘accent’ is coloured by broader forces, and what contributions we can offer, here at the foot of the world, to the ongoing conflicts and human rights abuses in the hemisphere above us. 

Regrettably, I don’t know what ways and contributions he discusses, so we’ll just have to guess. Meanwhile, I have read Flanagan’s novel, and will throw two other novels into the mix, though they’re not set in Australia, Janette Turner Hospital’s Due preparations for the plague (2003) and Orpheus lost (my review) (2007).

Richard Carr, in ‘”A world of … risk, passion, intensity, and tragedy”: The post-9/11 Australian novel’ (Antipodes, 23 (1), June 2009), mentions the novels by Hospital, Flanagan (2006) and McGahan (2006), but adds two I didn’t know, A.L. McCann’s Subtopia (2005) and Linda Jaivin’s The infernal optimist (2006). He says that all these novels:

entered a world attuned to the destructive potential of the terrorist and wary of the terrorist desire to wreak havoc.

In fact, the terrorist as a symbol of a New Australia defined against an older, safer country is a recurring thematic pattern.

Carr discusses the novels, individually, and, while they are all different, they express some commonalities regarding our “contemporary obsession with terrorism”. To simplify muchly, these include fear of other (often encouraged by government) and lying about other, which result in actions like the scapegoating or oppression of innocent people and increasing reduction in liberty.

Carr also draws some broader conclusions – remember he was writing in 2009 – that I found interesting, and still relevant. He proposes that this obsession

sublimates long-standing sources of guilt and fear: the taking of the land from its rightful owners, the cruelty of the founding penal system, the inhumanity of the treatment accorded Aborigines into the present-day. Whatever the reason … Australian has followed America’s lead in assigning national security its highest priority and identifying the terrorist as the primary threat to that goal.

Do you have any thoughts about this and/or the 9/11 novel?

Delicious descriptions: Sara Dowse on Canberra

September 12, 2021

In my recent post on Sara Dowse’s West Block, I ran out of time to share some quotes and thoughts on her depiction of Canberra and the heritage building, West Block. Soon after, I wrote a Delicious Descriptions on West Block, promising another one on Canberra – because, well, I can, and Canberra is my city.

Introducing that West Block post, I said that I love reading for its ability to take me to other places, lives and cultures – of course – but that there it is also special to read about one’s own place and life. It can reinforce our own impressions; it can enable us to just sit back and remember; and, most interestingly, it can encourage us to look at things from a different angle or perspective. West Block does all of these for me.


So, Canberra. As many of you know, it’s a planned city, designed from the start to be Australia’s federal capital. It was formally “named” in 1913, but, of course, the land it was built on had been occupied for over 20 thousand years before that by Indigenous people, including the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples whom we honour today. In colonial times, it had also been farming/grazing country. All of this is referenced in West Block, though it is the contemporary built and natural environment which take precedence in the descriptions because they are what directly impact the characters.

Early in the novel, Dowse addresses the creation of the city when describing old-school George Harland’s decision to move to Canberra from the “hell” of western Victoria, the hot, dry “grass, scrub, dusk”. It had been the same, he thinks, in Canberra, but

With effort and planning and the help of some mountain streams they had beaten it. Everyone planted, in a peculiarly catholic way: silver birches and liquidambers, poplars, willows and rowan-trees, mixed with all manner of eucalyptus and acacia; the claret ash and grevillea, banksia, oleander, jonquils and hyacinth, till the colours of spring splashed over the streets, and autumn cart such a brilliant shadows they could never forget how they came to be.

I suspect there’s an intimation here too of the “catholic” development of Canberra’s population, of its comprising all sorts of people who came to work in this government city. Most of us were transplanted from elsewhere, like the exotic shrubs and trees; few of us had a family history in the place to ground us. Nearly 50 years on that has changed dramatically, but it wasn’t so at the time West Block is set.

Harland’s chapter in the novel contains some of my favourite descriptions of the city. I loved the account of his walk to work, and the various references to Canberra’s paradoxical nature as a city of physical beauty which also lacked “animation”. Harland thinks of Canberra’s past in terms of the farms, the “fields of lucerne that in earlier times had grown on the river flats”. It’s his Canberra-born daughter who reminds him of those for whom it had really been home. She takes him to her favourite park, telling him:

When I first started coming here I had no idea where I was. I mean Corroboree Park. Well, there’s nothing unusual in that. We’ve taken their language just as we have their land, and everything else. To make use of it as we will. But then I found out that this is really where they came to meet, all the tribes of this region, I like to imagine, under this very tree.

The novel is not about Indigenous dispossession and politics, but this reference, along with mentions of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and of refugees, gently introduces the idea of all the people, in addition to Cassie’s women, whose needs were being ignored.

As well as its beautiful autumns, Canberra is known for crisp winters and clear, blue skies. There is a scene just after the new-style, more proactive bureaucrat, Henry Beeker, has been through a bruising IDC (interdepartmental committee) which had to prepare a joint submission to Cabinet on uranium development and the controversial Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry. Games are played and deals done to get the relevant departments to “work out some of the differences” between their ministers. Beeker goes outside with Cassie:

Outside the ground was damp from the morning’s frost, melting now with the warmth of the midday sun. Their feet made soft squishes in the turf. The sky was an uncompromising blue. Clouds bumped into each other, as if they too were invigorated by the crisp winter air.

These descriptions – “melting”, “uncompromising”, “bumping together” – perfectly evoke the physical environment but surely also reflect what Beeker has just gone through?

I have focused on a few examples that particularly speak to the novel’s meaning, but I revelled in all its descriptions of this beautiful city I call home.

Do you love reading novels set in your place – and if so, please share some!

Sara Dowse, West Block (New Ed.), For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020.

Marie Younan with Jill Sanguinetti, A different kind of seeing: My journey (#BookReview)

September 9, 2021

In many ways, Marie Younan’s A different kind of seeing: My journey is a standard memoir about a person overcoming the limitations of her disability which, in this case, is blindness. It’s told first person, chronologically, from her grandparents’ lives through her birth in Syria to the present when she is in her late 60s and living in Melbourne. However, there are aspects of her story which add particular interest, and separate it, in a way, from the crowd.

One of these aspects is that Younan’s story is not only a story about blindness, but about migration and cultural difference. Younan is Assyrian, and was born, the seventh of 12 children, in the small village of Tel Wardiyat in northeast Syria. Her maternal and paternal grandparents moved, variously, through Turkey, Iran, Russia, Greece and Kurdistan escaping genocide and persecution before they all ended up in Tel Wardiyat. In her own life, Younan’s family moved to Beirut, but with some of the family having already migrated to Melbourne and with civil unrest increasing in Lebanon, more of the family applied to migrate to Australia. Younan herself was initially rejected because of her blindness, so, while her parents left for Melbourne in 1975, she returned to Syria, before moving to Athens to an older sister. Finally, in 1978, and now in her mid-20s, she was granted a visa for Australia joined her parents and family. (What a kind nation we are!)

If this wasn’t enough challenge, Younan’s life was also affected by her conservative upbringing. The book starts with a little prologue chapter describing how, at the age of 7, she came to properly understand her difference, that she is blind:

it dawned on me that there was a ‘thing’ called seeing that everyone else could do except me […]

It was the day my life as a blind person began.

We gradually come to realise that Younan was, as a child, doubly disadvantaged, because while she was brought up lovingly, nurtured by parents and siblings, she was excluded from so much that could have helped her develop as a person. She was not allowed to go to school; she was not allowed to go to big family events like weddings; and when a doctor suggested a corneal transplant for her when she was 10, her grandmother and father refused, because they didn’t believe such a thing was possible. Further, when she was 12, a relative offered to take her to a boarding school for blind girls – so she could “learn something and grow up with knowledge” – but her grandmother and father again opposed it. Her father said,

‘I’ve got 12 children, and I’m not sending one to boarding school, especially if she’s disabled.’

She was heartbroken, asking her mother why not. She didn’t “know anything about the world, or about life”, and badly wanted to. Yet, she expresses no bitterness in the book towards her family. Indeed, she dearly loves and respects them.

Anyhow, she arrives in Australia, highly dependent on her family and functionally illiterate.

I have spend a lot of time on this first part of the book because not only is her early life so interesting in its difference from my own life, but because it lays the groundwork for the astonishing changes she made in her life, with the help and inspiration of others, after her arrival here. I’m not going to detail all that. I’ll simply say that, largely through the mentorship of a man called Ben Hewitt (to whom the book is dedicated), she was introduced to various services, organisations and people that resulted in her learning to read; learning Braille; studying psychology and later interpreting; travelling around Victoria speaking on behalf of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind; and working as an interpreter, including for refugees through Foundation House. It’s an amazing trajectory – and one told quietly, and with humility and respect for her family and for all who helped her on the way.

It’s not surprising that she’s been described as “Ben’s biggest challenge and his best success story”. His role in encouraging her, in turning around her thinking from “I can’t” to “I can” cannot be underestimated, because, by the time she met him, Younan had a desire to learn but very little confidence in her ability to do so.

For all its straightforwardness, though, her story does have a little mystery. Younan was not born blind, but became blind when she was a few months old. Just what caused her blindness is a little question that runs through the book, and I’ll leave it to you to discover, but well-intended actions by a much-loved grandmother were involved. It’s a heartbreaking story of mistakes, accidents and missed opportunities, but Younan, if she resents any of it, has the grace to focus on what she has, not what she hasn’t or what might have been.

Now, you may have noticed that this book was written “with” Jill Sanguinetti, who has appeared here before with her own memoir. Younan met Sanguinetti around 1988 at the Migrant Women’s Learning Centre, when she joined sighted migrant women in a Return to Learning class. Sanguinetti was the teacher, and explains in the her Introduction to the book how she and Younan had stayed in touch after the class finished. Some years later, they “decided to work together to write the story of Younan’s life and educational journey”. Younan is, she writers, a “mesmeric storyteller”, but with one thing and another, it took 8 years to finalise the book. There were “many cycles of telling and writing, re-telling and re-writing”, and it shows in the end product, which is tight and keeps focused on the main theme of Younan’s journey from a dependent, innocent young girl to the independent achiever she is today.

A good – and relevant – read.

Challenge logo

Marie Younan with Jill Sanguinetti
A different kind of seeing: My journey
Melbourne: Scribe, 2020
ISBN: 9781922310256

(Review copy courtesy Scribe.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Islands in Australian literature

September 6, 2021

“No man is an island” wrote John Donne, recognising, to put it very simply, that we are better together than alone. Right now, Australians are experiencing “island-ship” in multiple ways, because not only are we an island geographically, but also practically, given travel in and out is extremely limited. Moreover, many of us on the eastern seaboard are “islands” in the spiritual/emotional sense, since we are in lockdown and isolated from family and friends. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to write a post about islands, given, on the positive side, dreaming about islands has long conveyed a lovely sense of escape and peace.

These thoughts were inspired by a blog post link sent to me a few days ago by a friend and reader of my blog. It was on best books about islands in literature. Islands can be powerful places and metaphors (à la Donne) in literature, so I thought it would be interesting to look at some Aussie island-set books.

The “best books” bloggers name a few reasons islands make good subjects. For example, islands offer an opportunity to observe society in miniature, where you can “encounter communities at their most intense and intricate”. They also say that “islands are perfect settings for origin stories: places where characters can be formed before moving into the larger and often hostile world”.

Randolph Stow, To the islands

They mention “fabulist” stories about islands, and stories about island summers (and the ensuing fun and freedom, presumably!) In children’s literature, “islands are playgrounds or places ripe for adventure”, but islands can also be the setting for “stark, survivalist fiction”. They name YA novel Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the world ends, but surely William Golding’s Lord of the flies is the most obvious example?

In a nutshell, I’d say that islands tend to function as either places of exile and isolation (forced or chosen) or places of escape (from problems elsewhere and/or to freedom.) These islands can be physical places and/or metaphorical ones.

Selected Aussie island-based books

  • Thea Astley’s The multiple effects of rain shadow (1996) (my review): Set on Northern Queensland’s Palm Island, which was, in the late 1920s to 30s, used as a dumping ground for Indigenous Australians deemed to be “problems”, the novel is based on an historical event in which the white superintendent, grieving over at the recent death of his wife, runs amok, setting fire to buildings (including his own home in which his children were sleeping). 
  • Peggy Frew’s Islands (2019) (Bill’s review): Set on Phillip Island east of Melbourne, an island I have in fact visited and which, apparently has been important to a few generations of Frew’s family. For her, I understand, the island means freedom, however, in the novel, I suspect the island has a more complex role as being, also, a place of isolation.
  • Ben Hobson’s Snake Island (2019) (Theresa’s review): Described as a literary thriller, this book is about a father’s sense of responsibility for a son who has behaved badly. Nothing I’ve read about it explains the “island” of the title. Anyone? It is set in rural Victoria so I’m guessing the title is symbolic or metaphorical, but I don’t know.
  • Ion L. Idriess’ Isles of despair (1947) and The wild white man of Badu (1950): These two novels, set on islands in northern Australia, are historical fiction written by one of Australia’s most popular mid-twentieth century writers. Isles of despair, according to Wikipedia, is based on “the true story of Barbara Thomson, a white woman who was the sole survivor of a shipwreck and was raised by Coral Sea islanders, before being rescued in 1849″, while The wild white man of Badu is about two convicts who escape from Norfolk Island and end up on Torres Strait’s Badu Island.
  • Heather Rose’s Bruny (2019) (my review): About Tasmania’s Bruny Island, this is trickier to classify in terms of traditional island literature, except that Bruny’s character as a place of beauty and escape is being threatened by development. It is a political novel, and Bruny is seen as the thin end of the wedge for Tasmania, and …
  • Jock Serong’s The burning island (2020) (Lisa’s review): Another work of historical fiction, Serong’s novel is based on an actual shipwreck, the Britomart, which foundered in 1839 off Tasmania’s Preservation Island. In terms of our island theme, a review in The Sydney Morning Herald says that “Preservation Island’s community is depicted as an embattled refuge from the demands of religious evangelists and voracious government paternalism”, so, again, an isolated place, but one offering some hopes of freedom?
  • ML Stedman’s The light between oceans (2012) (Janine’s review): This lighthouse-on-an-island novel was an international bestseller. I saw the movie, but haven’t read the book. It’s about a decision a couple makes which can be contained on an island (off Western Australia), but when they return to the mainland those decisions – those secrets – must face reality. Many bloggers reviewed this but I’ve chosen Janine’s because she confronts the island issue: “The setting in a lighthouse on an island is important too.  Not only does the mechanics of the plot hang on the logistics of infrequent contact between the lighthouse and the mainland, but the emotional and ethical question at the heart of the book relies on isolation as well.”
  • Randolph Stow’s To the islands (1958) (Kim’s review): An Australian classic set in northwest Australia that I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read. However, as far as I can tell, the “islands” in this book are “symbolic” or “metaphoric” in that, says Suzie Gibson in The Conversation, they represent “a world outside one’s knowledge and body” to which we should be looking.
  • Adam Thompson’s Born into this (2021) (my review): Thompson is from the island of Tasmania, but many of his stories are set on islands off this island, and that’s why I’ve included it here. Some of the stories are about escape and isolation, some about caring for country, some about both – and more.
  • Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island (2019) (Theresa’s review): An Australian book set on an island of the USA’s northeast coast, this novel seems to be a quintessential island novel about escape and sanctuary, physical and emotional.

And now, of course, over to you to tell us about your favourite island books, Aussie or otherwise.

Six degrees of separation, FROM Second place TO …

September 4, 2021

Little did I know when I wrote my last Six Degrees, that I would have just completed three weeks of lockdown when writing my September edition, but that’s, indeed, where I am. I am aware that among most eastern state Australians, the ACT has been relatively lucky. However, we have been feeling for some time that we’ve been living on borrowed time and that time ran out. Australia did a great job last year of suppressing the virus but the Delta variant, combined with problems in vaccine supply and delivery, left us exposed. We can only hope that … oh well, what more can I say. Let’s get onto our Six Degrees of Separation meme, which, as most of you know, is run by Kate. Check her blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest – to see how it works.

We start, of course, with the book chosen by Kate and this month it’s another book I’ve not read, Rachel Cusk’s Booker Prize longlisted Second place. I haven’t read Cusk yet but she’s been on my radar, and is even moreso now.

Jennings Finding Soutbek

I haven’t, in fact, read any of the longlisted books, but I’ve read previous works by some of them, so this is where I’m going first. The author I’ve chosen is South African author, Karen Jennings. I’ve read two of her books, but as I recently linked on one of them, I’m democratically selecting the other, Finding Soutbek (my review), which I remember enjoying for adding to my knowledge and understanding of her country.

Book cover

Another South African-born writer who has provided me with insights into his country, is JM Coetzee. He has also been longlisted for the Booker prize and, in fact, has won it twice. But they are not the books I’ve chosen here. That one is Diary of a bad year (my review), mainly because it’s the only one of his I’ve reviewed on my blog, although I have read a couple of others, including the unforgettable Disgrace.

Those of you who have read Diary of a bad year will know that it is quite challenging to read, not so much because of its language but its structure: it has three storylines, one running at the top, one in the middle, and the other at the bottom of each page. How do you read that? In fact, once you decide your way to read it, it’s perfectly readable. Another book that seemed confronting to read – this one because of its almost complete lack of punctuation – is Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning, Girl, woman, other (my review). It, too, turned out to be easy to read.

Sticking with potentially challenging books, I’m next linking to my latest read, Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain (my review). It is set in Glasgow, and much of its dialogue is in Glaswegian vernacular. This was off-putting for many English readers, a commenter on my post said, but I found it much easier to read than I expected, and quite musical in fact.

Waverley book cover

For my next link, we are leaving this little subterranean linking of Booker-related books, and delving back into the past with Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (my review of volume 1). I’m sure you’ve guessed my link – yes, Sir Walter Scott, like Douglas Stuart, was born in Scotland. There’s not much else to link these books on except, I suppose, that both are named for their male protagonists!

Book cover, The forgotten rebels of Eureka

And finally, for something completely different, we are going from Waverley the novel, to a work of history that in 2014 won the previously named Nib Waverley Award (but which since 2017 has been known as the Mark & Evette Moran Nib Literary Award.) Waverley is the name of the municipal council which manages this interesting award which focuses on research as well as writing. 2014’s winner was Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review).

I haven’t read our starting book, so can’t comment on whether there’s much to link back to, but I think I could say that Clare Wright wrote her book because, for too long, women in history have taken second place! How does that sound?

Now, the usual: Have you read Second place? And, regardless, what would you link to it?

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain (#BookReview)

September 2, 2021

How to write about a book that has made such a big splash that it has already been extensively reviewed. What more can one say? This is what I’m facing with Douglas Stuart’s debut and Booker Prize-winning novel, Shuggie Bain.

I haven’t, in fact, read much about it, because I prefer to come to books fresh, but I have heard an interview with Stuart, and I can imagine what has been written about his book. I have also discussed it with my reading group. All I can do is just launch in, and write what I would normally write, but I fear it won’t add anything fresh to the discussion. It will, however, record, for me, my thoughts and feelings.

The story

For those of you who haven’t yet read Shuggie Bain, it tells the story of its eponymous protagonist growing up in public housing in 1980s industrial Glasgow. This was the time of Thatcher, a time when mines, shipyards, railyards closed, resulting in significant unemployment and the usual fallout when men can’t work and women and children end up on welfare:

Whole housing estates of young men who were promised the working trades of their fathers had no future now. Men were losing their very masculinity.

This is important, but it is also just the backdrop for the personal story of Shuggie and his mother Agnes. There are other characters, but these two are the book’s core.

The story starts in 1992 with Shuggie, nearly 16, living on his own in a boarding house in Southside Glasgow. He is clearly pitied by the people around him, so the question for us is why is he there alone, how did he get there? We then go back to 1981, where we meet Shuggie’s family, thirty-nine-year-old Agnes, her second husband Shug, and Shuggie’s two older siblings, Catherine and Leek, who were born to Agnes’ first husband. It is not a happy situation. They are all living in a flat with Agnes’ parents, Wullie and Lizzie, and Agnes feels a failure.

When Shug does take his family away, it’s a cruel action, and Agnes and her three children soon find themselves alone, living on welfare payments in the desolate Pithead – a housing scheme which had “the plainest, unhappiest-looking homes Agnes had ever seen”. She knew Shug was “a selfish animal”, but she wasn’t expecting this. From here, their lives are a struggle, though Agnes – now drinking heavily – tries her darnedest to maintain appearances amongst women who reject her and her airs.

The characters

Agnes’ airs! Stuart has an impressive ability to create vivid, real characters. Even the villains of the piece – like Shug – are recognisable as people beyond the “type”, in his case a macho, violent, womaniser, they represent. This is no mean feat. However, it’s Agnes, Shuggie and, to a degree, Leek, who are our focus.

Agnes is a woman with aspirations. She’s resourceful, when sober, and wants more than the life she’s been dealt. But, she is unable to find a way out, largely because, for women of her time and place, it seems that a man is the answer. Her first husband Brendan tries to buy her happiness, but he’s boring. Then the flashy Shug comes along. For all his failings, and they abound, he too tries to buy her happiness, but tires of all her “wanting”.

Unfortunately, one of the things Agnes wants is “to take a good drink”. Her drinking, which was already evident when they lived at her “mammy’s”, becomes a serious problem at Pithead. Life, for her children, becomes insufferable. Catherine skedaddles into an early marriage as soon as she can, while the sensitive, artistic Leek withdraws into himself, leaving the young Shuggie to be the main watcher over his mother. And this is where this novel’s credentials as autofiction come into play, because the evocation of the child-addict parent relationship reads so authentically. We can’t help admiring Agnes’ gallus, while also despairing for her and her children.

So, it’s a heartbreaking story. Not only does Shuggie struggle with his addicted mother – loving her, caring for her in ways that a child should never have to – but he must cope with his own outsiderness that he doesn’t understand. From a very young age his way of talking, dressing and walking, not to mention his disinterest in typical boy things, are ridiculed. He’s called names, beaten up, ostracised, and he doesn’t know why. At 10 years old, aware he’s “no right”, he asks his mother, “What’s wrong with me, Mammy?” If she knows, she doesn’t tell him, but a few years later, he realises that Leek, who had tried to teach him to toughen up, had known all along.

Leek is the support act, figuratively and literally, to Shuggie and his mother. He quietly provides support in the background, even after he eventually leaves home. He’s resentful of the impact on his own ambitions to become an artist, but he sticks around, taking labouring work, because he is needed. In many ways, he’s the hero of the novel, and my heart went out to him as much as to Shuggie. This, I think, says it all:

he looked like a half-shut penknife, a thing that should be sharp and useful, that was instead closed and waiting and rusting.

The writing

It also gives you a flavour of the book’s expressive writing. One of the first things you might notice is that Stuart loves a simile. The book is full of them, but they are so good, like

“The auld man’s face crumpled like a dropped towel.”


“The unwelcome presence of a man was like a school bell.”

and so many of Agnes, such this when Shug leaves her

“Agnes, sparkling and fluffy, was lying like a party dress that had been dropped on the floor”.

The book is also well structured, opening in 1992, which immediately tells us that whatever happens Shuggie is going to survive, and ending back in 1992, this time on a note of hope, albeit a tentative one.

Stuart uses vernacular extensively, resulting in much unfamiliar-to-me vocabulary – boak, hauch, gallus, to name a few – but they are understandable from the context, and essential to setting the scene. The novel is not at all hard to read. Indeed it’s beautiful – and easier to understand than some spoken Scottish can be!

Moreover, for all its bleakness, the novel has a good smattering of humour. Here’s Shuggie defending his mother, drunk and over-dressed, marching into the hospital to see her dying father,

Shuggie heard the nurse say to a male attendant that she thought for sure Agnes was a working girl.

“She is not,” said Shuggie, quite proudly. “My mother has never worked a day in her life. She’s far too good-looking for that.” 

What it all means

The novel is, as I’ve said, autobiographical, but that doesn’t mean that Stuart simply sat down and wrote his life. Shuggie Bain reads as a considered piece of fiction that has some things to tell – about dashed dreams, the powerlessness of women in a male-dominated world, poverty, addiction and outsiderness. It’s both political and personal about what happens to lives when the ground beneath is taken away. And yet, for all that, it’s also about love – child-to-mother, brother-to-brother, friend-to-friend – that survives in places you barely expect it to. No-one in my reading group was sorry we scheduled it.

Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain
London: Picador, 2020 (2021 eBook)
ISBN: 9781529019308