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Bill’s literary tour of the Mallee

February 25, 2021

I love road-tripping around different parts of Australia, and for some time now have had a hankering to explore the Mallee-Wimmera region of western Victoria. This hankering has been enthusiastically supported by Bill (The Australian Legend) for whom this part of Australia was his youthful stomping ground. We have discussed the region and what might be included in a Mallee literary tour several times over the years – with Lisa joining in on occasion too.

Jenny Ackland, Little gods

We would all, I think, like to compile a list of books set in the region. I’ve reviewed a few on this blog – at least I think they are set in the Mallee, as the region’s borders are a bit confusing to me – such as Jenny Ackland’s Little gods, Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys, and Sue Williams’ crime novel Live and let fry. Lisa recently posted a review of a new Mallee-set book, Anne Brinsden’s Wearing paper dresses, and last year, another, Bill Green’s Small town rising.

But, topping it all, is that this week, Bill has finally put fingers to keyboard and written a post on touring the Mallee which he has generously said I can post here too … He starts:

Sue/Whispering Gums a year or so BC set me the task of devising a literary tour of the Mallee – the northwest corner of Victoria, a triangle bounded by the Murray River to the north and northeast, the South Australia border to the west and let’s say to the south the 36th parallel, so a line from a bit north of Route A8 to the Murray north of Echuca. To read the rest of the tour, please check out his post. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you hitched a ride and took the tour too!

Thanks so much Bill … there’s a possibility we might even do a bit of this trip this month. It all depends … no glamping in Little Desert is a bit of a worry!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Mining in Australian fiction

February 22, 2021

I was inspired to write this post by Bill’s (The Australian Legend) post on Catherine Helen Spence’s novel Clara Morison whose subtitle is “a tale of South Australia during the gold fever”. Mining is one of Australia’s biggest industries. Iron, copper, coal, silver, gold, zinc, bauxite and opals have all played significant roles in Australia’s economy and thus in the lives of many Australians. But, how often has it featured in our fiction?

The funny thing is that when I think of mining in fiction, my first thoughts don’t go to Australian novels, but to books like Richard Llewellyn’s coal mining classic How green was my valley, and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of repose about white settlers in the American West. This post, then, is as much a brains-trust fishing expedition as it is an informative one, but I plan to throw a few thoughts into the mix.

Nineteenth to mid-twentieth century

Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morison was published in 1854, and, as Bill writes, a major stream is the mining story, including the loss of men from South Australia’s copper mine to the excitement of the Victorian goldfields.

Katharine Susannah Prichard wrote several novels about mines, mining and/or mining towns, starting with her third novel, Black opal (1921). Set in an opal mining settlement, Falling Star Ridge, it draws from New South Wales’ Lightning Ridge where she’d spent some months. Prichard biographer, Nathan Hobby, discusses it on his blog. He says that by the time she wrote this novel Prichard “had committed to communism, and the influence is evident”. For example, she “paints a picture” of the settlement as a “workers’ utopia”. Prichard’s Goldfields trilogy (The Roaring Nineties, 1946; Golden Miles, 1948; and Winged Seeds, 1950) came later. It chronicles life in Kalgoorlie from the the discovery of gold up to the early 1940s when Prichard lived there. Hobby has also written on his blog about these books, focusing particularly on the political impetus behind their writing.

Vance Palmer also wrote a mining trilogy – the Golconda trilogy: Golconda (1948), Seedtime (1957) and The big fellow (1959). They tell the story of a mining town – one I once knew well, Mount Isa – from the time it was a mountain of silver and lead through to the established town. Deborah Jordan (in the Queensland Historical Atlas) writes that the characters include Macy Donovan, who begins as an obscure union organiser in early Golconda, but ends up the premier of Queensland, and Christy who “embodies the dying prophetic vision of the socialists of the 1890s”. Palmer, she says, was apparently fascinated by political leadership, especially those leaders who emerged from the ranks.

Mid to late twentieth century

Thea Ashley, It's raining in Mango

Another author who has written more than once about mines and mining towns is Thea Astley, though not as intensively as Prichard and Palmer. An item from the late news (1982) (my review) is set in the dying town of Allbut, which was once a thriving mining centre. Mining is not the focus – indeed I don’t mention it in my review – but its aftermath, the directionless machismo simmering in the town, underpins the novel. A few years later, Astley wrote It’s raining in Mango (1987), a four-generation story set in north Queensland, which I read around the time it came out. It covers a lot of ground, but includes references to the massacre of Indigenous people by goldfield diggers in the 1860s.

I’m guessing that miners and mining feature in outback-set commercial fiction, but this is not my area my expertise. However, my research suggests, for example, that Bryce Courtenay, who had worked in mines in South Africa, has two brothers working on goldfields, among other places, in his novel, Tommo and Hawk.

Twenty-first century

Historical fiction, which has been part of most of the novels/trilogies I’ve described above, continued into the 21st century. Mirandi Riwoe’s Big sky stone mountain (2020) explores the experience of Chinese people in late nineteenth Australia, including on the Queensland goldfields. Gail Jones’ latest novel, Our shadows (2020), takes us back to Kalgoorlie. It’s apparently a three-generation story starting with the discovery of gold there in 1893. Guardian reviewer Bec Kavanagh says that “Jones tells a story of gold and greed that goes beyond myth and folklore, deep into a family trying to reconcile their past with the present”.

Book cover

However, one of the biggest contemporary issues facing mining in Australia is the right traditional owners of Aboriginal land have to make agreements with mining companies concerning use of their land. It’s encouraging to see this issue appearing in modern novels. Mining and rights is the main focus of non-Indigenous writer Madeleine Dickie’s 2019 novel, Red can origami (my review). Dickie explores the issue from multiple perspectives – indigenous, environmental, political and personal.

Book cover

But, importantly, mining is also covered by Indigenous Australian writers. Maggie Nolan, writing in Australian Literary Studies, argues that while Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review) “can be, and has been, read in a range of ways, … the impacts of mining are central to any understanding” of it. She says that “few commentators have focused on the centrality of mining in the story”, to which I must hold up my hand, though when I thought of this topic, Carpentaria immediately came to mind. Mining also features in Tara June Winch’s The yield (my review). When August returns home for her grandfather “Poppy” Albert’s funeral, she discovers that a mining company is staking its claim. Ellen van Neerven, writing in the Australian Book Review argues that “The Yield is an anti-mining novel for the present day in the wake of the approval of the Adani coal mine in central Queensland”.

I’ll stop here, but I’ll just observe that politics – labour issues, environmental issues, indigenous land rights issues, for example – features in most of the fiction I’ve listed here. What does that say about Australia’s relationship with the mining upon which so much of our wealth depends?

What are your thoughts, and do you have more examples (from whichever country you come from) of mining novels!

Bill curates: Charles Dickens and Australia

February 20, 2021

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

I’m such a fan of Monday Musings – I guess we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t all enjoy talking about books, and writing, and authors, and translators, and publishers – that all the posts that jump out at me, seem to be MMs. From Sept 2010 Sue discusses the Australianness of an author who was never in Australia. As Hannah Gwendoline D’Orsay Tennyson Bulwer [Last Name] wrote in Comments “I had no idea Dickens had such a connection with Australia.”


My original post titled: Monday musings on Australian literature: Charles Dickens and Australia

Charles Dickens, c1860
Dickens, c. 1860 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Here’s something completely different for my Monday musings! Not an Australian author, not even a foreign born author who came to Australia (though, being the great traveller he was, he did consider a lecture tour), but Charles Dickens does have a couple of interesting “connections” with Australia. These connections are supported by the existence of some letters written by him at the National Library of Australia.

On convicts and migration in general

Transportation of convicts to Australia – actual, implied or threatened – features in several of his novels. These include John Edmunds in Pickwick Papers (1836-37), the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), Mr Squeers in NicholasNickleby (1838-39), Alice Marwood in Dombey and Son (1846-48), and Magwitch (probably the most famous of all) in Great expectations (1861)not to mention Jenny Wren who threatens her father with transportation in Our mutual friend (1864-65). Dickens apparently learnt quite a lot about convict life, and particularly the penal settlement on Norfolk Island, from his friend Alexander Maconochie (to whom I refer in my review of Price Warung’s Tales of the early days).

Clearly, it was this knowledge which inspired the letter he wrote to the 2nd Marquess of Normanby (George Augustus Constantine Phipps), who was Secretary of State for the Home Office . He suggests

a strong and vivid description of the terrors of Norfolk Island and such-like-places, told in a homely narrative with a great appearance of truth and reality, and circulated in some very cheap and easy form (if with the direct authority of the Government, so much the better) would have a very powerful effect on the minds of those badly disposed … I would have it on the pillow of every prisoner in England. (3 July 1840, Original in the National Library of Australia, Ms 6809)

He offers to write this narrative, gratis. As far as I know, although Dickens and the Marquess were friends, nothing ever came of this offer.

While Dickens deplored the treatment of convicts in the penal settlements, he also saw Australia as a land of opportunity. The transported Magwitch, as we know, made his fortune in Australia. Mr Micawber, debt-ridden at the end of David Copperfield, emigrates to Australia and becomes a sheepfarmer and magistrate. But, perhaps the strongest evidence of Dickens’ belief in Australia as a place where people could get ahead, is the emigation of his sons.

On his sons

Two of Dickens’ sons – Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens* (nicknamed Plorn) – emigrated to Australia, both with their father’s encouragement.

Alfred (1845-1912) migrated to Australia in 1865. He worked on several stations/properties in Victoria and New South Wales and as a stock and station agent, before partnering with his brother in their own stock and station agency, EBL Dickens and Partners. He died in the United States in 1912, having left Australia on a lecture tour in 1910. Dickens’  youngest son, Edward (1852-1902), went to Australia in 1869. He also worked on stations before opening the stock and station agency with his brother. He later worked as a civil servant and represented Wilcannia in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1889-94, but he died, debt-ridden, in 1902 at Moree. Australia did not quite turn out to be the land of opportunity for these two that Dickens had hoped, but fortunately he was not around to see it!

A couple of Dickens’ letters to his sons are held at the National Library of Australia. One was written in 1868, not long before Plorn left England, and includes some fatherly advice:

Never take a mean advantage of anyone in any transaction, and never be hard on people who are in your power …

The more we are in earnest as to feeling religion, the less we are disposed to hold forth on it. (26? September 1868, Original in National Library of Australia, Ms 2563)

One does rather wish that Dickens had taken his own advice regarding not being “hard on people who are in your power” in his treatment of his poor wife Catherine.

Eighteen days before he died in 1870, he wrote this to Alfred:

I am doubtful whether Plorn is taking to Australia. Can you find out his real mind? I note that he always writes as if his present life were the be-all and end-all of his emigration and as if I had no idea of you two becoming proprietors and aspiring to the first positions in the colony without casting off the old connexion (1870, Original in National Library of Australia, Ms 6420).

These are just two of the many letters that he wrote to (and about) his sons in Australia. More can be found in published editions of his letters. I have chosen these particular ones purely because we have them here in Canberra. It’s rather a treat to be able to see Dickens’ hand so far away from his home.

Do you enjoy close literary encounters of the handwritten kind?


What an interesting choice of Bill’s but I am glad to be reminded of this post as I have been wanting to read more of Dickens’ journalistic writings. Whether I will is another thing but, you never know.

Are you a Dickens fan?

Elizabeth Harrower, The long prospect (#BookReview)

February 18, 2021

Oppression and tyranny, power and manipulation in human relationships are the stuff of Elizabeth Harrower’s writing, at least in my experience of it, and so I found it again in her second novel The long prospect. Unlike The watch tower (my review), however, which explores the more traditional domination of women by a man, The long prospect’s tyrant is narcissistic grandma Lilian who makes pre-pubescent granddaughter Emily’s life a misery. Why is a novel about a cruel, manipulative person wielding power over someone whom they should love so enjoyable? Let me try to explain …

The long prospect, which was first published in 1958, is set in postwar Ballowra, a fictionalised industrial town based on Newcastle, just a couple of hours’ drive north of Sydney. The major part of it takes place in the home of forty-seven-year-old Lilian who wields sadistic power over all who come within her purview, including but not limited to the aforesaid granddaughter Emily. The novel starts, in fact, with Lilian visiting her ex-tenant and apparent friend, thirty-something Thea, in her new apartment in another part of Ballowra. Lilian walks into the apartment, without being invited, “her eyes on swivels”, and very quickly we realise that this friendship is one in which Lilian has assumed power but is now feeling put out. Words like “disapproval”, “frowning” and “affronted” leave us in no doubt that Lilian’s visit is not the sort of generous one you’d expect from someone visiting their friend in their new home.

This controlling, self-centred, unaffectionate behaviour of Lilian’s, as I’ve said, is not limited to Thea and Emily but extends to all her relationships, including to her daughter Paula, and to the various men who populate the novel, such as the hapless “boy-friend” Rosen and the tender, thoughtful but powerless boarder Max.

At the heart of The long prospect is Emily’s desperate search for affection and attention, which she finally finds in this thirty-something Max, who had been introduced earlier, by name only, as a past lover of Thea. Max warms to the intelligent – but clearly neglected – young girl, and starts spending time with her, mentoring her intellectual and emotional development. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go unnoticed by Lilian’s self-centred and jealous entourage, and eventually insinuations are made that bring about the novel’s denouement. Before that, though, Emily’s blossoming enthusiasm for life and learning is a delight to see.

Harrower constructs her novel and builds up the tone and tension beautifully. She introduces Lilian’s character via her opening visit to Thea. She sets up Emily’s need for affection and her subsequent bond with Max through her previous attachment to Thea and her desperate crushes on teachers. Harrower’s word use is precise, from the recurring appearance of “grey”, describing people and place, to the plain spare language that pares relationships and actions down to their essence. Here’s the desperate Rosen, trailing after Lilian into the kitchen, still hoping she will keep him:

There, catching her, he chances a reproachful expression, seeing that, anyway, her grey eyes were no longer hard, but mild and blank. She had quite abandoned her fiery mood. He was reassured, and smiled at her sheepishly. Her new look must mean apology. In fact, Lilian thought about salmon sandwiches. She filled the kettle.

Catastrophic emptiness

But, now, here’s the thing folks. I finished this book, and half-wrote this post, just before my Dad died three weeks ago. I am having trouble remembering all the thoughts I had while reading it, thoughts that particularly related to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Realism vs Modernism discussion we were having – but I’ll try. Harrower falls primarily into the Modernist tradition. She reflects the ills of the time through individual psyches, rather than exploring causes and social impacts as we find in Realist books like Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (1961) (my review).

Both Emily and Max feel the psychological impacts of their environments. Early on Emily, desperate to belong, finds herself an outsider yet again:

There was a chill lack of desirability about the room she had left, and about those she might enter – a bleak and rigid lack of warmth that penetrated the future as well as the present and the past.

Max recognises that he had responded to “the catastrophic emptiness of the past few years” by settling for:

Comfortable resignation. He looked at the idea of it. It had not always been that, but the change had been slow and subtle, worked in him secretly. Now the metamorphosis was complete, surprising, disagreeable. (p. 150)

Disagreeable, particularly now that a crisis involving Emily, whom he had wanted to nurture and protect, had come:

Max fought down a sense of alienation … (p. 150)

And yet, in The long prospect there is also a subtle backdrop of the industrialisation that is one of the drivers behind Modernism’s theme of alienation and the individual. Emily’s father Harry Lawrence, on his way for a rare visit with her, considers his old home town:

After years in the country, this subjection to industry, the smoky sky, the matured deterioration immanent at the birth of such towns as Ballowra left him oppressed and indignant. He was unwilling that it should be so bad.

The overriding sense in the book – from all the characters – those we like, and those we don’t, is one of disappointed lives. Max is one of those we like, for his warmth and his capacity for mature reflection:

No external excuse, not lack of this or that fine feeling could be counted as justification. Nothing could undo the harm these casual people had done. Yet, Max argued, they were themselves and lived as they could, and had not been wisely treated either, very likely.

I like the “very likely” qualification! I also like this fundamentally non-judgemental attitude, that doesn’t then follow through to excusing poor behaviour. Max goes on: “it was too easy to exempt from responsibility those who felt no responsibility for their actions. Too easy, reductive, wrong.” In other words, understand but don’t excuse!

The long prospect is thoroughly engaging, despite its overall depressing subject matter. The perfection of Harrower’s insight into human psychology combined with the delicious precision of her writing make it, yes, a joy to read, even though Emily’s plight is heartrending. It’s no wonder, really, that Patrick White was disappointed when Harrower stopped writing. He knew a good writer when he saw one.

Read for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 3 Week; also reviewed by Kim (Reading Matters).

Challenge logo

Elizabeth Harrower
The long prospect
Melbourne: Text Classics, 2012 (Orig. ed. 1958)
ISBN: 9781922079480

Monday musings on Australian literature: World Radio Day

February 15, 2021

2021 marks the tenth anniversary of World Radio Day. Hands up if you knew that? I didn’t, even though I like listening to the radio, and do in fact listen to it most days.

Some background

An initiative, apparently, of the Spanish Radio Academy, World Radio Day was proclaimed by UNESCO in 2011, and was unanimously endorsed by the United Nations in 2012 as a UN Day. February 13 was chosen because this was the date, in 1946, that United Nations Radio was established.

The Day’s aims are to raise greater awareness among the public and the media of the importance of radio, to encourage decision-makers to establish and provide access to information through radio, and to enhance networking and international cooperation among broadcasters.

On its page for this year’s World Radio Day, UNESCO says:

Radio is a powerful medium for celebrating humanity in all its diversity and constitutes a platform for democratic discourse. At the global level, radio remains the most widely consumed medium. This unique ability to reach out the widest audience means radio can shape a society’s experience of diversity, stand as an arena for all voices to speak out, be represented and heard. Radio stations should serve diverse communities, offering a wide variety of programs, viewpoints and content, and reflect the diversity of audiences in their organizations and operations. 

2021 themes

As with most UN Days, World Radio Day is celebrated each year through specific themes. In 2020, it was Radio and Diversity, while in 2021 it is New World, New Radio – Evolution, Innovation, Connection:

  • Evolution. The world changes, radio evolves: focusing on radio’s resilience and sustainability.
  • Innovation. The world changes, radio adapts and innovates: focusing on radio’s need to adapt to new technologies to remain “the go-to medium of mobility, accessible” to everyone, everywhere.
  • Connection. The world changes, radio connects: focuses on the service radio provides, in times of, for example, natural disasters, socio-economic crises, and epidemics.

In a blog post promoting the day, Being Agency discusses the state of radio in Australia, particularly regarding the impact on radio of “the rise of on-demand audio.” It’s worth reading, if you are interested, but essentially they argue that, just as video didn’t kill radio despite all prognostications that it would, nor is podcasting and on-demand audio doing so now:

The problem with assuming that on-demand audio (like podcasts) is replacing radio, is the idea that the two formats are mutually exclusive. As a medium with more than a century of history, radio is known for evolving, innovating and adapting as the world changes, and the global shift to digital is no exception.

… radio shows are the most popular podcast category in Australia, accounting for 101.3 million downloads in 2020 out of a total 420.8 million, according to the Australian Podcast Ranker.

AktiMateMini Speaker (1 of 2), with iPod and Internet Radio

They also note that, given its ability to serve society “at times of crisis”, radio (particularly local ABC radio) was a crucial source of information during Australia’s 2019-20 bushfire season, and then through the current COVID-19 pandemic.

They discuss radio’s embracing the digital world, saying that people are listening to radio on a wide variety of devices. They have no crystal ball -“who knows what will happen tomorrow”, they say – but “the industry is definitely doing what it has done for decades and adapting in response to rapid technology changes”.

For more on radio in Australia, check out the National Film and Sound Archive’s page.

Radio and Australian literature

From its early days, radio has had a relationship with “literature”, first through radio serials and plays, and gradually also through book readings. There were also stories created especially for children, such as Ruth Park’s The muddleheaded wombat. Radio was, in its heyday, a major source of entertainment as well as of information. Jacqueline Kent, whose latest book is the biography, Vida, wrote a history of Australian radio, Out of the bakelite box (1983, revised 1990). She devotes a chapter – “You have to write your head off” – to the writers, noting that

… the people who wrote radio scripts for a living in the days of the bakelite box didn’t spend any time musing about their craft. People like Kay Keavney, Richard Lane, Peter Yeldham, Sumner Locke Elliott, Morris West, Eleanor Witcombe (see my Monday Musings), James Workman and dozens of others just put their heads down and worked at the typewriters or dictating machines. The result was that Australian radio produced some of the fastest and most professional radio script writers in the world.

I’m not sure on what she bases that final assessment but it is certainly the case that Australia produced many, many serials and plays in radio’s heyday. Many of these writers – some of them you’ll have recognised – went on to write in other forms, including novels, for the stage, and of course for television, but they told Kent that writing for radio provided an excellent training ground. Peter Yeldham comments that it taught “discipline … and the ability to create stories” while Kay Keavney said that for a writer, “radio was a marvellous medium” because it demanded so much of the imagination.

As well as providing entertainment for audiences, and work for writers, early radio also actively encouraged creativity, particularly in children. The ABC’s Argonauts program is best known for this. Kent writes

Many people who are now well known in the arts submitted their first poems, drawings, paintings or musical pieces as Argonauts. It’s a long, long list, and it includes poet and reviewer Fay Zwicky, critic and author Humphrey McQueen … Michael Dransfield, who was one of Australia’s most talented and promising young poets until his tragic death in 1973, was a senior prize-winner in the literature section of the [Argonauts’] Commonwealth Awards.

Like all media, of course, radio has had to change with the times. Gradually the serials and the plays decreased but book readings – a radio version of the audio-book – continued for some time. These days – in terms of spoken (not music) radio anyhow – information is god it seems, so now, instead of hearing plays and stories, we hear “about” them through programs like the ABC’s The Book Show, The Stage Show and Bookshelf. Instead of having opportunities to practise their craft, writers get to spruik their output! Better? Worse? Or, just different?

Finally …

I’ll end with Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s Director-General, who said that “More than ever, we need this universal humanist medium”. It supports the right to information and freedom of expression. Without radio, fundamental freedoms and cultural diversity “would be weakened … since community radio stations are the voices of the voiceless”. 

 What do you think? Is radio important to you? Is it living up to its potential?

Bill curates: Some Australian expat novelists

February 13, 2021

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. I’m a bit over seeing my name up the top here, but Sue has asked me to keep going for a little longer, and how could I possibly say no.

This one is from August 2010. My opinions on the topic are quite different from Sue’s, but I’ll save that for Comments.


My original post titled: Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian expat novelists

Australia is the only country I have come across that divides its writers into residents and those who have dared to live elsewhere. Can one imagine Americans writing of Ernest Hemingway, or the Brits of Auden, thus? (Carmen Callil, Australian-born founder of Virago Press)

That answers one of my questions: that is, whether other nations talk about “expats” the way we do. Apparently they don’t. Is it the oft-quoted Australian cultural cringe? Is it envy? Perhaps I’ll just skirt the issue and say that Australians have a bit of a reputation for wanderlust, so I’m not surprised that we have our share of novelists who have gone overseas and stayed. One of those is Kate Jennings whose “fragmented autobiography”, Trouble, I reviewed last week. Kate Jennings went to New York in 1979, and has not returned (except for regular visits). In her book, she includes interviews with three other expat Aussie writers, Sumner Locke Elliott and Ray Mathew (both now deceased), and Shirley Hazzard. I thought it might be interesting to talk a little about some of our still-living novelists who reside in the USA.

But first, Ray Mathew, the least known of Jennings’ three interviewees. I hadn’t heard of him until a few years ago when he was the subject of one of the National Library of Australia’s (NLA) gorgeous little “A Celebration” books, using funds bequeathed in his name by his American friend and patron, Eva Kollsmann. The Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsmann Trust is a significant bequest which funds a number of initiatives at the NLA. One of these is the annual Ray Mathew Lecture which is to be given by “an Australian living abroad”. The first lecture was given in 2009 by Geraldine Brooks, and the second, this year, by Kate Jennings.

Shirley Hazzard
Hazzard, 2007 (Courtesy: Christopher Peterson, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

For brevity’s sake – and because I’ve read each of these writers – I’ll just focus in this post on five Australian expat novelists based in the USA. Some of them are very well known internationally, moreso than many of our home-based writers. This is not surprising I guess: if you live in the USA and get published there your market potential is far greater than it would be at home. That said, the lure of increased fame and fortune is not the reason these writers moved overseas:

  • Geraldine Brooks: moved to New York in 1983 to study, met and married American journalist (Tony Horwitz), and now splits her time between Australia and the USA. Geraldine Brooks titled her Ray Mathew lecture, “The opportunity of distance”. She’s the youngest of these five and, perhaps, has the most uncomplicated view of her relationship with home. She has travelled widely and discussed in that lecture all the benefits that have resulted, but her final point is:

For all its opportunities, distance can still feel like a tyrant, sometimes, when a partner’s work or a kid’s schooling means we must spend more time there than here. The oscillation stalls, the roots start to dry out. It’s like a high stakes game of musical chairs. Round the world you go, and then the music stops and you have to sit down somewhere, but it’s not quite the chair you were aiming for.

  • Peter Carey: moved in 1990/91 to New York with his wife to work in their respective careers, and has remained there. Peter Carey, not surprisingly given his status, is often asked about his expat status. Here is what he said in an interview for the Paris Review:

Of course, there is a specially reserved position in Australian culture for the expatriate. The prime expatriates—people like Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes—belong to an earlier generation than mine. When these people return to Australia, they are asked, What do you think of us? How are we doing? The expatriate is occasionally lauded and occasionally fiercely criticized for daring to come back and judge. I try to stay away from that as much as humanly possible. I don’t feel at all like an expatriate….

  • Shirley Hazzard (has died since I wrote this post back in 2010): moved to Hong Kong with her parents in 1947 when she was 16 years old, ending up in New York in 1951 where she has been mostly based since, though does spend time regularly in Capri, Italy. A webpage on Shirley Hazzard summarises her expat status in this way:

Hazzard does not reject her designation as an Australian writer but insists her temperament is not national. She only took out United States citizenship twenty-five years after she began living in New York, on the resignation of Richard Nixon. Eschewing nationalistic identifications, she does not consider herself as an expatriate, and emphasized that “to be at home in more than one place” (Gordan and Pasca). However, her novels are full of displaced Anglos in Hong Kong and Italy, or displaced Australians in London and New York.

  • Janette Turner Hospital: moved to Boston in the mid 1960s with her husband, and has lived in Canada and the USA. She now splits her time between these two countries and her home state of Queensland. In an early Griffith Review, Hospital commented on the impact of modern technology on being physically displaced, and wrote:

Place is unequivocal. But virtual communities and diaspora organizations suggest that you don’t always need to be somewhere to be a part of something. You can check the surf report, vote, play scrabble, watch the evening news, buy a car or be connected to country from the other side of the world. This new reality reflects an age-old truth: that home is where the heart is. It offers a new kind of citizenship. One we’re defining as we go.

  • Kate Jennings: as described above. She bookends Brooks nicely: not only because they gave the first two Ray Mathew lectures but because they both value travel highly but offer almost opposing conclusions. Here is Jennings from her lecture:

I have lived now in New York nearly as long as I lived in Australia. Heretical as it might seem, Australia is neither my country nor my home, as it is for Geraldine. It’s the place I started from, to paraphrase TS Eliot slightly. It shaped me, but so have my 30 years in New York city. I have, as Robert Dixon put it, ‘overlapping allegiances and multiple affiliations’.

Well, that lot provides enough to think about I reckon. I was going to talk a little about these writers’ works but I’ve taken up enough of your time for this Monday. More anon… Meanwhile, if you’ve lived away from “home” for any period of time, what do you think about all this?


Thanks so much Bill for being willing to continue this series until I can get back to some semblance of normal reading and posting. I’m particularly pleased that he chose this one because given he has some different ideas to mine. I look forward to hearing them to seeing whether I agree, given I wrote this post over 10 years ago.

And, of course, we’d be interested to know what you think…

Monday musings on Australian literature: FAW Activities (1)

February 8, 2021

FAW, or, the Fellowship of Australian Writers, was established in Sydney in 1928. Its exact origins are uncertain but the Oxford Companion of Australian Literature believes that the poet Dame Mary Gilmore was encouraged by another poet Roderic Quinn, to hold a meeting of writers. Poet, critic and professor of literature John Le Gay Brereton became the president. I have written before about the triumvirate – Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw and Frank Dalby Davison – who were actively involved in the Fellowship in its early days. Indeed, in 1937, Davison was elected President, and Eldershaw, one of the vice-presidents.

My aim today is not to discuss the origins, but I will just share this from an early 1929 newspaper report about the Association’s early days:

it is evident, that before very long the organisation, in a numerical sense, will be remarkably representative, and in a position to increase in a practical way the popularity of Australian literature. At the present time local unattached writers, with very few exceptions, have an extremely hard row to hoe, but it is hoped that the efforts of the Fellowship, will materially alter this position and open up new avenues of hope and actual success.

Now to today’s topic which is to have a look at what events and talks FAW ran for its members over its first decade, from 1928 to 1937. I found the information in Trove, of course, mostly from announcements of coming meetings rather than reports of meetings held, so the detail is minimal.

Most of the “events” in these early years were part of their regular meetings, rather than being offered as separate events (like today’s festivals, workshops, and so on). And most were speakers, but there were also discussions, readings and performances. Below is a small selection of those I found, with the year-links being to the appropriate newspaper article.

Talks and papers

The talks and papers varied, with the most common topics being the lives of writers or other figures in the arts, the practice of writing, and the state of the Australian literary scene. I’ve listed my selection alphabetically by speaker.

  • Fred Broomfield, a journalist, on “Henry Lawson and his critics” (1930): according to the ADB “Tradition has it that Broomfield accepted Henry Lawson’s first Bulletin contribution”.
  • Jack Adrian Clapin, a solicitor, on literature and copyright laws (1929)
  • Winifred Hamilton on “Critics and Gloom” (1929)
  • Professor Le Gay Brereton on “Some Australian books” (1931)
  • Dr. G. Mackaness, President of FAW, on the progress made in the quality and quantity of Australian art and literature (I wonder what he said?) (1932)
  • Dorothy Mannix and John Longden, of Cinesound Studio, and Eric Bedford, of United Artists, on “Writing for the Talkies” (1935)
  • Sydney Elliott Napier, writer and poet, on “Books, Libraries, and Places I Have Visited.” (1930)
  • Rev. Father Eris O’Brien, “an authority on early Australian literature”, on “The Work of Dr. Ullathorne” (1930)
  • Very Rev. Dr. M. J. O’Reilly on “John O’Brien” (author of Round the Boree Log“): A report on this meeting said that “Dr. O’Reilly said that O’Brien’s poetry was not great. It provided recreation, however, and also preserved the image of the old type of Irish settler”. Is this a case of being damned with faint praise? (1931)
  • Peardon Pearce Packham on the life of past Bulletin editor, JF Archibald (1929)
  • Roderic Quinn on his associations and friendships with various Australian writers and editors (1929)
  • Steele Rudd on “How I wrote On our selection” (1929)
  • Sir Keith Smith, who, with his brother Ross, was the first to fly from England to Australia, on “The Pen and the ‘Plane” (sounds intriguing, eh?) (1931)
  • Percy Reginald Stephenson, writer, publisher and political activist, on “The Future of Literature in Australia” (1932)
  • E. M. Tildesley, honorary secretary of the British Drama League, on “The British Drama League and the Australian Dramatist” (1937)

There was an interesting report of a 1933 meeting. It’s not clear whether the meeting comprised a discussion or three papers, but it notes that:

  • Cecil Mann, journalist and short story writer, said, regarding what editors wanted that “there were no standards; it was all a matter of appropriateness. Each paper had an inner spiritual character, and every freelance writer must make an acquaintance with this if he hoped to have his articles accented”.
  • Percy Reginald Stephenson said that ‘there was no recipe for a “best seller.”‘ He said that only one book in a hundred was a good seller, and only five or six out of 15,000 published became best sellers. “To be successful, he said, books must be deliberately constructed, filled with inspiration, and polished and repolished before they were published. The public was not interested in anything not original, and the publisher was not running a correspondence course in authorship. The author must sub-edit his work, knock out about one-third of his words, “ring the bell” every five chapters, and round off a great character.” (Your heard it here!)
  • Eric Baume, journalist, novelist and radio personality, suggested there things were currently good for the freelance writers, that was “a greater call for Australian stories”, and that “Australian short stories were just as vital as those from elsewhere”.

Performances, readings, etc

Other sorts of meetings included discussions and debates. At an early 1929 meeting “an enthusiastic discussion took place on ways and means of winning the Australian public over to a practical interest in Australian literature”, and in 1936 the Fellowship debated the Sydney University Union on “That literature should be romantic rather than realistic.”‘ I would love to have been there!

There were also play readings (such as in 1930, the reading of Harry Tighe’s four-act play, Open Spaces), short story readings, poetry recitations, and even, sometimes, musical performances.

In 1931, FAW was behind a benefit concert for “distressed Australian authors”. Supporting Australian authors, particularly those who were struggling at the end of their lives, was an important FAW objective (at least from my past FAW research).

And now a question for you: Do you think literature should be “should be romantic rather than realistic”?

Six degrees of separation, FROM Redhead by the side of the road TO …

February 6, 2021

What a strange summer we’ve had. Last year it was fires and smoke, and this year, lower temperatures and rain. I rather like the heat, but it has been good to have a calmer time. Now though to that thing that stayed with us unchanged all through 2020, come hail or shine, come fire or covid, and that thing of course is our Six Degrees of Separation meme. If you don’t know this meme and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Book cover

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book. This month, she’s chosen a book that I’ve actually read – Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the side of the road (my review)! I rather like Anne Tyler, but I bought this for my Mum not long before she died, and ended up reading it myself. The titular redhead is not what you might think.

Book cover

This was a fun choice for our starting book, because I could think of all sorts of options to follow, but in the end, I decided to go with another redhead, this one in António Lobo Antunes’ The natural order of things (my review). His redhead is a real one, although there are those who have imaginings about her.

Book cover

My links are hopping about quite a bit this month. The obvious one would have been Charlotte Wood’s similarly titled The natural way of things, but instead I’ve chosen another Portuguese author with a triple barrel name, José Jorge Letria and his lovely book, If I were a book (my review), which is a quirky little love letter to the book and reading.

Title page for Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi
Writing black, Ch. 16 by Sylvia Nakachi

And now, I’m using the title “If” to move to the Queensland Writers Centre and its innovative If: Book Australia program, which Im not sure is still going but was about exploring the future of the book and digital literature. One exciting project it supported was Writing black, edited by Ellen van Neerven (my review) and published as an Apple iBook.

Us Mob Writing, Too Deadly

Writing black is an anthology of new writings by Indigenous Australians. For this next link, I am using content, and choosing another innovative anthology of Indigenous Australian writing, Too deadly: Our voice, our way, our business, by a Canberra- based writing group, Us Mob Writing (my review).

Book cover

I am going to stick with content again, by choosing another anthology. However, this link is a double one, because this particular anthology, The near and the far, Volume 2, edited by David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short (my review), comprises pieces written by another (sort of) writing group. The group is WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange) which brings writers from Australia and Asia-Pacific together in writing residencies.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The hate race

And finally, a rather cheeky link from the writer of the Foreword of The near and the far, Maxine Beneba Clark, to her memoir of growing up in western Sydney, The hate race (my review). It’s a powerful book about how cruelly people who are different, particarly those with non-white skins, can be treated in Australia.

So, an unusual and highly political month this time, with several books having overtly political messages or content. Three of the books are anthologies, which is also unusual for me, and only the first of my six links is a novel. We have though travelled widely from Baltimore in the USA, though Portugal, Australia, Asia and the Pacific, and back to Australia again.

Now, the usual: Have you read Redhead by the side of the road (or any other by Anne Tyler)? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Vale my dear old Dad (1920-2021)

February 1, 2021

If it was my Mum who introduced me to Jane Austen and the classics of English literature, together with a love of language (and thus Scrabble and cryptic crosswords), it was my Dad who introduced me to Australiana, starting in my youth with the verse (as the poet himself called it) of Banjo Paterson. The grandson of a Presbyterian minister, my father never swore, but he’d read with great gusto the lines ‘”Murder! Bloody murder!” cried the man from Ironbark’. And we kids loved it. As Dad’s eyes deteriorated in his last years, he gave up reading books, but the book he kept by his chair-side, and the book he was last seen dipping into, was a book of Paterson’s verse.

Born in 1920, and living through the heyday of Australia’s development in the twentieth century, Dad loved stories about Australian pioneers of all sorts, from the exploits of Charles Kingsford-Smith to those of cattle kings like the Duracks. Mary Durack’s Kings in grass castles was one of his favourites, at least from the time when I was old enough to be aware of his reading. In later years, he became more aware of the politics of Australia’s colonial settlement and appreciated our need to revise our understanding of frontier life, but I don’t think that ever completely removed his love of these ventures. Dad, of course, also lived through the Depression and Second World War, with the latter inspiring another major reading interest, the history of the War. (He didn’t read a lot of fiction, being of that generation of men who felt fiction wasn’t quite as worthwhile as non-fiction).

My other main memory of Dad and books comes from the days when, as a very little girl, I would go to my parents bedroom in the morning – much to my mum’s chagrin as she loved a sleep-in – with my “twenty-eight books”. It wasn’t 28 of course, but for some reason, that was the number I would say. One of those books featured Jiminy Cricket, and Dad would feign great fear as I shoved this terrifying creature under his nose! This became a lasting in-joke between us for the rest of his life.

Now, though, Dad has gone – peacefully, at the excellent age of 100 years and 8 months – and I am left with these memories, along with the enduring knowledge of a man who loved me very much, who never failed to support me and compliment me, and who set an example of integrity, honesty, acceptance, stoicism, and love of and responsibility for family. He, like all of us, had his moments, but his, like Mum’s, was a life well-lived, one that will continue through our memories and through the lives of all those who loved him.

Vale, Dad. Go well, and thanks.

Gene Stratton-Porter, The last Passsenger Pigeon (#Review)

January 30, 2021

I have passed up reading and/or posting on so many Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offerings over the last months – sadly, because there have been some excellent selections chosen for their political relevance. However, when I saw a sentimental favourite, Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924), pop up, I knew I had to break the drought.

Gene Stratton-Porter (Uploaded to Wikipedia, by gspmemorial; used under CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Some of you may not be familiar with this American Midwest author who wrote, says LOA, “sugary (and extremely popular) fiction to underwrite her work in natural history”. It was one of these works, The girl of the Limberlost, that I loved, and later introduced to Daughter Gums who also loved it. Yes, it was sentimental, though it has its tough side, but it did also leave an everlasting impression on me of its setting, Indiana’s Limberlost Swamp. According to LOA again, it was the immense success of this book, and Freckles which I also read, that resulted in her publisher agreeing to also publish her less saleable nature books. She was, writes LOA, “a fighter for the world she saw disappearing around her, as Standard Oil of Indiana drilled new wells and farmers drained more land”.

Interestingly, LOA’s as usual excellent introductory notes focus not on Stratton-Porter but on her subject, the Passenger Pigeon. LOA discusses others who have written about this bird – novelist James Fenimore Cooper, a chief of the Potawatomi Indians Simon Pokogon, and naturalists John James Audubon and John Muir – before eventually getting to Stratton-Porter herself. LOA’s point is to document the extinction of these birds from the early 1800s, when they were still seen in immense flocks, to a century later in 1914 when the last one died in captivity. Stratton-Porter wrote her piece just 10 years after that.

So Stratton-Porter’s piece. She commences by describing the beauty of her childhood farm, including its woods and forests where birds, such as the Passenger Pigeon, loved “to home”. She writes, introducing her environmental theme, that:

It is a fact that in the days of my childhood Nature was still so rampant that men waged destruction in every direction without thought. Nature seemed endlessly lavish …

When people started to clear land they “chopped down every tree on it” without, she says, having any “vision to see that the forests would eventually come to an end”. She writes – and remember, this was 1924:

… as the forests fell, the creeks and springs dried up, devastating winds swept from western prairies, and os the work of changing the climatic conditions of the world was well under way.

She talks of animals and game birds “being driven farther and farther from the haunts of civilisation”, but she also talks of people who did not believe in living so rapaciously, preferring instead to live in log cabins in small clearings. She describes her family’s own hunting practices, including of quail. As their numbers decreased, her minister father forbade the family’s trapping and egg-gathering. He’d noticed that when bird numbers were low, grain-damaging insect pests were high.

He had never allowed, however, the hunting of Passenger Pigeons, despite their being significantly more numerous in those days than quail. Stratton-Porter thinks this stemmed from his having “a sort of religious reverence” for pigeons and doves. Others, though, had no such qualms, and she describes some brutal hunting practices involving wild pigeons, which apparently made good eating. Gradually, it became noticeable, writes Stratton-Porter, that their numbers were decreasing. Not only did her family miss the sound and beauty of these birds, but

The work that they had done in gathering up untold quantities of weed seeds and chinquapins was missed and the seeds were left to germinate and become a pest, instead of pigeon food.

Once again, she notes the wider ecological or environmental implications of species reduction or loss. She then writes of the death of the final two birds in captivity before sharing her own searching for any remaining wild birds. It was while she was watching and photographing, over a period of time, a brooding goldfinch, that she heard the unmistakable “wing music of a bird that should reasonably have been a dove, but was not”. She describes this beautiful bird, but says “it had not the surety of a bird at home; it seemed restless and alarmed”. This was, she argues, “one of the very last of our wild pigeons”, a male bird “flying alone, searching for a mate and its species”.

Stratton-Porter closes her essay with a cry from the pigeon, whose song she says sounds like “See? See?”:

Where are your great stretches of forest? Where are the fish-thronged rivers your fathers en- joyed? Where are the bubbling springs and the sparkling brooks? Why is this land parching with thirst even in the springtime? Why have you not saved the woods and the water and the wildflowers and the rustle of bird wings and the notes of their song? See what you have done to me! Where a few years ago I homed over your land in uncounted thousands, to-day I am alone. See me searching for a mate! See me hunting for a flock of my kind! See what you have done to me! See! See! See!”

And that was written in 1924! Nearly 100 years ago, and yet we still destroy habitat including, here in Australia, that of one of our most popular native animals and national symbols, the koala. Will we never learn?

Gene Stratton-Porter
“The last Passenger Pigeon”
First published: Good Housekeeping, 1924 (Collected in Tales you won’t believe, 1925)
Available: Online at the Library of America