Skip to content

Monday musings on Australian literature: ACT’s literary awards

December 10, 2018

Last week, I attended the ACT Writers Centre’s Christmas Party and Awards Night. It was a lovely, relaxed affair – just the sort I like. Not too much ceremony, but much good will and conviviality. I loved seeing writers, and others from our little territory’s literary community, mingle with each other, commending each other’s achievements. I could name drop, but fear forgetting a special name as you always do in situations like this, and I could describe some fan-girl moments, but that, too, could be fraught. So, instead, I’ll just say what a very enjoyable night it was (helped along by delicious local wines from Eden Road Wines, who do a great job in Canberra sponsoring arts organisations, including, in my experience, the ACT Writers Centre and Musica Viva. Thanks Eden Road – and your wines are delicious.)

And now, the awards – which come in two strands.

ACT Book of the Year Award

This award, “for excellence in literature”, is supported by the ACT Government, and supports ACT-based writers and writing. It “recognises quality contemporary literary works including fiction, non-fiction and poetry by ACT-based authors published in the previous calendar year”. The winner receives $10,000, with any highly commended book receiving $2,000, and the shortlisted books earning $1,000 each. Not the biggest awards in town, but we are a small jurisdiction. I should note too that “ACT-based” can include residents outside the ACT who “can specifically and strongly demonstrate an ACT-based arts practice”.

Paul Collis, Dancing homeThis year’s winner and runners-up were:

  • Paul Collis’ Dancing home (Winner), which also won the David Unaipon Award in 2017, and has been reviewed by Lisa. I have it on order.
  • Merlinda Bobis’ Accidents of composition (Highly commended)
  • Jackie French’s Facing the flame (Shortlist)
  • Omar Musa’s Millefiori (Shortlist)
  • Rachel Sanderson’s The Space Between (Shortlist)

ACT Writers Centre Awards

These sponsored awards are managed by the ACT Writers Centre.

Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award

Amanda McLeod’s Loyal Animals

June Shenfield Poetry Award

Natalie Cook’s Incursion, Extinctions.

The 2018 Anne Edgeworth Young Writers’ Fellowship

Gemma Killen. She will receive support from the Trust to help her develop her skills in writing for the screen with a focus on comedy scripts.

Anne Edgeworth’s son announced that, next year, the award will change emphasis, slightly, from “young” to “emerging”, recognising that new older writers also need support.

Publishing Awards

Kirsty Budding, paper cutsThese awards were established in 2004 “to recognise, reward and promote writing by ACT region authors that has been published by small publishers or been self-published”.

  • Fiction: Kirsty Budding, Paper cuts: Comedic and satirical monologues for audition or performance (Blemish Books, who also published Nigel Featherstone’s three novellas). Budding lives and works in Canberra as a theatre producer and teacher. She has been shortlisted and/or won several playwright awards, including being a semi-finalist in the 2017 ScreenCraft Short Screenplay Contest, Los Angeles.
  • Non-fiction: Robert Lehane’s Verity (Australian Scholarly Publishing). This is a biography of Canberra pioneer, Verity Hewitt, who, among other things, established a bookshop in Canberra in 1938. She also, apparently, taught Gough Whitlam, and was an activist in the peace movements of the 1950s to 70s.
  • Children’s: Maura Pierlot’s Trouble in Tune Town (Little Steps Books). This is Pierlot’s first children’s picture book, and it has been gaining recognition in awards – Best Illustrated Children’s E-Book in the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY) 2018 (Joint Winner); and a finalist in the Children’s Picture Book (Hardcover Fiction) in the International Book Awards 2018
  • Poetry: Paul Cliff, A constellation of abnormalities (Puncher and Wattman). Cliff is a poet, playwright and editor whose has been published for over 30 years, and has won or ben shortlisted for several awards including the Mattara Poetry Prize, the David Campbell and Rosemary Dobson Poetry Prizes.

Full details of the awards, with all the shortlisted writers can be found on the ACT Writers Centre website.

Congratulations to all the winning and shortlisted authors, and a big thanks to the ACT Writers Centre for inviting me to the event.

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedom (#BookReview)

December 9, 2018

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomWell, that was a tome and a half! And in saying this I’m referring less to the length of Clare Wright’s new history, You daughters of freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world, than to its depth and richness. There are, in fact, two main stories going on here – the story of women’s suffrage in Australia and England, and that of Australia’s leadership in the world, at the time, in terms of progressive politics, of forward-thinking social legislation. They were heady, optimistic times, and the suffragists (being those men and women who advocated for women’s enfranchisement) were part of it all.

Clare Wright frames her history of this period in Australia’s nationhood through the story of five suffragists – Vida Goldstein (1869-1949), Dora Montefiore (1851-1933), Nellie Martel (1855-1940), Dora Meeson Coates (1869-1955), and Muriel Matters (1877-1969). These women should – like that famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst is – be household words. Indeed Pankhurst knew and used most of them in her long battle for women’s suffrage in England. Why are they not? Why, for example, asked Clare Wright at the lecture I attended, is there no statue to Vida Goldstein in Victoria? (There is, she tells us in her Epilogue, a memorial park bench in her hometown of Portland, Vic! A park bench!!)

Well, lest we think they are not well-known because achieving suffrage was oh-so easy in Australia, Vida told otherwise to a US Senate Select Committee on US Suffrage during her 1902 USA tour:

Vida wished the senators to know, too, that this was the result of years of hard fighting–in case they also subscribe to the ‘one fine day if just happened’ school of political progress.

In other words, our five women (and all the other Australian fighters for the cause) may not have had to chain themselves to a grille like Muriel Matters did in England in the Suffragette cause, nor refuse to pay taxes as Dora Montefiore also did in England for the same cause, but they had lobbied their case hard. Indeed, while South Australia granted suffrage to its women in 1894, and the new federal government to women in 1902, it took until 1908 for the last state in Australia, Victoria, to do so.

I should clarify here that, although Australia was a leader in women’s suffrage by being the first nation to legislate suffrage for all white adult Australian women, without property qualifications, and to enable those women to stand for parliament, it was just for white women. As Wright says, “it was now race, not gender, that defined the limits of Australian citizenship.”

Writing history

You daughters of freedom is, then, a good read, because the story it tells is fascinating. The five significant women are all wonderful subjects in their own right:

  • Vida Goldstein, the private school girl who “developed a passionate commitment to the underprivileged” and a “zeal for social reform”, and stood for parliament several times to pave the way for others;
  • Dora Montefiore, the committed socialist whose practice of non-violent civil disobedience was observed by a young Gandhi;
  • Nellie Martel, the elocutionist whose militant activism resulted in her being arrested in England and spurned by papers at home;
  • Dora Meeson Coates, the artist whose “Trust the women” banner is now on permanent display in Parliament House; and
  • Muriel Matters, the actor who led the grille protest in the House of Commons, flew in a “Votes for Women” labelled airship over London, and undertook a popular, successful lecture tour on English suffrage in Australia.

I’m not going to share their stories, because you can find them in reviews (like Lisa’s, in the link below), in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (on which their names above are linked), and most importantly in Clare Wright’s book. Each of these women played critical roles in the suffrage fight both home and in England where limited women’s suffrage wasn’t achieved until 1918.

No, what I want to write about is the style, because no matter how interesting or important history is, few (besides the academics and die-hards) will read it if it it’s not written in a way that engages. And this is where Wright shines. It’s a hefty tome, at nearly 500 pages. It’s a complex one which juggles the stories of five quite disparate women, from the late nineteenth century to the second decade of the twentieth. And it is extensively researched, with each page containing not one but several quotes from mostly primary sources (such as newspapers, speeches, and documents from personal papers.) A daunting work for researcher and reader alike.

In my admittedly limited knowledge of historical writing – so I might be barking up the wrong tree – Clare Wright’s approach reminded me somewhat of Thomas Carlyle’s in his three-volume The French Revolution. It’s a few decades since I read Carlyle, but that history could be written with such verve and colour made a big impression on me. Like Carlyle, though perhaps not quite so flamboyantly, Wright is not afraid to use bold rhetorical tools to tell her story. Explaining why 1911 didn’t turn out to be the golden year England’s suffragettes hoped, Wright writes:

Truth be told, the writing was on the wall well before that. The summer of 1911 continued in a national pantomime of over-the-top pageantry and under-the-surface tension with the King and his court centre stage. But the audience should have been shouting, ‘Over there! Look over there!’

Over there  … to Bermondesy […]

Over there … to Ireland […]

And further over there–to Germany […]

The glorious late summer of Edwardian England was about to shatter like a cheap vase.

There is nothing inaccurate in what she says – to my knowledge, anyhow – but the way she says it is fresh, compelling, and devoid of dry or, worse, obfuscating academese. I could pull out example after example of writing that captures our attention, but I think I’ve made my point.

Wright is also careful to make clear where the historical record is lacking. Why did Nellie, for example, suddenly disappear from public life? Wright explains that there are no clear answers, but follows up to discuss the “few clues”.

And, then, almost best of all, there’s the extensive use of contemporary newspaper reportage – surely made so much easier for modern researchers by the wonderful Trove. Wright draws on conservative and progressive newspapers from around Australia to reflect what people – as represented by editors and journalists – were thinking at the time. When Nellie, say, or Vida, were active in England, the Australian papers were watching closely and reporting. Not only does this flesh out our understanding of the suffrage question, but it fleshes out the wider social history.

The book is chronologically told, with evocatively titled chapters, such as, for example, Chapter 28’s “Homecoming Queen, Australia, winter 1910”, which chronicles Muriel Matters’ return home for her lecture tour. However, despite this signposting, readers do have to be on their mettle to keep track of our five suffragettes, to know where they are at any one time, and which of the many political organisations, if any, they’re aligned with. It’s a complicated story that Wright aims to tell – and following it requires attention.

They were heady days …

So, You daughters of freedom, is an engrossing read – but, I have to admit that, as I read it, I became sadder and sadder. This was mainly because of that thread that I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the one to do with Australia’s leadership in terms of progressive politics. What happened to us – us Australians I mean? There we were, at the turn of the century, leading the world, not only in women’s suffrage but in a whole raft of social reform measures, relating to working conditions, conditions for women and children, and, even, Maternity Allowance. We were also the first nation to elect a socialist or Labor government, when Andrew Fisher was swept into power in 1910.

Well, what happened, says Wright, was World War 1, which completely changed the nation’s narrative. But that is another story. Meanwhile, I highly recommend You daughters of freedom, and look forward to Wright’s third book in her planned trilogy on Australian democracy.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has also reviewed this book. She liked it too.

AWW Badge 2018Clare Wright
You daughters of freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018
553pp.
ISBN: 9781925603934

Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Winners, 2018, announced

December 5, 2018

The Winners of the the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for 2018 were announced this morning at Parliament House … an event I followed via their Twitter Live Feed … and it contained the BEST of ALL POSSIBLE news that Gerald Murnane won the Fiction prize. I haven’t read the novel, so perhaps my approval is cheeky, but Murnane has been far too under-rated over the years and it’s high time he was recognised for his contribution to Australian letters! Sure, he can be obscure, but that makes him interesting – even fun – to read because of the mesmerising way he interrogates our emotional interiors/landscapes in some sort of alignment with a physical interior/landscape, that feels Australian but is also mythical in its lack of specificity.

Below is the shortlist, with the winner marked in bold.

Gerald Murnane, Border districtsFiction

  • A long way from home, Peter Carey (Penguin Random House): on my TBR (Lisa’s review)
  • Border districts, Gerald Murnane (Giramondo): on my TBR (Lisa’s review)
  • First person, Richard Flanagan (Penguin Random House): my review
  • Taboo, Kim Scott (Pan Macmillan): on my TBR (Lisa’s review)
  • The life to come, Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin): my review (and winner of this year’s Miles Franklin Award)

The pre-announcement Twitter feed said “beautifully told stories capturing a broad range of themes”. That tells us a lot doesn’t it!

Poetry

  • Archipelago, Adam Aitken (Vagabond Press)
  • Blindness and rage: A phantasmagoria, Brian Castro (Giramondo Publishing) (Lisa’s review)
  • Chatelaine, Bonny Cassidy (Giramondo Publishing)
  • Domestic interior, Fiona Wright (Giramondo Publishing)
  • Transparencies, Stephen Edgar (Black Pepper)

This time the twitter feed said that “this year’s shortlistees prove that poetry is very much alive and a vibrant art form in Australia”. Hmm … any different from last year’s I wonder?

The winner is another grand man of Australian letters whom I must get onto my blog soon – he’s one of my gaps.

Non-fiction

  • Asia’s reckoning, Richard McGregor (Penguin Random House UK)
  • Mischka’s war: A European odyssey of the 1940s, Sheila Fitzpatrick (University of Melbourne Publishing)
  • No front line: Australia’s special forces at war in Afghanistan, Chris Masters (Allen & Unwin)
  • The library: A catalogue of wonders, Stuart Kells (Text Publishing)
  • Unbreakable, Jelena Dokic and Jessica Halloran (Penguin Random House): my report of an In Conversation event

And the pre-announcement twitter feed said, “The shortlisted books reflect our place in history and the modern world.” Hmm … again. I think I’ll forget the Twitter feeds.

Australian history

  • Beautiful Balts: From Displaced Persons to New Australians, Jayne Persian (NewSouth Publishing)
  • Hidden in plain view: The Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney, Paul Irish (NewSouth Publishing)
  • Indigenous and other Australians since 1901, Timothy Rowse (NewSouth Publishing)
  • John Curtin’s war: The coming of war in the Pacific, and reinventing Australia, Volume 1, John Edwards (Penguin Random House)
  • The enigmatic Mr Deakin, Judith Brett (Text Publishing)

Children’s literature

  • Feathers, by Phil Cummings and Phil Lesnie (Scholastic Australia)
  • Figgy takes the city, Tamsin Janu (Scholastic Australia)
  • Hark, it’s me, Ruby Lee!, Lisa Shanahan and Binny Talib (Hachette Australia)
  • Pea pod lullaby, Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King (Allen & Unwin)
  • Storm whale, Sarah Brennan and Jane Tanner (Allen & Unwin)

Young Adult literature

  • Living on Hope Street, Demet Divaroren (Allen & Unwin)
  • My lovely Frankie, Judith Clarke (Allen & Unwin)
  • Ruben, Bruce Whatley (Scholastic Australia)
  • The ones that disappeared, Zana Fraillon (Hachette Australia)
  • This is my song, Richard Yaxley (Scholastic Australia)

Thoughts, anyone?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Eleanor Witcombe

December 3, 2018
Eleanor Witcombe

Eleanor Witcombe, 1950 from Australian Women’s Weekly (Presumed Public Domain)

Eleanor Witcombe, who died in October at the venerable age of 95, is not exactly a household name in Australia – but some of her work is, because she’s associated with the renaissance of Australian film in the late 1970s. She wrote the screenplays for The getting of wisdom and My brilliant careerHowever, her writing career long preceded that work.

Growing up

Eleanor Witcombe, then, was a playwright and screenwriter. She was born in 1923 in Yorketown, South Australia, where she went to Yorketown Higher Primary School until 1939 when her family moved to Brisbane. There she attended Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School. I was entertained to find, via Trove, all sorts of references to her schooldays because in those days, particularly in country towns, the papers reported on school doings. Yorketown’s The Pioneer regularly included “Honor Lists” in which the young Eleanor would appear, such as in 1931 for “Arithmetic” and “Mental”, or, in 1935, as winning a prize for “Schoolwork” in the Yorketown Show. In 1932 the paper reported on the formation of Yorketown’s first Brownie pack, and listed Eleanor and her sister among its first members, and in 1938, it reported that she had earned Honours in her Grade VI Music Theory exam. She was clearly a diligent girl …

… and she liked writing. The Sydney Morning Herald, in its obituary, says that her English teachers at Brisbane Grammar School encouraged her talent. She wrote her first play, “Omlet”, a skit on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for a school concert.

Early working years

In 1941, the family moved to Sydney, and by mid-20s, she was living in Cremorne, Sydney. She went to art school where she knew Margaret Olley (also born in 1923.) This connection also popped up in Trove, this time in The Daily Telegraph of 23 January 1949 which reports on William Dobell controversially winning the Archibald Prize with his portrait of Olley. The report writes that of the 50 people viewing the portrait only two recognised “buxom, attractive 25-year-old Miss Olley”, and one of these was Witcombe. The report continues that:

Miss Witcombe attended East Sydney Technical College art school with Miss Olley. She said: “From some angles the portrait resembles Margaret. “There is a certain something about the whole thing that is Margaret. “I think it is glorious. I think it glows. It jumps out of the wall and really gets you. “But no one who does not ‘know’ Margaret would recognise it as a portrait of her.”

However, by this time, Witcombe had moved from art to writing and the theatre. In 1945, her short story “The Knife” was one of 43 out of over 2000 entries chosen for publication by the Sunday Telegraph in its short story competition, though I suspect she wasn’t among the final winners. Her story is available on-line.

It was drama though that captured her interest. Her biography at AustLit records that she enrolled in Peter Finch’s Mercury Theatre School, and that between 1948 and 1950 she was commissioned by the Mosman Children’s Theatre Club to write three plays for children: Pirates at the BarnThe Bushranger, and Smugglers Beware. Searches on Trove find many, many references to these plays – over a long period of time, and in England as well as Australia. According to AustLit, Smugglers, Beware became the first Australian children’s play professionally produced in London.

In 1950, The Australian Women’s Weekly included her in an article on Interesting People. She was 27, and had written and had performed those three children’s plays. The article concludes with

Miss Witcombe has been writing plays since she was seven, likes action and says “fairies are only for adults.”

Throughout the early 1950s, she appears frequently in the newspapers, with her plays being performed all over Australia – in remote places like Bourke as well as the cities. She started writing for radio, and talks in interviews about original versus adapted works.

However, she also spent part of the 1950s abroad, going to London in 1952 where she worked and studied for 5 years, not returning to Sydney until 1957.

Television years, and beyond

On her return, she wrote for the ABC and commercial radio – including many one-hour drama adaptations of plays, books, and stories – as well as for the theatre. She initiated the Australian Theatre for Young People in 1963, and was a foundation member, in 1962, of the Australian Writers Guild. We have a picture, in fact, of an active successful writer – of both original and adapted works.

When television appeared on the scene, Witcombe turned her hand to that medium too, writing for sketch comedy series The Mavis Bramston Show and, for three years, for the television soap opera Number 96, both of which, for different reasons, are important parts of Australian television history. She adapted children’s novels for television: Pastures of the blue crane (1969), which is one of the first miniseries I recollect seeing, and Seven little Australians (1973).

And, just to show her complete versatility, she adapted Norman Lindsay’s The magic pudding for the Marionette Theatre of Australia, a show that was performed at Expo 70 in Japan. When this show was revised in 1980 for new puppets, the Australian Women’s Weekly reported that

The script for the new production is by screen writer Eleanor Witcombe. Richard [the Theatre’s artistic director Richard Bradshaw] believes she’s the best.

“Eleanor used great huge chunks of the original book but we had to develop Pudding’s part. Her additional dialogue is perfectly in character.”

Meanwhile, of course, there were those films, The getting of wisdom (1977) and My brilliant career (1979). Both were adaptations of Australian classics, and both earned Witcombe AFI Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay.

I found a lot more in my research that I’d love to share, but will just tell this, before concluding. Around 1976, Witcombe was invited by Sir Robert Helpmann to research Daisy Bates for a film in which Katharine Hepburn wanted to star! Who knew! It was Witcombe, apparently, who uncovered that Bates had once been married to “Breaker” Morant.

After her death, the National Film and Sound Archive posted an excerpt from a 1998 oral history interview with her by Stuart Glover. In the excerpt she discusses writing adaptations, and the need to find the wood amongst the trees, the essence of the story. The excerpt ends with Glover suggesting she’d had a good career and asking her whether she’d enjoyed it. She replied:

No, I’m disappointed in myself. Because I don’t think I’ve – I haven’t adapted myself well. [Laughs] I haven’t found my centre enough and quickly and solidly and surely enough, to be able to go for that centre, y’know? I haven’t looked at me like a book and said, ‘This is what this book is about, and that is where the centre is.’

Sounds to me like an artist – never happy with her work – because, if you ask me, she had a brilliant career.

Have you heard of Eleanor Witcombe, or seen any of her plays or films?

My literary week (14), lists and a celebrity

December 2, 2018
I don’t really need to write a post today having written two in the last two days, but there are a couple of things I’d love to share with you, so here I am for the third day in a row.

Reading group schedule

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeFirst up is my reading group schedule for the first half of the next year, which we decided by consensus – with a bit of the usual argy-bargy – a few days ago. Here’s the list in the order we’ll read them:
  • Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe : strongly recommended by an ex-member (“ex” because she moved away) whose recommendations are usually spot on – and with supporting recommendation by Brother Gums whose taste is also impeccable.
  • Anita Heiss (ed), Growing up Aboriginal in Australia : for obvious reasons, and because if the University of Melbourne believes its staff should read it, then so should we!
  • Marilynne Robinson, Gilead : because many of us have been wanting to “do” Marilynne Robison for some time.
  • Amor Towles, A gentleman in Moscow : because many of us have heard good things about it.
  • Sayaka Murata, Convenience store woman : because we’d like to include more translated fiction in our reading diet and this sounded interesting.
  • Mary McCarthy, The group : our “classic”, which some have never read and others are interested to read again in our current climate.
You will of course hear more about these as 2019 progresses …

Eric Idle in conversation with Alex Sloan

Eric Idle, Always look on the bright side of lifeAs most Aussie readers will know, Monty Python member Eric Idle is currently doing the rounds in Australia promoting his book Always look on the bright side of life: A sortabiography. I’m intrigued by that subtitle given the various discussions we’ve had here recently about memoirs and biography – but I haven’t read it yet so I can’t tell you what angle, if any, Idle has taken on the biography form.

Anyhow, the event I attended was part of the ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author series, this one a paid event, with the ticket price including a signed copy of the book. I went with friends so didn’t take my usual copious notes. Indeed, I took no notes, so this will be a brief report.

I suspect most of the events ran pretty similarly, with a few variations depending on who “conversed” with Idle. Anne of Cat Politics, who occasionally comments here, went to the Melbourne event where the conversation was conducted by Michael Williams of The Wheeler Centre. She has written about it on her blog. We had a similar discussion, led beautifully by Alex Sloan, about Idle’s life and, career and his friendships with people like George Harrison. We also had a couple of songs, including the “Selfies” one (for which Anne provides a Youtube link.) Our event, like hers, ended up with Idle singing “Always look on the bright side of life”, except we had a small backing group, The Idlers, drawn from the Canberra Choral Society. That was fun – and I think they enjoyed themselves, too.

But, I think we may have had something else unique to us – a discussion about physics. Our event commenced with a YouTube video of Idle doing his “Galaxy Song”, after which ANU Vice-chancellor and Nobel Laureate in Physics, Brian Schmidt, came to the stage to introduce Idle. In doing so shared with us some – let us say – disagreements between Eric Idle and physicist Brian Cox about certain facts in the song. Schmidt suggested that, on one fact at least – to do with the power of the sun – he’s decided to agree with Idle. There was some lovely banter about all this, with Idle, who has performed the Galaxy Song with Cox, telling us that he’d told Cox that the facts were correct when he wrote the song: it was Science that had changed (due to that darned Hubble Telescope). You can Google Brian Cox and Eric Idle to find out more – if you haven’t seen them already.

Kate’s list of lists

As a service to us all, Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) has published a post titled Best Books of 2018 – A List of Lists. In it she has listed the Best of 2018 lists already published by magazines and newspapers around the world – with annotations explaining what they cover. For example, of Esquire’s list she says “excellent mix of 50 fiction and nonfiction titles” and for NPR’s Best Books of 2018 she writes “use the filters to wade through this 300-strong list”.
Kate will be adding to this post as more lists are published. If you love book lists, bookmark her post!

Quote of the week

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomHopefully, by the end of next week I’ll have written my post on Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom, but I can’t resist sharing just one of many wonderful quotes from the book. This one is not Clare Wright’s own words, but a description of England’s “suffragette agitators” by the UK’s attorney-general at the time. He called them “those unsexed hyenas in petticoats”. Really!? You have to laugh!

 

Six degrees of separation, FROM A Christmas carol TO …

December 1, 2018

And suddenly it’s the last Six Degrees of the year. Before we know it, everyone will be writing their top lists of the year, but I, as usual, will do mine in January, when the year is REALLY over. I like me “best books” of the year to be of the actual calendar year. I’m weird that way! But, that’s not what this post is about! Here we are talking the Six Degrees of Separation meme which is currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). Click on the link on her blog-name to see her explanation of how it works.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas carolKate has chosen an older but appropriate goodie for the last starting book of the year, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas carol, which I have read, but way, way, way before blogging. It is a true classic, isn’t it, by which I mean it keeps on keeping on – particularly at Christmas time. Funny, that!

Alex Miller, LovesongNow, there are so many ways we could link from this book – on Christmas, on Dickens, on Scrooge-like characters – but I’m going with another book with a song word in the title. Indeed, the book I’m choosing has the actual word “song” in the title, Alex Miller’s Lovesong (my review). It’s the only Miller I’ve reviewed on this blog so I’m very happy to give this lovely writer a guernsey here.

Cate Kennedy, Australian Love Stories coverMiller’s book is, as you’ve probably guessed, more than a simple love story. It’s an exploration of love, and how it plays out over time, and in different age-groups. A delightful book that I fell in love with a couple of years ago and that also explores love – even more broadly – is an anthology of short stories devoted to the subject, Cate Kennedy’s Australian love stories (my review). I still feel the thrill I had reading that book.

Bruce Pasco, Dark emuThe first story in Kennedy’s anthology is by indigenous writer, Bruce Pascoe, and the story was about love in an older couple. However, it’s not that subject that I’m linking on this time, but simply on Bruce Pascoe and his non-fiction work Dark emu, dark seeds: Agriculture or accident? (my review). It was another memorable book for me – and it makes a contribution to the truth-telling going on in Australia at the moment.

Dymphna Cusack, A window in the darkI’m determined to mix this post up quite a bit – and not get stuck on specific themes and ideas – so my next link is, like my first one, on a word in the title, “dark”. The book is Dymphna Cusack’s A window in the dark (my review), which is her memoir of her years as a middle-class teacher who wanted – and achieved it too – to bring education and the associated opportunities to less privileged students.

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta LacksAnd now, guess what I’ve done? I’ve worked it so I can link to my most recent review – Rebecca Skloot’s The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (my review). Can you work out the link? It’s that Skloot, too, was a middle class person whose work brought her in contact with poor and/or underprivileged people, the Lacks family. Indeed, at one stage during the book, Henrietta’s middle-aged daughter Deborah Lacks started planning to continue her education, because she didn’t finish high school …

Bianca Nogrady, The end book coverThen, just like that, we’ve reached the last book in the chain, and I’m sticking with writer and subject matter, but from a different angle. My last writer is Bianca Nogrady who, like Skloot, is a science writer. The book is The end: The human experience of death (my review) and, like Skloot’s book, it deals with both the science and the ethics of its subject showing that scientists too can (though whether they always will, is another question) think beyond the test-tube.

Quite a different sort of chain this month, with a wider variety of forms. Four of my books are non-fiction and one a collection of short stories, meaning that only one is actually a novel. Only two of my six authors are male but, since one book is an anthology, I could argue that this month’s chain includes more male authors than usual!

I do apologise, however, that for this Christmas edition of Six Degrees I ended up with a book about Death not Birth. That wasn’t very clever of me, really, but c’est la vie! You just have to go where the chain leads you!

And now I will end by thanking all you loyal Six Degrees readers for reading my meme posts this year. It’s been great fun doing this meme, and even more having you all along for the ride. I hope to see you all again next year … Meanwhile, if I don’t “see” you before then, I wish you a very happy Holiday season.

Now, over to you: Have you read A Christmas carol? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (#BookReview)

November 30, 2018

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta LacksIn her extensive acknowledgements at the end of her book, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot thanks “Heather at The Book Store, who tracked down every good novel she could find with a disjointed structure, all of which I devoured while trying to figure out the structure of this book.” Interesting that she looked at novels, particularly given our recent discussion regarding non-fiction that reads like fiction, but more on that later …

Many of you will have heard of the book, or, if not, of Henrietta Lacks, or of her HeLa cells? It’s a sort of hybrid biography-cum-science book about an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks who died in 1951, and the immortal HeLa cell line that was and continues to be cultured from her cervical cancer cells. As Skloot writes, “these cells have transformed modern medicine.” The book was published in the USA in 2010. It won multiple awards, including, says Wikipedia, the National Academies Communication Award for “best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering or medicine”. In addition, the paperback edition was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 75 weeks.

I’ve described the book as hybrid, because the story (or biography) of Henrietta Lacks is just one of its threads. It also interrogates the complex intersection between race, class and ethics in medical research as well as broader ethical ramifications of issues like “informed consent” and the commercialisation of human tissue. Skloot, herself, says early in the book,

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, then, this book is another example of those non-fiction books that I like so much in which authors author takes us on their journey of discovery, in this case to understand the people and the science, the ethics and the law, behind this astonishing story. Skloot wasn’t the first so tell it, however – something she makes clear during our journey. Earlier stories include Michael Rogers’ 1976 article in Rolling Stone, and the 1997 BBC documentary, The way of all flesh, which you can watch on YouTube. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the story of the cells, so if you want to know about them – read the book and/or watch this video.

Skloot explains her own fascination with Henrietta, from being introduced to her cells in high school, through those HeLa cells being “omnipresent” throughout her biology degree, to when she was in graduate school studying writing “and became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henrietta’s story”. It’s not surprising then that this book has been extensively researched – as evidenced by the Notes and Acknowledgements. (These two chapters make great reading in themselves.) It took around 10 years to write, not just because of this extensive research. A major issue which Skloot had to confront was the understandable suspicion and anger of the Lacks’ family, whose help she needed if she were to tell this story properly and with integrity. Their story is bound up in a long invidious history of research carried out on African-Americans, which is also detailed in the book.

“What do you mean, ‘everybody else’?!”

So, the structure. The book is divided into three parts – Life, Death, Immortality. In the first two parts, the story is told in two roughly alternating, chronological threads – one telling the story of Henrietta Lacks, her cells, and her family, from 1920 to 1973; the other tracking the early days of Skloot’s research from 1999 to 2000. In the third part, the two tracks coalesce into one chronological thread, starting from 1973 when the late Henrietta’s daughter-in-law, Bobbette, discovers quite accidentally via a friend’s brother-in-law, that Henrietta’s cells were being used in scientific research and had been since 1951. Until that point, no-one in the family had known that Henrietta’s cells were still “alive” and being used in research all over the world:

“What?!” Bobbette yelled, jumping up from her chair. “What you mean you got her cells in your lab?”

He held his hands up, like Whoa, wait a minute. “I ordered them from a supplier just like everybody else.”

“What do you mean, ‘everybody else’?!” Bobbette snapped. “What supplier? Who’s got cells from my mother-in-law?”

She is, to put it mildly, horrified – and rushes to tell her husband and thence the family.

Here, though, I’m going to return to the issue of writing non-fiction like fiction. There’s the use of narrative structure, of plot lines, to create some sort of tension for the reader – in this case it largely revolves around the lives and reactions of the family, particularly Deborah – while we are also learning drier “stuff” about the history and ethics of cell culture and medical research. The dialogue I’ve just shared is part of the main plot line concerning the family’s discovery of what had been happening to Henrietta’s cells.

Then there’s the use of evocative, descriptive language. Skloot doesn’t overdo this, staying, in the main, direct and focused – but there are enough little flourishes to keep the writing interesting, like “HeLa grew like crabgrass” or “tufts of hair like overgrown cotton sprouted from his head”. The imagery draws from the area in which it is set. And, there’s the use of dialogue. Skloot did carry out a lot of interviews over her decade-long research and often makes clear when she’s quoting from those – but not all dialogue comes from that research. Some is imagined – or what critics call “representative”. No-one, for example, would have recorded Henrietta’s exact words when she visited her gynecologist, but Skloot writes:

“I got a knot on my womb,” she told the receptionist. “The doctor need to have a look”.

How much more interesting that is to read than, say, “Henrietta visited her gynaecologist, telling the receptionist that she had pain in her womb that needed to be investigated.” I know what I’d rather read. Not only is dialogue more engaging, but if the writer gets the voice right it enhances our understanding of the character. One of the delights of this book, in fact, is our getting to “know” members of Henrietta’s family, and the dialogue plays a significant role in this. Not non-fiction readers, however, approve of this approach.

As I’ve already said, I’m not going to write a lot about the content of this book, fascinating though it is. It has been written about extensively; there are interviews with Skloot on the web; and for background there’s that BBC documentary. The book is now nearly a decade old. Cell research has moved on, but the story of the intersection of race and class with science and ethics is still relevant. Moreover, this is a book of history – the history of medicine. Close to home for me, for example, was learning that HeLa cells were involved in identifying the connection between the HPV virus and cervical cancer, and thence the development of the vaccine with which my reading group’s daughters were among the first in the world to be vaccinated.

All this makes the book well worth reading. There were, admittedly, times when the cell science got the better of me (and other non-scientific members of my reading group) but not enough to turn us off. Skloot’s courage, warmth and empathy with people out of her ken, the trust those initially fearful, angry people came to place in her, and her ability to tread the fine line between judgement and analysis when discussing actions of the past make this a special read. No-one in my reading group regretted this choice for our schedule. A fine way to end the year.

Rebecca Skloot
The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks
Sydney: Picador, 2010
ISBN: 9781742626260 (ePub)