Back in 2012, I reported on Text Publishing’s new initiative to publish Australian classics, with new introductions, and market them at a very affordable $12.95. I was thrilled and hoped the venture would take off. Well, it did, and now four years later they have published the 100th title in the series. What a wonderful achievement – for them and for readers of Australian literature. I have loved seeing favourite authors in print again and, particularly, being introduced to new ones (to me) including the luminous Elizabeth Harrower and the intriguing Madeleine St John.
Text’s 100th Classic
Text Publishing – quite rightly – is planning to celebrate this milestone but, before I talk about that, I should tell you the title of the 100th book shouldn’t I? It’s a book and author I hadn’t heard of, The dyehouse by Mena Calthorpe. Originally published in 1961, it was, according to Wikipedia, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Hmm … I wonder where the Wikipedia author got that from, because on the Wikipedia Miles Franklin page it says that they’ve not been able to find records of shortlists released prior to 1987. Fiona McFarlane, who wrote the introduction to Text’s release, says it was “commended for the Miles Franklin Award”. I wonder where that came from too. I’d love to know more about the early history of the awards. However, that’s not my concern today.
The dyehouse belongs to the tradition of social realist novels – to which Ruth Park’s Harp in the south belongs, not to mention many of the books written by our women writers of the 1920s to 1940s. It is set in a textile factory, and the Australian Women’s Weekly, reporting its publication, quoted Calthorpe as saying:
All my life I’ve just written for myself, for experiment. I started this novel when I was working in the dyehouse, simply to practise writing dialogue.
McFarlane tells us that Calthorpe was a member of the Communist Party in the 1950s, and after leaving that joined the Australian Labor Party. She was also secretary for a while of the “leftist Australasian Book Society”. It’s not surprising, then, that she wrote in the social realist style.
McFarlane says that the book received mostly favourable reviews, from the “right-wing Bulletin to the left-wing Tribune“. However, my research did uncover a less than favourable one from The Canberra Times’ reviewer “RR”. RR was rather circumspect about it, praising it with one hand and panning it with the other. S/he writes:
Despite its immaturity of style, it is an impressive piece of work—about a factory, factory workers, unsubtle seduction, and love.
Its characters range from a not-very-convincing All Black, Renshaw, to a veritable troupe of Snowy Whites. The few in-betweens, notably Oliver Henery, are the really interesting characters. They almost come to life. The story is about simple people experiencing simple emotions.
“Almost come to life”. Oh dear. Describing it as, among other things, the story of “a lovesick girl and her search for the Real Thing”, s/he says
This is trite material. That Mrs. Calthorpe makes it interesting is a tribute to her skill.
Yet the book is badly overwritten and pretentious. It needs ruthless pruning of its “literary” passages […
…] She has considerable skill as a writer, her great strength appears to be story construction. When she stops fascinating herself with her own clever prose, throws away her thesaurus, and gets down to telling a story simply, economically, and honestly she may well be a force to be reckoned with on the Australian literary scene.
Well, that final point is good isn’t it? Interestingly, when the book was republished by Hale and Iremonger in 1983, suggesting faith in it, The Canberra Times’ reviewer, author Marian Eldridge, was more positive. She ends her piece with:
Calthorpe’s views about the exploitation of people are clear but at no time does she preach at the reader. Nor does she offer pat solutions. She is too good an artist for that: through spare, clear prose and jaunty dialogue she creates a series of intermeshing situations that she lets speak for themselves. She does not probe deeply into the psychology of her diverse characters but neither has she created stereotypes.
The Dyehouse’ is a fine example of the social realist genre. Through Calthorpe’s vivid, compassionate picture of people at work we learn a great deal about the actual processes in a dyehouse, or at least one of 25 years ago. I find very satisfying a piece of fiction that both tells a good story and explains how things work.
So, Eldridge likes her prose … anyhow, that’s enough for now. I’ll say more when I read it myself!
Text’s celebration plans
Text is clearly proud of its achievement – as it should be – and is planning a multi-pronged celebration, which will hopefully also promote these books to more Australian readers. Celebratory activities include:
- events at writers festivals;
- giveaways and reader competitions;
- a revamped website including a literary map of Australia and New Zealand;
- initiatives for bookshop promotions;
- a boxed set of 100 Text Classics Postcards (thanks Text for my complimentary set); and
- a free “I could never get bored with reading” (Amy Witting) tote bag for customers buying Text Classics at participating bookshops.
If you are interested in any of these I suggest you go to their website and “become a text member”. While there you will see a special deal of 5 classics for $50. You’ll also see Text’s Top Ten classics. Guess which book is number one? Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower (my review). What a service Text has done for Australian literature by bringing this author to our attention. I wonder what great finds Text will bring to us in the next 100?
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has also written a post on this milestone.
Oh no! Because, as I explained in my first post, I booked late, I missed some events that I would love to have attended, but I was thrilled that one of my “musts” was still available, Charlotte Wood (author of The natural way of things). However, I woke up in the morning, looked at the Festival website, and saw that the session had been cancelled “due to illness”. Another headline act I’d wanted to attend, Stan Grant, had been cancelled shortly before the Festival “due to unforeseen circumstances”. Disappointing for us, and of course for the hardworking organisers, but that’s festivals isn’t it! Fortunately, I had three other sessions booked for the day and, you know, the lesser-known lights are generally just as interesting as the “stars”. It’s just that they’re, well, lesser known. And, there is a silver lining: this will now be a shorter post – for me to write and you to read – than yesterday’s magnum opus.
Nick Earls and Marion Halligan: “Modern masculinity” (hosted by Dr Christopher Chapman)
National Portrait Gallery curator, Dr Chapman, who is responsible for the Tough and Tender Exhibition, introduced authors Marion Halligan and Nick Earls, noting that both their recent books deal with boyhood and manhood. He quoted RW Connell on the hierarchy of modern masculinity and its basis in social and cultural expectations. “Alternative” males, Connell writes, are disenfranchised in the majority culture, even though the “majority” idea of masculinity doesn’t necessarily guide most men’s lives.
Halligan said she doesn’t think consciously of issues like this when writing but relies on her experience, which is of tender, kind, non-aggressive – though admittedly not always virtuous – men. The protagonist of Goodbye sweetheart who dies in the first pages – does that mean he’s the protagonist, Marion wondered aloud! – is not a good man.
Commenting on the fact that back in the 17th-18th centuries a common aspiration for men and boys was to be Robinson Crusoe – to be able to survive on their own in the wild – Earls noted that this scenario had no human contact. He writes his men at a time of challenge in their lives, at moments of reckoning, but these are often quiet moments, and involve connections with others, sometimes children. These men, like Halligan’s, have decent hearts, but make mistakes.
Halligan commented that she likes that Earls’ books are not miserable. They are not about dysfunctional families but can include moments of dysfunction. Earls confirmed this assessment, saying he wanted to write “real” families who connect with each other but for whom things sometimes go awry.
And so the discussion continued, moving fluidly, more like a conversation than a formal interview, though Chapman did inject some questions.
Halligan talked about changes in childhood between her generation and that of her grandchild, wondering about the impacts of these changes, while Earls spoke of some of the boys in his recent novella series, The wisdom tree. He talked of using an 11-12-year-old boy as a protagonist because this is the age of starting to push boundaries, of wanting to be successfully independent but also being a little fearful. He wanted the narrator of this story, NoHo, to be naive about what he was seeing. In another of the novellas, he puts a twenty-something rapper, his minder, and a 40-something rock journalist together, setting their different worldviews against each other.
Chapman asked Earls and Halligan what writers about men they liked. Earls, rather surprisingly, named Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, and Cormac McCarthy. He quickly qualified his nominations by saying he doesn’t “like” the men created by these writers but is fascinated by how they construct types of masculinity that he doesn’t relate to as a man, but that he believes and is interested in as a reader. Halligan, conversely, said she likes people who write characters like hers, writers liked William Trevor and John Banville who create muddled and not necessarily virtuous men. She does like Carver, though, for his sentences!
(I loved Halligan’s aside that she now reads on her iPad because if she buys more books she would have to move out of house! I hear you Marilyn!).
There was much more in a conversation that wove naturally between real life experiences and the writing of fiction, not surprising in authors who base their fiction in contemporary life. The audience Q&A continued this flavour. Some questions furthered the “literary” discussion, looking at whether the archetypal hero can encompass wider conceptions of masculine and feminine qualities and, more generally, at the challenge of constructing characters. Other questions moved into the personal. Earls discussed parenting. What do you keep and what reject from previous generations’ practices? And, of course, this topic couldn’t be discussed without some reference to the impact of feminism on the growing confidence in girls and increasing confusion about roles and expectations for boys.
A final point nicely made was that authors can create fluidity in gender roles, which must surely contribute to the wider conversation.
Kim Mahood (with Gia Metherell)
Interviewer, and ex-Canberra Times literary editor, Gia Metherell commenced by telling us that the focus of her session with author and artist Kim Mahood would be her recently published memoir, Position doubtful. She started by quoting Susan Wyndham’s recent description of Mahood:
On the morning I meet the artist and writer Kim Mahood, she has driven her ute nonstop for 1000 kilometres on her way home to Canberra from the Tanami Desert in Western Australia, a journey she has made back and forth across the continent for more than 20 years with the compulsion of a migrating bird.
A small, lean figure with a dry sense of humour, unfazed by flat tyres and solitude, Mahood seems honed for no-frills survival. Cleaning out her vehicle after the long drive with her dog, Pirate, she found a wire used for digging out witchetty grubs, a tomahawk and remnants of cooked kangaroo tail. Yet her conversation and her creative work have the subtle eloquence of an urban intellectual.
OK, including quotes like this is going make this post longer than planned. Sorry folks, but this such an apposite description. Although Kim Mahood spends part of her life in my region, I hadn’t really heard of her until I read her eye-opening piece, “Blow-ins on the cold desert wind”, in The invisible thread. She spent much of her childhood on a cattle station in the Tanami Desert. That station is now owned by indigenous people, but in adulthood Mahood returned to the area and now shares her time between there and here.
Much of the conversation focused on her experience of and relationship to land – as an artist and as a white person spending time in indigenous communities. It made for a very thoughtful development of ideas that are currently circulating contemporary Australian thought (and explored in such books as Bill Gamma’s The greatest estate on earth). Mahood thinks that landscapes enter us at a physiological level, particularly those landscapes we experience when young. She talked about different layers of knowing the land – traditional, pastoral, sacred/ritual.
And this of course brought us to that uncomfortable issue in contemporary Australia: how we non-indigenous people, who also call this country home, understand our own relationship to the land we “usurped” or “took up”. Mahood is living this challenge. She described not knowing how to respond when she returned to her old home; she felt stripped of her knowledge and identity (which, of course, is how indigenous people would have felt when the land was originally taken from them). How do white people make connections with land they love without disenfranchising indigenous people? You do it, she said, by putting yourself in their hands. It takes time, and you have to become “less precious about stuff”, like your car! Anyhow, this issue and this solution are the central ideas of her book.
Her book’s title captures this conundrum. “Position doubtful” has a literal meaning which describes places that cannot be definitively placed on maps, but it also works as a metaphor capturing her uncertainty. This reference to maps neatly segued us to mapping, Mahood’s art and indigenous art – and how these relate to understanding of land, of country. Mahood talked of a mapmaking project designed to help geologist Jim Bowler (he of Lake Mungo fame) research evidence about ancient climates in the area. The Tanami, she said, has no permanent water, but the entire landscape is marked by water. Occasional massive rainfalls can reactivate its “deep past” landscape.
Metherell asked whether indigenous art can work as maps. Mahood was measured in her response, but said that yes, orientations of places to each other are right, but that these paintings “embody” experience. They are complex “maps” that encompass stories, they are open, unfinished documents.
And here I’m going to make this post a little longer again by sharing part of the reading Mahood gave from her book. She’s describing doing a painting:
… the edge of the cliffs breaks against the sky like a wave. I score it with hard strokes of the brush, an emphatic horizontal line that differentiates my approach from the local aboriginal concentration on ground and surface. This seems important. Although my own perceptions have undergone all sorts of modifications, I know the horizon is more than a visual dimension. It is as much a symbol in its way as the concentric circles that indicate sites and routes, and it’s a symbol to which I can lay claim. The horizon is one of the perceptual fault lines that runs between white and Aboriginal ways of understanding country …
She discussed the intersection between local knowledge and scientific knowledge. For indigenous people, the people have to be healthy for the country to be healthy, whereas scientists look at “fixing” the environment. There is a very deep gap in ideas of causality. Maps, she believes, can bring the two ways of thinking together.
At some point Mahood said that she writes better than she talks. Hmm, I know exactly how she feels, except she was completely articulate and has no need for uncertainty on this front!
But, I think I’ll stop here. It was a deeply satisfying session. I hope that I’ve given you a flavour – and a sense of what you missed by not being there! Yes, I know, I probably missed some other wonderful session – but that’s the nature of festivals isn’t it? The point is to be satisfied with what you decide to go to – and I was.
I’ll just close with a brief reference to terminology. The Walmajarri people with whom she works call white people kartiya. She commented that we don’t in Australia have a single term to describe non-indigenous people the way they New Zealanders have, for example. She wishes we did, so we don’t have to be referred to as “non” (that is, “non-indigenous”).
Oh, and she described Position doubtful as a love story. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Jennifer Rayner and Omar Musa, Generation less (with Laura White)
My final session of the festival was probably also my most overtly political, as its focus was Jennifer Rayner’s book Generation less in which she explores her theory that her generation (she was born in 1986) will be the first generation in 80 years to be worse off than its parents. When her parents were her age, she said, they had a house, stable jobs, and a superannuation scheme under way. We are facing a time of reducing opportunity for young people, she argued, and if we don’t do something about it, everyone will be worse off.
Departing from my more usual chronological reporting, I’m going to start with a comment I heard as I was leaving the theatre. The person, around my age, said to her companion, “I really just wanted to hear him talk because he’s such an interesting character”. Hmmm … if this was referring to Omar Musa versus Jennifer Rayner, which I presume it was, then was the hidden message here that she didn’t much engage with the rest of what she heard? Certainly, the two – also of a certain age – who were sitting behind me didn’t seem to, as they left partway after quite a bit of muttering between themselves. Of course, it may be that they had an important dinner engagement to get ready for. But enough of that, let me get back to my report …
Because, the point is that Rayner’s thesis can be confronting to us of the baby-boomer generation. It would be easy to get defensive, except, as members of the audience pointed out, many of us have children in her generation and are seeing firsthand of what she speaks. Rayner admitted that she was expecting quite a backlash, but for this reason she has more often got understanding and a desire to do something.
Despite the dry-sounding nature of all this, it was in fact a lively and engaging session. Poet-rapper Omar Musa (also author of a novel, Here come the dogs) of course helped here. His intensely serious, but humorous, approach to what he does injected lightness, while also underpinning the importance of the concerns being discussed. He introduced himself by performing his hard-hitting poem, “My generation”.
His concerns are a little different to those of Rayner’s but they intersect. He is particularly interested in the disenfranchisement or disengagement of younger people, particularly of young “minority” men who don’t have the purpose of their immigrant parents. They feel disengaged from Canberra’s policy-makers.
Musa’s focus is people not usually written about, he said. Race, class, gender issues cause friction, he said, and create a combustible society. Feminism has a strong place, but for young men there is a “toxic masculinity”, and an inclination to see them as perpetrators. But they’re human beings too, he argued, and he wanted to humanise them in his novel.
So, the session shifted pretty easily between Rayner’s logical, evidence-based commentary, and Musa’s arts-based one. Rayner defined the issues confronting her generation as having three prongs: Work, Wealth and Well-being. In a nutshell, this means that (and she supported it with relevant data):
- WORK: It is harder for young people to achieve stable jobs in the workforce, and wage inequality between ages is increasing
- WEALTH: Her generation is “worth” less than her parents’ at the same age
- WELLBEING: Her generation doesn’t have kids as early, doesn’t partner up as early, stay at home longer, all of which affects their emotional development and thus wellbeing.
Rayner said she grew up in the optimism of the Hawke era, while Musa talked of the disconnect between Keating who had a vision for the future, seeing the best Australia as ahead of us, and Howard who looked back to the halcyon days of the 1950s.
Rayner admitted that those young people who have gone to university are on a path – a slower path than the past, but they have one. Her main concern is the other 60% for whom there are fewer entry-level jobs and who end up doing insecure often “cobbled together” work. It is particularly here that Rayner and Musa saw parallels between their books. Those currently worse off are young men who drop out of school early. They become “badly dispossessed” such as the housepainter in Musa’s novel. Musa was inspired by Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap, he said, except that Tsiolkas is about the middle class while his is the aspirational or working class in a changing cultural landscape.
(At some point here, Musa laughingly praised Rayner as being “so articulate”. She certainly knew her stuff, but Musa, though seeming to be briefly thrown on a couple of occasions, is no slouch – and was certainly not “put out”. They just had to work at times to find idea-connections in terms of their respective approaches!)
It wasn’t all negative though. Discussion also focused on solutions. These are mostly institutional and structural, said Rayner, because the problem has been caused by policies that have been put into place over years. Young people need to be part of the conversation, alongside business councils, seniors’ organisations and unions, for example.
She said that economic insecurity is at the base of the problem, and housing is the defining issue in terms of health and well-being. The 25-35-year-old group is struggling to buy their first homes, she said. Musa said don’t look at him. “I’m a poet, I’m not into economics”. We laughed!
Anyhow, Rayner said that her book is based on hard data, and she (aligned with the ALP, she disclosed), wants good evidence-based public policy. But, what can we do? Rayner had some answers: vote for policies that will address the inequities, such as policies reforming negative-gearing and capital gains tax, policies that increase access to apprenticeships and those improving security for workers. There are also practical things, like not taking advantage of injurious policies. There are, in other words, moral choices we can make now – as well as when we cast our vote every three years. Later, she also referred to the increasing and successful, use of citizen juries – made up of a random group of people – to feed ideas into policy development, as another solution.
Musa’s solution was, as you’d expect, more personal. Listen to young people, he said, understand their stories in complex and nuanced ways, not by reverting to stereotypical views. Such listening demonstrates an openness to reconsidering our assumptions. He referred to Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie who refers to the danger of the single narrative. Poetry in Australia, he said, is now being taken up by other races – it’s no longer the domain of white middle class poets – and he hopes the thoughts and ideas of this generation of poets will start to feed into the public forum. “The arts and storytelling will save us!” he argued with passion,
There was more, including a detailed discussion of Musa’s novel, his exploration of the “messiness of the clash between class and agendas”, and his wish to show tension, not resolve it.
Then, I guess, came a real point of difference between the two. Musa wants a more radical shift. He suggested that talking about house-buying is no longer relevant, that there are those who, considering issues like climate change, want a different life and world. Rayner agreed there has been some shift in what young people value, that they can be less consumerist, but she believes most still want what their parents wanted, and that they should have the option.
The session concluded with another performed poem by Musa. It was one of his more positive ones he said. It started, “Let me tell you about a father and son feud” and ended with
Trying to be a better me
Can’t say better than that.
… and here ended my festival. I plan a little recap post in a few days – if I can marshall my thoughts together. In the meantime, a huge thanks to the organisers, volunteers, supporters and sponsors. It was a wonderful event and I was thrilled to hear that it will be back next year. Put August 25-27 in your diaries now folks!
Let’s get the guilt admission over first. I ditched the session I’d paid for this afternoon to attend three free events. I reckon I got my money’s worth. I did this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I didn’t realise that the afternoon event – on adapting a book (Rosalie Hamm’s The dressmaker) to film – occupied the whole afternoon. I’ve read the book, seen the film, and had seen Rosalie Hamm at my morning (paid) event, so decided that would suffice in the face of other temptations. Secondly, that event was on the other side of the lake and, having found a parking spot with a little challenge in the NLA precinct, I didn’t feel like losing it. Finally, there were two events at the NLA that I really wanted to see, and I couldn’t do them all. Such is life!
Now, a couple of warnings. Today’s post will be longer than yesterday’s, as I attended more sessions. Ignore, skim, or read it all. Your choice. I won’t know. And, while I did my best to take good notes, I may have skewed the odd thing. It’s hard to listen, reflect and take notes in these thoughtful, vibrant sessions.
Morning Tea (at Hotel Realm) with Marion Halligan and Rosalie Hamm, introduced by Karen Viggers
This was a lovely way to start the day. We got to sit down at tables, with food and drink (self-served from a buffet), and be entertained by three writers. They, however, I was sorry to see, had to stand!
Using the tried-and-true format, session chair Karen Viggers, herself an author, posed a number of questions to Halligan and Hamm. There were those expected questions – like how did you come to be a writer, where do you get your ideas from, how do you go about writing – as well as some more specifically geared to Halligan and Hamm. The answers were lively, sometimes humorous, and all worth hearing, but I’ll just share a selected few.
Both talked about how they see stories all around them, how everything they see has potential. And that, dear readers, is why they’re the writers and I’m the reader! Anyhow, Hamm said that her novels start with an idea, with “whatever is up my nose”, and that she’s currently into questioning verities. The novel she is writing now questions accepted views about irrigation. If it doesn’t work, she said, she’ll return to family squabbles!
Concerning the process of writing, Halligan, unlike Hamm who starts with a synopsis of her story, said she doesn’t know where her stories will go when she starts. She quoted author Rodney Hall who said that the way to take your reader on a journey is to go on one yourself. And anyhow, she said, plots, as her readers know, are not the essential thing – which is perfectly fine with me.
The conversation also turned to death, grief and loss which both have written about. Halligan talked about losing her husband in 1998, and how she saw everything through grief. People tell you time heals, she said, but grief is always there, tucked away in a little corner. (She’s right, it is.) She told how her novel The fog garden was her response to her husband’s death, but its sex scenes were too much for her publisher, Penguin. They weren’t for Allen & Unwin, so she’s been with them ever since! Her latest novel, Goodbye sweetheart, is all about death – about reactions to death, and secrets.
Both writers said more about grief, death and sex, but what was said in the room stays in the room. Instead, we’ll move on to Viggers follow-on question from Halligan’s comment re secrets. Why are secrets so good in novels, she asked. I loved Hamm’s simple, to-the-point answer. It’s because, she said, they relate to power. (Yes, of course.) She has seen the way secrets work in life this way – in staff rooms, for example, and sports clubs, and country towns (in which she grew up)!
There was more conversation, but I’ll share just one other insight and that’s Halligan’s comment that she has to like her characters. If you don’t like them, she said, why should your readers? I’d love to have followed this up in terms of that common complaint from readers that they don’t like a book because they don’t like the characters. Did their authors like them I wonder? I suspect that what an author means by “like” and what some readers mean may be two different things? Anyhow, question time ran out – and so has my time on this event (engaging as it was). Let’s move on …
Waking the Dead: Paul Daley, Sulari Gentill, Ros Russell
This session was a very different kettle of fish. Chaired by NLA curator Robyn Holmes, its aim was to explore how authors use archival/historical materials in their writings. She, like Vigggers above, had come armed with a good set of questions – and the answers were considered, sometimes provocative, and more than I could perfectly capture.
For those who don’t know them, Paul Daley and Ros Russell are Canberra-based, Daley being a journalist and writer of fiction and non-fiction, and Russell an historian who has also written a novel. Sulari Gentill is a writer of historical crime fiction.
Holmes started by asking what “waking the dead”, that is, exploring archival materials, meant to them. Daley said it meant looking for voices that will drive the narrative, such as for his current project, a novel about the impact of 1930s-1940s anthropologists on black-white relations in Australia. Russell agreed, saying that for her latest history, High seas and high teas, she looked through diaries for voices to animate the story. She said that she often finds evidence that overturns some of her perceptions while confirming others.
Gentill, on the other hand, said she looks for holes in history, for the gaps where she can “make stuff up”. (The audience laughed.) Historical fiction, she said, is about writing “plausible tales” about what might have happened which gives insight into what did happen. (I like this.) It’s about playing in the shadows.
Holmes then asked about how collections determine the direction of their writing? Daley said, among other things, that every time he goes into an archive he comes back with five more book ideas! Russell talked of how archives can take you in directions you hadn’t expected when you started. A mundane diary, for example, can suddenly include a surprising story that you decide to feature.
The ever-humorous Gentill told us that her husband is a 1930s historian, which is the era she writes in. “I married my collection”, she announced! She doesn’t research in advance, but as she goes. She talked about the newspaper articles (found in Trove – yes!) that she includes in her novels’ chapter headings. Using them is her response to publishers telling her that she’d taken things too far. Those things were always things that had actually happened she said. But, you lose readers, she said, if they think you’ve gone too far – hence the newspaper “proof”.
Daley also referred to this issue of believability when he said that research can provide details like names and practices of the time, the sort of detail that gives authenticity. And later in the session, Russell also mentioned the importance of research to underpinning plausibility. It was critical for her historical fiction book, Maria returns, that she find a Barbados plantation owner who was also an abolitionist. She did!
Regarding the sorts of resources that can best bring stories to life, Russell mentioned unexpected places like government papers and reports. You have to cast your net widely, she said, to find the stories that illuminate. Daley said he loves photographic collections, and used his current research into 1930s/40s anthropologists as an example. He found a trophy-like photograph of American anthropologist Frank Setzler posed with human remains. This helped him write his composite character, because he felt he could see from the photo what the anthropologist was thinking.
Gentill said that she attracted primary resources, that historians send her materials that fit the period she writes in. She hasn’t experienced, she said, the oft-talked about historian-historical fiction writer divide. She also said that since, fundamentally, she writes about people, she relies on her own memory archive, her experiences and knowledge of people.
Gentill said that she makes up her protagonists, but often uses real people for her secondary characters. She always makes sure that she doesn’t say anything more heinous about the person than the historical record shows, but the rest she makes up. And here she said something beautifully clarifying: her aim is not to present an absolute or rounded version of an historical person but an angle or perspective of that person that is true. In other words, she presents that person, let’s say, Earle Page, from the perspective of her character, who may not like that person. It is not a complete picture of Page, but an aspect of Page as experienced by her character.
There was much more – writing about place, using oral histories, and the like – but I’ll close with two final topics. One concerns blurring the line between fiction and history. Gentill said that she is a fiction writer and that her whole purpose is to blur the line. The fiction writer’s job, she argued, is to give a bit of history by stealth – which is another issue I’d liked to have explored further. Daley said that his non-fiction writing is “true” and based on archival research, but in his fiction he can be more creative, such as messing with dates to make a story work. I’ve heard other writers say this. Seems fair enough to me, because I know I’m reading fiction, but will all readers who are getting their “history by stealth” make the distinction between historical “facts” that are played with (messed around) and the “truths” that are the writer’s real story?
And finally, there was a discussion about ethical responsibilities. Russell said that historians must not distort what they find, must be true to their sources, but that she always looks out for things that might say something different to the prevailing narrative. Somewhat similarly, Daley said that if something confronts his preconceptions he must address it. For example, in his current anthropological research, he was assuming he’d find a cruel man, but he found a kind one. This will affect his narrative.
Gentill said she looks for other perspectives to the prevailing ones, that she likes to find people who have been forgotten, but who are interesting. (I guess these are minorities, the “little” people, the women, and so on?) She sees this as doing a service to Australians.
All in all, it was a thoroughly engrossing session and I’m glad I decided to attend it.
Richard Begbie’s Cotter: A novel (launched by Tim Begbie and Jack Waterford)
I had not planned to attend this session, but given my decision to not go over the lake, I had an hour to fill between the two sessions I’d flagged, and so decided to attend this session launching an historical novel set in the Canberra area. I was glad I did, because I learnt something more about this region I call home.
Cotter: A novel tells of the local early nineteenth century settler family – after whom our lovely Cotter River is named – and their relationship with indigenous people of the region. Garrett Cotter, an Irishman from Cork, arrived in Australia in 1828, and became friendly with the local indigenous chief Honyong. He formed a good relationship with Honyong, but was also, of course, part of “the inexorable forces” which led eventually to the dispossession of Honyong and his people. Retired editor of The Canberra Times, Jack Waterford, who helped launch the book, described it as “a well-written book of our country, our neighbourhood and a good yarn”.
Richard Begbie told us that he had researched the book intensively with the ancestors of both the indigenous people and the Cotters, and said there had recently been an event – not a launch – at which both groups had got together to renew a friendship that had been initiated 200 years ago.
He gave a brief reading from his novel of the moment when Cotter, working on the farm owned by the (also still local) Kenny family, first met Hongyong. It sounds like an engaging read written by someone who knows this area well.
In conversation: Melinda Bobis “Love, climate and the politics of care” (with Lucy Neave)
I should explain here that the Festival’s theme – fitting to our national capital setting – is Power, Politics, Passion. Consequently, there are several sessions involving political writers and journalists. Merlinda Bobis, however, is not one of them, but she is highly political, and politics underpinned much of this session, which was conducted thoughtfully by author Lucy Neave.
For those of you who don’t know her, Bobis, whose novel Fish-hair woman I’ve reviewed, is a Philippine-born trilingual poet, novelist, performer, scholar and retired academic. Leave explained that the session would focus on two of her novels – Fish-hair woman (woo-hoo) and her latest one, Locust girl: a love song – and would explore how we tell stories and the politics of caring. Politics, you see! Like Waking the dead, this session was full-on, so will be hard to condense, but condense it I will – which means omitting a lot.
Bobis gave a couple of readings and included “performance elements” – singing and chanting – in the process. Lucky us. Neave asked why she performed, and her answer was a practical one. She arrived in Australia as a published poet, but could not get published here. She started performing her poems, and found that people listened. Then she started dancing. Her strategy, she said, suddenly became an art form!
I enjoyed the discussion of Fish-hair woman because while I felt I’d grasped its main meaning, I knew there were things I’d not fully comprehended. She talked about hair as a metaphor for memory, with memory here being mainly of trauma, grief and loss. She reminded us how grief and trauma can can turn hair white or even cause hair loss, but she inverts this in her novel and has Estrella’s hair keep on growing as the losses build.
Fish-hair woman is also a novel also about writing a novel and, because it contains both Philippine and Australian stories, it is about collaborative story-telling and grieving, and about not privileging one group, one grief, over another. Do we grieve for losses equally, she asked, referring to philosopher Judith Butler’s work on the politics of grievability, on differential grieving. Whose losses, whose stories do we validate? Is an Arab body mourned equally to a Western one? And here, you see, we were at politics again, the politics of mourning.
Bobis talked about our current political climate and the politics of fear. She argued that we need to encompass a new story, the politics of care. She referred to new indigenous MP Linda Burney’s statement that she’ll bring grace and kindness to parliament. Not a soft kindness, said Bobis, but kindness with spine!
She discussed how we define politics in terms of governance, or talk about it in terms of the personal being the political, but to her politics is feeling, thinking, doing. The central question of Fish-hair woman is, she said, how much can the heart accommodate. Can it accommodate even those we don’t love?
Locust girl continues and extends these concerns to how we care and love across borders. It’s about countering the politics of fear with the politics of love, extending the question of how much can the heart accommodate to how do you care for other. While Fish-hair woman has its hair metaphor, here it is the locust, which stands for extreme other, for fighting against demonising other.
Neave then led the discussion on to the environment. Bobis said that in Fish-hair woman, which is set during the 1987 Philippine government’s war against communist insurgents, she was worried about river. She said war is an environmental issue, it damages the planet. Locust girl is set in the desert, which represents climate change, the loss of water, a place where nothing grows, the drying of the human heart, and that there will be environmental refugees. (I hope I’ve got all this Locust girl stuff right, as I haven’t read it.)
She and Neave talked about projects they are working on, separately or together – in Spain, Philippines, Singapore – because writing is not enough. Bobis called it developing a creative arts practice in which storytelling becomes action.
Some interesting ideas came out of the Q&A at the end. I particularly liked her response to a question about her use of magical realism which is, she said, her favourite device. It’s part of her culture to believe that there is another world, but magical realism can also be seen as a post-colonial strategy, as a way of challenging the real, of challenging our established worldview.
Another question concerned how the imagination might relate to the politics of caring. Bobis said we need to imagine scenarios: “imagine this, and if this happens, what do you do”. We must give multiple imaginings to parliament she said, and if something has already happened, we must ask what can we imagine to address it.
She concluded by reading a love poem from her new poetry collection. Looking up from her paper, and looking directly but warmly at us, she read the last line: “there is hope for us”. What more can I say?
Well folks, finally we have another writers festival here in Canberra. From 1983 to 2001, we had something called the Word Festival (though its name varied a little over the time). Since then, to the best of my knowledge, we’ve only had the one-off Canberra Readers’ Festival (on which I posted) in 2012, so it was a thrill to hear many months ago that a Writers Festival was once again in the offing – and now it is here. I do hope there are plans for it to continue. If today’s buzz is evidence of success then I hope the organisers are feeling positive about future events.
However, here’s the thing. This year has been a topsy-turvy one for me, so I didn’t book a season ticket, and missed out on a couple of events that I would like to have attended, but that’s no biggie. I’ve booked some appealing events and look forward to those. Today, though, due to other commitments, I decided to just attend a couple of free afternoon events (so I missed, for example, Anne Summers). Oh well, I can’t do everything, and I know that whatever I choose to do I will enjoy. I’m easy that way!
Carmel Bird’s Family Skeleton (launched by Marion Halligan)
I’ve written about Carmel Bird and Marion Halligan before, when Bird launched Halligan’s Goodbye sweetheart. I realised then, and it was clear again today, that they are good friends. So when they launch each other’s books which they’ve done for each other a couple of times now, there’s no formality or stiffness, and they almost make it up as they go, making for a delightfully relaxed but nonetheless meaningful launch.
I won’t summarise the whole launch but just share a couple of points that struck me. First though, something about the book. It’s a black comedy – which, if you’ve read Bird, wouldn’t surprise you – and is largely narrated by a skeleton. It is about the O’Day family, and particularly about Margaret, the family’s widowed, wealthy matriarch. The epigraph, by Bird’s fictional character Carrillo Mean who provides all her epigraphs, goes like this: “The Storyteller knows what the Storyteller knows, and the Storyteller tells what the Storyteller tells”. But, said Halligan, does the Storyteller tell all that he knows? I think this is a book for me, so I’ve bought it.
And so the launch proceeded, with a couple of expressive readings by Bird, and engaging repartee between Bird and Halligan about Bird’s love of words and the naming of characters; her inspiration for the novel (which was seeing an Edwardian hearse on a country road in Victoria); and death, sex and butterflies, and whether the novel’s butterflies are a trope or a motif! I’m not a creative writing specialist, said Bird airily, passing off this issue! Fair enough. Leave that to the reviewers!
There was a lot more, but what I mainly wanted to share was Bird’s statement that she is always “looking for virtue” in her novels. That made us all sit up. Novels, she said, always explore evil, because evil is more interesting than goodness, but the end point of it all is always “where is the good, where is the hope?” An audience question had her clarify this a little further by saying this hope could for things like goodness, reason, happiness, beauty. I immediately thought of those grim, depressing books that many readers feel have none of this, like, for example, Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (my review) – and the fact that in most of those books I do usually find a hint of hope. I can’t help thinking that most writers are like Bird, that is, that they want to end with some little bit of positivity, even when they also want us to remember the serious issue they are exploring.
Crawley: UWA Publishing 2016
Nicholas Hasluck’s The Bradshaw case (launched by himself)
A completely different kettle of fish was the launch of Nicholas Hasluck’s The Bradshaw case, partly because he launched it himself and partly because it’s a very different sort of book – a fact-based courtroom drama about contemporary political issues regarding native title.
I haven’t read Hasluck before, though he’s won The Age Book of the Year and been shortlisted twice for the Miles Franklin Award. The packed room for his launch was evidence of his renown I’d say.
Again, I’m not going to going to summarise the whole session. He started by telling us he was launching a “device” called a book, in which thoughts and images could be conjured up in your mind from the pages you read. We all liked that, of course.
His book, he said, mixes fact and fiction. It explores, via a court case, some controversial issues about the origin of rock art in the Kimberley and how this plays out in terms of native title. He provided quite a lot of background about the rock art at the centre of this controversy – the Bradshaw images and the Wandjina images – a controversy I’ve come across in some of our outback Australia holidays. Hasluck was inspired to write his novel by the ambiguity surrounding this. But this is not what I want to share here.
What I was particularly interested in was some of his general comments regarding novels and history. Novels, he said, can both cast a light on what happened in the past and on what is said about the past now. They can explore (expose?) contested versions of the past.
Commenting on his use of fiction to tell this story, he said “give a man a mask and he will tell the truth”. I like that – as regular readers here who’ve read me on truth and fiction would expect. He also said that he chose fiction because he’s not an expert in the area and that many specialists have, and are, going the non-fiction path.
Discussing the question of how readers should approach the fact-fiction nexus of historical fiction, he said that the author-reader contract is that readers will assume everything they are told is true. (Note that he didn’t say “factual”). He hopes that people, once intrigued by something they’ve read in fiction, might then question what they’ve read and do their own research. This brought us back to the central controversy about the images, and what this means for indigenous people – and it resulted in his making a statement that, like Bird’s regarding looking for virtue, made me sit up. He said that the odd thing about Australian literature is that novels are not seen as part of current debates, unlike the USA, where works by Gore Vidal and Thomas Wolfe (Bonfire of the vanities), for example, do enter such debates. Australians, he said, see fiction as something quite separate. I’d love to know what others think about this claim – but for me, again, it made me think of Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things and the contribution she clearly wanted to make to the misogyny debate.
The issue we didn’t really discuss, though it was touched on, concerns indigenous Austrlians’ reaction to this story being told this way by a non-indigenous writer. All Hasluck said on this point was that his book is about “cultural integrity”. It will be interesting to see.
The Bradshaw case
North Melbourne: Arcadia, 2016
STOP PRESS: AS Patric’s debut novel Black rock white city has just been announced the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Congratulations to him! Another book for the TBR!
In my recent review of Robyn Cadwallader’s The anchoress, I included very few quotes or excerpts to show her writing. Somehow my post ended up in other directions. But, she had some wonderful ways of describing the world she created, and I’d like to share one aspect to demonstrate this.
Locked away in her cell, Sarah had to rely on her senses, particularly hearing, to experience and understand her world. I greatly enjoyed Cadwallader’s descriptions of people’s voices.
Sarah’s first confessor-advisor, was old Father Peter:
His voice, though old and weary, was blue-green behind the black curtain, like the quiet water where the river deepens beyond the mill. Sometimes I didn’t hear the meaning of his words but let them float away, the murmur of flowing water calming me.
Gorgeous, isn’t it? (And this is how I often read “difficult” books – I let the words flow over me, rather than worry at them, and they often make sense, eventually.)
And here is young Father Ranaulf, fairly early in Sarah’s enclosure when she is starting to get into self-destructive behaviours, believing she’s following the advice of a past (now dead) anchoress:
Agnes? Guiding you? What do you mean? His voice had the edge of a plough blade, blunt but cutting.
Father Ranaulf for much of the novel comes across to Sarah as inflexible – because he is – but he starts to shift as people help him understand, empathise with, Sarah and her life. So, here he is later in the novel bringing her some, well, rather subversive papers:
Father Ranaulf’s voice sounds like stone that will not crumble. I have resented it, wanted to shout and scream at it, shake his dry words until they lose their order and their certainty. But that day, the day he brought the pages, his voice had tiny grains in it, specks of sand that shifted as he spoke, as if uncertain where to settle.
Of course, it’s not just the sound of the voices that are important to Sarah, but the words themselves. Well into the novel, Sarah hears the village men talking in the church about the Lord’s plans for using the common land that is critical to their livelihood:
Words were coloured grey and brown and black, with quick touches of red. Gradually, I recognised the men’s voices from what their wives had told me about them.
And one last one. It comes when Sarah is starting to realise what the Lord, Thomas, has been up to:
Thomas had returned to Friaston, but his words clung to the stones.
Given the importance of stones in the mediaeval world, the consistency of this imagery works really well to evoke Sarah’s world and her experience of it. It also contributes to our understanding of her character. Similarly, Cadwallader uses birds throughout the novel to convey some of her themes – freedom from body, freedom of the spirit, aspiration and risk. But that’s another story, which I’ll leave for you to discover.
Who is Arnold Haskell you are probably asking, if you are anything like me. The answer will probably surprise you: he was a British dance critic, who wrote many books on ballet, and was, in fact, involved in the development of the Royal Ballet School. But, he also visited Australia a couple of times, first in 1936, as a publicist-reporter with the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet. He returned to Australia in 1938 to research his book Waltzing Matilda: a background to Australia, which was published in England in 1940 (though not published in Australia until 1944). And guess where I found this book? Yep, in my aunt’s house.
So, he visited Australia a couple of times before the Second World War, but his book was published during the war. I find that quite fascinating – who would be interested in what is really a travel book in such abnormal times? (I looked at the records for this book in Trove. There are several editions: most are categorised as “description and travel”, but some as “civilisation” and “history”. I think the former is better, but it just goes to show that categorisation is never easy!)
Anyhow, here is how he starts his Introduction:
I happened on Australia four years ago, at four days’ notice and by complete accident. Had I been given a week’s notice I probably would not have come at all. I was completely, even aggressively uninterested in that continent. … When I let my friends know where I was going, they said “Why?” which did not encourage me, and left me speechless for once.
His lack of interest wouldn’t surprise Australians who are aware that for the British, particularly at that time, we Australians were simply colonials, and had nothing of interest to offer, and particularly nothing for those who saw themselves as sophisticated. Haskell saw Australia, for example, as offering “hospitality, hearty but uncouth”. He says in this first paragraph that he was “bribed” to accept the trip, partly by the work (the ballet company) and partly by the opportunity to visit Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Honolulu, en route. Harrumph!
However, he “became … enchanted”, and so returned later for 6 months to see more. As there were no books that described Australia in the way he as a traveller wanted, he decided to write it himself:
Australia, in comfort at all costs, in luxury if possible; Australia, stressing the modern plumbing in the most modern hotel in Sydney rather than the lack of plumbing in the dead centre [had he visited his own counties I wonder?]; recounting the lives, thoughts and works of many eminent painters rather than the pathetic state of the rapidly dwindling aboriginal; in fact to write of Australia as one writes of Europe or America: positively and without the eternally negative point of view.
It would be easy for us to take exception to this, but it’s more interesting to read it as a reflection of (a certain segment of) the times, and as something that can provide insight into the world as it was then. And anyhow, he goes on to say that he want to trace
the evolution of a society from brutality and chaos to as perfect an expression of ordered democracy as can be found, to show the amazingly rapid transition from an unhappy group of felons, often not so bad, and their gaolers, often not so good, of overbearing petty Himmlers and dictator governors to a civilised community of amazingly tolerant people living in a country freer from crimes of violence than any other, in a continent that has never known the hatred, violence, hypocrisy and destructiveness of Europe.
Ah, it would be lovely to pat our own backs at this, except that we know that there has been violence here. It just wasn’t spoken of back then.
He goes on, completely oblivious to Australia’s long history of occupation by indigenous people, talking about how Australia’s history is still mainly a “family tradition rather than history”, one in which “I remembers” have not yet made it into “the ordered framework of text-books and university courses”. Again, although his view is myopic, I love this way of describing the “short” history as he saw it.
However, his book is not, he says, a history but a personal story which he hopes will “provide the background” that he found lacking.
I will come back to this book, I think, because as well as travelling around the states, he also did some of his own primary research checking letters, manuscripts etc to obtain his own perspective. It should make for fascinating reading … but for now, I’m tired folks, so signing off with a shorter than usual one!
Let me start by saying that I’m not a big reader of historical fiction, and particularly not of non-Australian historical fiction, so to read a novel set in mediaeval times is quite a departure for me. However, I did want to read Robyn Cadwallader’s The anchoress for a number of reasons. Not only is Cadwallader an Australian writer living in the outskirts of my city, but we did meet a couple of years ago for a lovely lunch when she was in the throes of negotiating the publication of this book in three countries! And, besides this, the topic was so intriguing. I’m not a mediaevalist and had never heard of anchoresses and anchorholds before. It’s taken me sometime to get to it, but I finally have.
Now, one of the reasons I don’t jump to historical fiction is that I’ve tended to see it in terms of bodice-rippers and romances, and these don’t really interest me. But, The anchoress is not such a story. I don’t read back cover blurbs before I read books but towards the end of this book, as I was trying to guess where it might be going, I did look at the back, not because I wanted to know the end – because I didn’t – but because I was intrigued about how this book that was teasing me was marketed. The last sentence of the blurb is that the book is “both quietly heartbreaking and thrillingly unpredictable”. This reassured me that it wasn’t likely to go where a “genre” novel would probably go. Does that make sense?
So, the plot. It tells the story of Sarah, a young 17-year-old girl who, after some traumatic experiences including the death of a loved sister in childbirth, asks to be enclosed as an anchoress. This means she agrees to spend the rest of her life in a small stone cell, essentially “dead to the world”, tended to by a maid through a window in the wall and visited by a priest who will provide guidance and take her confession. Her support is paid for by a patron, the local Lord. She is given a Rule book as her guide, and is expected to provide advice to village women. Sarah’s story is told first person but, interspersed with hers – in shorter third person chapters – is the story of young, inexperienced Father Ranaulf, her priest-advisor-confessor. And so the stage is set for – well, we don’t quite know what.
As the story progresses, all sorts of narrative possibilities present themselves. Will she stay (like Sister Agnes) or leave (like Sister Isabella)? How will her relationship with Father Ranaulf develop? And why did Sarah really decide on this rather extreme course for her life (because, of course, there is a reason)? These all have the potential for melodrama or cliche, but Cadwallader keeps it grounded. There is drama – a fire – but even it is downplayed in the service of Cadwallader’s bigger themes rather than generating page-turning excitement.
However, it’s not plot that draws me in my reading, but character, themes and language. And here the main characters are well-drawn. The story takes place over the period of a year or so. At the beginning Sarah is an idealistic young anchoress, keen to do it right. She takes seriously her decision with the uncompromising enthusiasm typical of a young person, and so is determined to be disciplined. She allows herself no pleasure, not even some tasty food donated by the villagers, despite advice that this level of self-denial is not expected, and moves into self-flagellation. Over the course of the novel she comes to a more realistic understanding of what being “holy” might mean, and of what she needs to survive her chosen role. Father Ranaulf is also young and inexperienced, which results, initially, in stiff, black-and-white responses to Sarah. Over time, he too comes to a more humane understanding of her and of his role as her advisor. I’m almost tempted to call it a mediaeval coming-of-age story as these two young people come to a maturer world view. Anyhow, it’s nicely and realistically done.
There are other characters of course – Sarah’s maids, villagers who visit Sarah, various priests, and Sarah’s patron and local Lord, the somewhat cliched Sir Thomas. These are less rounded but they enrich the picture Cadwallader paints of mediaeval life, and contribute to the story-line.
“Body without a body”
“True anchoresses”, Sarah reads in her Rule, “are like birds, for they leave the earth – that is, the love of all that is worldly – and … fly upwards towards heaven”. Birds are a recurring motif in the novel, starting with a symbolic bird, the jongleur whom Sarah calls Swallow. “An acrobat”, she says in the opening paragraph of the novel, “is not a bird, but it is the closest a person can come to being free in the air. The nearest to an angel’s gift of flying”. For Sarah, being enclosed was her way of emulating Swallow, of leaping into the air, of being a “body without a body”. She yearns to be free of her body, to leave the senses behind, but the more she tries to escape them, the more they make themselves known. Her challenge is to reconcile this dichotomy, this need to deny the senses while still very much having them, this being, theoretically, dead to the world, while very much alive.
Tied up with Sarah’s challenge is the wider story of mediaeval life and values. Cadwallader conveys life at the times, mostly through the people who visit Sarah. Life, we discover, if we didn’t already know it, is hard for women. We meet women who are abused and assaulted, and we realise that their rights are few in a society which sees women as “lustful and tempting”. Father Ranaulf tell Sarah that:
It is man who is mind and soul, woman who is body.
Wise Father Peter allows women some advance on this when he tells Father Ranaulf that holy women can develop manly souls and “almost become a man”! But it is Sarah who really confronts Renaulf, and forces him to a more empathetic understanding of her (and, by extension, of other women).
Life is also hard for the poor, as Cadwallader tells through the villagers’ lack of power in the face of the Lord’s control over the land they work. And life is a challenge too for church-men, who have to manage villagers and lords while earning money to survive. Father Ranaulf wants to make beautiful books but must “produce an income”, not to mention advise an intelligent young woman who won’t accept his platitudes and thoughtless “rules”!
So, The anchoress is an engaging story. It’s about a time long distant, thus satisfying our historical curiosity, and it’s about power in gender and class, that still resonates today. But, above all, it is about human beings, about how we read or misread each other, about how (or if) we rise to the hard challenges, and about whether or not we accept a duty of care to those who come into our lives. An enjoyable read.