Six degrees of separation, FROM Wintering TO …

Why do I always start these posts with the weather or the seasons? This time I’ll break with tradition and start with the fact that I’ve just got back from a lovely trip to Melbourne where we enjoyed some good family times, albeit interrupted in the middle by COVID isolation. How our lives have changed over the last two to three years, as we take these things, not quite in our stride but, at least, as sort of normal or to be expected? What hasn’t changed, however, is our Six Degrees meme. If you don’t know how this meme works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book, and for July we are back to a book I’ve not read, Katherine May’s Wintering: The power of rest and retreat in difficult times. It’s a memoir, and I think the subtitle speaks for itself. I like the concept of “wintering” or lying fallow as you heal.

I thought a lot more than usual about my first link this month, toying with several ideas. In the end I decided to go with a title using a present participle that refers to an action that’s the subject of the book. Jim Crace’s Being dead (my review) is about a couple found dead among the dunes on a beach. As well as being the story of a crime, this novel also details what happens to dead bodies. It’s pretty visceral, but I learnt things I’ve not forgotten! I love it when fiction does that.

Bianca Nogrady, The end book cover

My next link was easy, because I went for the obvious, science writer Bianca Nogrady’s book The end: The human experience of death (my review). As you might have guessed from the title, it’s a nonfiction work that explores death and dying from multiple angles, including physical, psychological, scientific, and legal. I found it so interesting.

Bianca Nogrady, The best Australian science writing 2015

My next link is also pretty obvious, as it’s on the author Bianca Nogrady, except that for this book she’s the editor not the author. It’s The best Australian science writing 2015 (my review). I’ve come to love these volumes for their varied content ranging across all sorts of science from climate to AI, from how the brain works to research into disease, and so on.

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe

And now, unusually for me, I’m sticking with creator for yet another link. It’s interesting how many writers of fiction are also journalists and essayists. Trent Dalton, to whose book Boy swallows universe (my review) I’m linking, is an example. He had a piece in Bianca Nogrady’s anthology called “Beating the odds” about a driven Australian man who developed an artificial heart.

Rabih Alameddine, An unnecessary woman

But now its time to branch out, and I’m going personal this time. Trent Dalton’s book was my reading group’s first book in 2019. Our first book the year before, 2018, was Lebanese American writer Rabih Alameddine’s An unnecessary woman (my review). This was a great read on many levels, including the fact that the main character, a 72-year-old woman is a great reader who comments frequently on the books she reads, including Australian authors like Patrick White and Helen Garner.

Valeria Luiselli, Faces in the crowd

I nearly linked on one of those authors, but we’ve spent a bit of time in Australia this post, so I’m linking on something different. Alameddine’s protagonist Aaliya spends her time translating books, even though they will never be published. It’s an exercise for her. Another novel that features a translator – though in this case it is her job for a while – is Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the crowd (my review).

I don’t see any obvious link back to the starting novel. The meme doesn’t require there to be, but it’s fun if there is one. As is common for me, four of my books are by female writers (or editors) and two by male. While we’ve spent quite a bit of time in English-speaking countries, we have also been to Beirut and Mexico City, which are places I rarely take us to.

Now, the usual: Have you read Wintering? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Frank Moorhouse (1938-2022)

Frank Moorhouse was one of the grand old men of Australian literature, so when I learned that he’d died yesterday, I knew I had to change my plan for this week’s Monday Musings to feature him. Wikipedia’s introduction to him gives you a sense why I’ve described him as I have: “He won major Australian national prizes for the short story, the novel, the essay, and for script writing. His work has been published in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States and also translated into German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Serbian, and Swedish”. Today, he is best known for his Edith trilogy – Grand days, Dark palace and Cold light – the middle of which earned him a Miles Franklin award, but his legacy extends deeper than that.

A major legacy

I first became aware of Moorhouse back in 1975 when I was beginning my librarianship career. It was due to a court case known as University of New South Wales v Moorhouse which concerned the use of photocopying machines to photocopy “infringing portions” of a work in copyright. Wikijuris summarises it nicely if you are interested. The High Court unanimously found that, although the copying was done by a student, the Unviersity was liable for “authorising” infringement. It was a groundbreaking case whose legacy continues today.

The Copyright Agency also tells the story. They explain that Moorhouse was determined to achieve “respect and financial recognition for Australian creators”. He gave permission for his book, The Americans’ Baby, “to be used in a copyright test case” which, the Agency says, has ensured that, today, nearly 50 years later, “creators are fairly remunerated for their work in a digital environment that provides millions of students with access to high quality educational material”. Moreover, the case also resulted in a recognition that “an agency would be needed to collect the royalties generated by the copying of materials to distribute payments to creators”. That agency was the Copyright Agency, which was established in May 1974 for this purpose.

You can imagine that this was exciting stuff for a new, philosophically engaged librarian – we wanted to support creators but we also believed in the importance of libraries being able to provide access to the material students needed. Good copyright law should achieve both and here a fair (acceptable) balance has probably been struck – though I’m sure both sides will have arguments for more.

But of course …

For most readers, Moorhouse’s legacy is in his writing. He was born in Nowra, New South Wales, a beautiful spot less than three hours’ drive from where I live. On leaving school, he began work in 1955 with newspapers, first as a copy boy, and then as reporter and editor. His first short story, “The young girl and the American sailor”, was published in Southerly magazine when he was 18 years old, and he went on to be published in some of Australia’s best literary magazines after that.

In the 1970s he became a full-time fiction writer but he also wrote essays, short stories, journalism and film, radio and TV scripts. He was also, with Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, part of the “Sydney Push” (about which I wrote in my review of Richard Appleton’s memoir, Appo.) It was a bohemian, libertarian movement with a strong anti-right wing underpinning. He has led or been heavily involved in many of Australia’s significant writerly organisations, including the Australian Copyright Agency, the Australian Society of Authors and the Australian Journalists’ Association. In 1985, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for service to Australian literature.

Writing about his death in The Guardian, Sian Cain says this about his work:

Moorhouse wrote prolifically and with irreverence and humour of his passions – food, drink, travel, sex and gender. Early in his fiction, and later in his 2005 memoir, Martini, he wrote frankly about his own bisexuality and androgyny. In his writing, he said, he wanted to explore “the idea of intimacy without family – now that procreation is not the only thing that gives sex meaning”.

Tim Barlass wrote something similar in The Sydney Morning Herald:

Moorhouse lived and wrote about the good life – in both senses of the phrase, sometimes paradoxically. With a passion for fine food, cocktails and justice, he fearlessly wrote about the things essential to him.

Frank Moorhouse, Cold Light

If didn’t know all that about Frank Moorhouse, I have only to think back to Edith (particularly to Cold Light which I read after I started blogging) to see how it could be true! Edith, Ambrose and their friends knew how to work and play hard. My review of the novel was a little measured, but it is also one of those books that has remained with me. You never know, when you finish a novel, which ones will hang around in the mind for the long run.

I understand that a biography by Catharine Lumby is coming very soon. Barlass quotes her response to his death:

 “Frank Moorhouse was a literary legend. It was an incredible privilege to have a friendship with him and be his biographer. As always, Frank had to have the last word. I started writing the conclusion to his biography this morning and learnt that he had died.”

I can’t think of a better place to end, except to add that I look forward to her biography of this colourful but serious man. Vale Frank Moorhouse.

W.E.B. Du Bois, “Strivings of the Negro People” (#Review)

W.E.B. Du Bois by James E. Purdy, 1907, gelatin silver print, National Portrait Gallery, which has released this digital image under the CC0 license

While I knew of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), it wasn’t until I read Nella Larsen’s Passing earlier this year that I was inspired to read something by him. Americans will probably know him well, but Wikipedia (linked on his name) describes him as a “sociologist, socialist, historian and Pan-Africanist civil rights activist”.

He grew up, continues Wikipedia, in “a relatively tolerant and integrated community” in Massachusetts, and from quite early on was involved in the equal rights movement for African Americans. In 1909, he was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Wikipedia writes that:

Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the Talented Tenth, a concept under the umbrella of racial uplift, and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop its leadership.

Du Bois and Larsen were both involved in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Du Bois, says Wikipedia, wrote that “a black artist is first of all a black artist.” While I love art with meaning, I don’t necessarily like prescription in the arts. However, when a group is so powerless, I completely understand the desire to expect all who can to put their shoulder to the wheel. We are certainly seeing a lot of it here in First Nations writing, and I’m loving (and learning from) the truths being told.

I am still in Melbourne so don’t have my copy of Passing, with its excellent introduction, but the idea of “racial uplift” underpins much of the novel. It is supported by its main female protagonist Irene who belongs to the new Black bourgeoisie and is committed to the “uplifting the brother” project. But Larsen also explores through this novel, Du Bois’ theory concerning “double consciousness”, which, originally, says Wikipedia, referred to the

psychological challenge African Americans experienced of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes” of a racist white society and “measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt”. The term also referred to Du Bois’s experiences of reconciling his African heritage with an upbringing in a European-dominated society.

In other words, he’s saying that African-Americans have this two-ness or split whereby they are always conscious of how they view themselves and of how others view them. I don’t think things have changed much for people of colour. It must be exhausting, this being conscious, whether you like it or not, of how others view you (and then worrying about what behaviour that might bring).

Strivings of the Negro People

So, now Du Bois’ piece. The Atlantic published “Strivings of the Negro People” in August 1897. It is still available via their site. They introduce the article with a quote from within it:

“It dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”

This refers to the moment when, still a young boy, Du Bois realises that although he is just like everyone else (“like … in heart and life and longing”), he is excluded from the white world by “a vast veil”. The piece explores what this means. It’s a plea and a treatise on the treatment of African-Americans, a reasoned argument on the value to both “races” of recognising and appreciating each other. It’s also an analysis of the failure of the hope and promise of emancipation over the three decades between 1865 and the writing of the article in 1897.

I found the analysis telling. He explores the trajectory of hope and action decade by decade, pinpointing the failures. But, he starts with the observation that no matter how hard a black person might study and work, might even do better than their white peers, “he” always faced a wall that was “relentlessly narrow, tall and unscalable to sons of night”.

Then, comes the plea:

He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.

Then he turns to emancipation which had taken place thirty years before, and observes that “the freedman has not yet found freedom in his promised land”. In the first decade there was “merely a prolongation of the vain search for freedom”, but as the second decade dawned there was an awareness of another possibility, the ballot. With enthusiasm, black men “started with renewed zeal to vote themselves into the kingdom” but “the decade fled away” bringing nothing but “suppressed votes, stuffed ballot-boxes, and election outrages that nullified his vaunted right of suffrage”. (You get the gist, I’m sure, given recent history.)

However, another idea also raised its head in this second decade, ‘the ideal of “book-learning”’ (education). Again, he resorts to biblical language (though apparently he was agnostic, if not atheist):

Here at last seemed to have been discovered the mountain path to Canaan; longer than the highway of emancipation and law, steep and rugged, but straight, leading to heights high enough to overlook life.

It might take longer, but … and so, he writes,

Up the new path the advance guard toiled, slowly, heavily, doggedly; only those who have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull understandings, of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, how piteously, this people strove to learn. It was weary work.

It didn’t achieve the desired goal, but it did something, “it changed the child of emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect”. People started to understand and analyse their burden. And what did they find? Poverty, yes – “to be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships”. And ignorance. But also “the red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race”. This meant, he writes, “not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of filth from white whoremongers and adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home”. A social and moral degradation.

At this point, Du Bois turns to discuss the “shadow of a vast despair”, the shadow being “prejudice”. It’s interesting, because he suggests that prejudice is ‘the natural defense of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the “higher” against the “lower” races’. “The Negro” would support, he continues, “this strange prejudice as is founded on just homage to civilization, culture, righteousness, and progress”. BUT, the black man is

helpless, dismayed, and well-nigh speechless; before that personal disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy … the all-pervading desire to inculcated disdain for everything black.

Still, they press on with hope – not for “nauseating patronage” but for ‘a higher synthesis of civilization and humanity, a true progress, with … the chorus “Peace, good will to men.”’

So, he gets to the third decade suggesting the attempts and strivings of the first two were of “a credulous race childhood”. The ballot, education and freedom (“of life and limb”… “to work and think”) are still needed, but through “work, culture and liberty” must be fostered the “traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to, but in conformity with, the greater ideals of the American republic, in order that some day, on American soil, two world races may give each to each those characteristics which both so sadly lack”. His arguments become somewhat idealised but his point is valid – that African Americans had much to offer the nation.

Interestingly, his Wikipedia article tells how his 1935 history of Reconstruction which argued for the active and constructive role played by black people in this period ran counter to the “orthodox interpretation” of white historians (surprised?). It was virtually ignored until the late 1960s when it ‘ignited a “revisionist” trend’ in Reconstruction historiography. By the 21st century, his book had become a foundational text in these studies!

A very interesting man, whose legacy continues for his forward, clear thinking about the social and psychological mechanisms of race.

Miles Franklin Award 2022 shortlist

I didn’t post this year’s longlist when it came out last month, and if any of you have been following the award you will know that controversy has, once again, hit it, with one of the longlisted books, John Hughes’ The dogs, being withdrawn on the grounds of plagiarism. That’s a shame for me, as it was the only one on the longlist that I had read, although I will be reading another longlisted book next month.

The shortlist

  • Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The other half of you, is, writes The Guardian*, “the third instalment of an auto-fictional series exploring the life of a young Muslim boy in western Sydney named Bani Adam”. It follows The Lebs which was also shortlisted for the Award.
  • Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters (Lisa’s review, not her favourite de Kretser, and kimbofo’s, also mixed), which, the judges described, as “a witty, meticulously witnessed and boldly imaginative work that rages against racism, ageism and misogyny”. De Kretser has won the award twice before.
  • Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light which deals with the state child care system and is told, say the judges, in an “astonishing voice that reinvents itself from age six to sixty”.
  • Alice Pung’s One hundred days (kimbofo’s review) is about a pregnant 16-year-old girl who is “locked into her housing commission flat by her Philippines-born Chinese mother for 100 days before the birth”. Among other things, the judges commented on the book’s “making visible the stories of those deemed powerless”.
  • Michael Winkler’s Grimmish is the first self-published novel to be shortlisted. It was also one of Jock Serong’s recommendations in the Warm Winter Read program I recently posted about. Publishers apparently found it “wearisome” and “repellant”, but it has been praised by some writers, whom I would call bold and fearless, like Helen Garner, Murray Bail and JM Coetzee. That tells us something (perhaps!) The judges called it “a uniquely witty and original contribution to Australian literature.”

Some random observations:

  • There are only five books this year, as against last year’s six. Did they only think five were worth it, or was The dogs going to be the sixth? I guess we’ll never know.
  • It is a nicely diverse list with more than half being by, to use modern terminology, people of colour. (I hate labelling but what to do?)
  • It looks like, for want of a better word, an “edgy” list, with little of the tried-and-true in terms of style, form and content. Excellent to see.

For posterity’s sake, here was the longlist

  • Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The other half of you
  • Larissa Behrendt’s After story
  • Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters
  • Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light
  • Briohny Doyle’s Echolalia
  • Max Easton’s The magpie wing
  • Joh Hughes’ The dogs (withdrawn)
  • Jennifer Mills’ The airways
  • Alice Pung’s One hundred days
  • Claire Thomas’ The performance
  • Christos Tsiolkas’ 7 1/2
  • Michael Winkler’s Grimmish

A note on The dogs

I am not going to buy into the plagiarism debate, as I can’t know what Hughes did or didn’t know he was doing. However, I would like to comment on the publisher of this book, Upswell Publishing. This is an exciting new venture by Terri-ann White who did such a wonderful job at the University of Western Australia Press for many many years. The Guardian’s report (first link above) on the issue quoted White as saying that she “stands steadfast alongside the author, despite the appropriations now evident in this text”.

However, as more examples of parts of the text being identical or similar to various other works have been identified, White has realised the situation is not as she originally felt able to support. She has made a statement on her website, that:

I have published many writers who use collage and bricolage and other approaches to weaving in other voices and materials to their own work. All of them have acknowledged their sources within the book, usually in a listing of precisely where these borrowings come from. I should have pushed John Hughes harder on his lack of the standard mode of book acknowledgements where any credits to other writers (with permissions or otherwise), and the thanks to those nearest and dearest, are held. I regret that now, as you might expect. To have provided a note in this book with attribution would have been the only way to treat it.  I now recognise this as a breach of my trust.

The point I’d like to make is that we should not let this upsetting situation affect our support of Upswell. I subscribed to their list last year, and have again this year. The books are beautifully designed, the list is wonderfully varied in content, and White has a reputable track record. She and her stable deserve to be supported and encouraged.

Now, back to the Award

The chair of the judging panel, Richard Neville, praised the shortlist for its

range of dynamic and diverse voices that address the experience of pain, intergenerational trauma and intergenerational dialogue with compassion, exceptional craft and rigorous unsentimentality.

Each of the shortlisted writers will receive $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize.

This year’s judges comprise, as always, continuing judges and new ones, providing I think a good mix of experience and fresh ideas: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), critics Bernadette Brennan and James Ley (both also on last year’s panel), and new members, scholar Mridula Nath Chakraborty, and writer and editor Elfie Shiosaki.

The winner will be announced on 20 July.

What do you think of the shortlist?

* All other quotes in the Shortlist section come from the same The Guardian article.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Warm Winter Read

For several years now, Cathy of 746 books has been running a 20 Books of Summer challenge, which many Southern Hemisphere bloggers re-frame as “of Winter”. It’s a great initiative, and this year has over 120 participants. You go, Cathy! However, for something closer to home that’s geared to this winter, I thought I’d share with you Warm Winter Read. It is an initiative of Public Libraries Victoria, and I read about it on Angela Savage’s blog. Well-known as an author, Angela is also the CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.

As a retired librarian, I love checking out what libraries are doing – and when they encourage reading AND Australian authors and books, then I’m on side.

The program’s aim, Angela says, is “to encourage readers to develop a daily reading habit by tracking the days they read over June and July 2022”. It has been taken up by most of Victoria’s library services, and involves an app – the Beanstack app (here) – through which participants can log daily reading, take part in optional challenges and share book reviews. Apparently the optional challenges include things like, Angela writes, “read outside your home; read aloud to a pet, person or plant; and talk about what you’re reading in person or online”.

This is all great, but I’m mainly sharing it with you because the campaign has eight ambassadors, who are all “high-profile” Victorian authors. Each of these was asked to recommend four books to get readers started (although people can read any books). There are apparently bookmarks for each author, containing their recommendations.

The ambassadors are a diverse bunch (links on their names are to my posts on them) and so are their recommended books, which range across a wide variety of forms and genres, fiction and non-fiction. Their recommendations are:

  • Maxine Beneba Clarke: Maria Takolander’s Trigger warning; Claire G. Coleman’s Lies, damned lies; Alice Pung’s One hundred days; Ennis Cehić’s Sadvertising
  • Claire G Coleman: Omar Sakr’s Son of sin; Maxine Beneba Clarke’s How decent folk behave; Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s (ed), Unlimited futures; Evelyn Araluen’s Drop bear
  • Helen Garner: Sean O’Beirne’s A couple of things before the end; David Owen Kelly’s State of origin; Larissa Behrendt’s After story; Gabbie Stroud’s Teacher
  • Jane Harper: Sally Hepworth’s The younger wife; Karina Kilmore’s Where the truth lies; Kate Mildenhall’s The mother fault; Benjamin Stevenson’s Everyone in my family has killed someone
  • Toni Jordan: Genevieve Novak’s No hard feelings; Emily Spurr’s A million things; R.W.R. McDonald’s The Nancys; Paddy O’Reilly’s Other people’s houses
  • Rebecca Lim: Amani Haydar’s The mother wound; Trent Jamieson’s Day boy; Cixin Liu’s The three-body problem; Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay
  • Jock Serong: Emma Viskic’s Those who perish; Robert Gott’s The orchard thieves; Emily Brugman’s The islands; Michael Winkler’s Grimmish
  • Christos Tsiolkas: Emily Bitto’s Wild abandon; Angela Savage’s Mother of Pearl; Andy Jackson’s Music our bodies can’t hold; Judith Brett’s The enigmatic Mr Deakin

I have not heard of all these books, let alone read them, but I can see that the list offers something for most readers and should kickstart some thinking about what to read.

Different library services are promoting the program in different ways. Here are some: Goldfields Libraries; Hume Libraries; and Yarra Plenty Regional Library. BUT as I pottered around some of the sites, I also picked up other things that libraries are doing. For example, the Warrnambool Library advertises that it can help members access their vaccination certificates. What a great service for the less technologically proficient in our communities. I love how modern public libraries are comprehending and expressing their role as community information centres.

Also, in some communities, the local newspaper has got behind the program too. What about this one from the Shepparton News:

Come into your local library to check out a Warm Winter Read. You’ll find hot romances, spicy thrillers and toasty tales of fun and adventure. You can register and log your participation via the Beanstack website at www.plv.beanstack.orgor by downloading the Beanstack Tracker app from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store.

For readers who prefer ‘old-school’, pick up a tracking sheet from your local library. Lots of challenges to keep the next few months interesting.

And here I will leave you. This is a pretty short and simple Monday Musings, partly because I have joined the growing number of bloggers who have contracted COVID-19. So, while I’m not very sick, thanks to being fully vaccinated, I’m also not wonderfully chipper and need now to go take a nap!

Meanwhile, here’s a job for you: what would you have recommended if you’d been asked to suggest four books for a program like this? (And if you’re not Aussie, you can choose non-Aussie books!)

Stephen Orr, Sincerely, Ethel Malley (#bookreview)

Like Lisa, I’m a Stephen Orr fan, but for some reason it took me forever to finish his latest book, Sincerely, Ethel Malley, partly I think because while its characters are engaging, it’s a novel that deserves concentration which I seem to have in shorter supply this year. This is not meant to discourage readers, because it’s a fascinating, and wryly humorous read that explores a range of issues, to do with art and society, against a backdrop of war-time 1940s Australia.

As those who know the story will have guessed, Orr’s novel takes as its starting point the infamous Ern Malley literary hoax. To summarise Wikipedia, this hoax was perpetrated by two conservative writers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who created modernist-style poetry in the name of a fictitious poet, Ern Malley. They wrote the poems using random words from various reference books and rhyming dictionaries, and, in 1943 sent them, in the name of Ern’s sister Ethel, to Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins, the journal of a modernist art and literary movement. This movement included some of the leading lights of the Heide art group, which was the inspiration for Emilly Bitto’s novel, The strays (my review). They were modern, confident, and prepared to tackle head on conservative Australia. It wasn’t long before the hoax was exposed, but that wasn’t the end of it, because Max Harris was then tried for publishing the poems, on the grounds of obscene content.

I have written about literary hoaxes earlier in this blog, and made some points about what hoaxes tell us. Among these are that they raise some fundamental issues for readers and critics about the nature of literature, about what we mean by authenticity and how we define quality. Is a work, for example, somehow less “authentic” and of less literary quality because the author isn’t who we believe s/he is? In other words, is the work the thing? These are some of the issues Orr explores in Sincerely, Ethel Malley.

The novel’s intent is also suggested by the four epigraphs, the first of which – with its own in-joke – is “ascribed” to Aeschylus. It suggests that Prometheus is the source of “every art possessed by man”, so, perhaps, why worry about anything but the art? Then there’s Frederick R. Ewing’s suggestion that the problem occurs from a misunderstanding over where “the truth left off and imagination began” – which, in a way, is the idea underpinning this book. The third comes from Max Harris arguing, essentially, against “playing god”. And finally, there’s Donald Crowhurst’s “it is the mercy”. I’ve never heard of Crowhurst but, according to Wikipedia, he was an amateur sailor who disappeared during a race. Wikipedia says that this statement, which he left behind “is obscure, [but] most commentators have accepted that it signifies his relief that, at last, he is leaving an unbearable situation”.

All this will tell you that Stephen Orr has big ideas in his sights. Fortunately for us, they are wrapped up in the engaging character of Ethel. She carries the novel. It starts in 1981, with her death, and then flashes back to 1943, which begins the main body of the novel and tells the story of Ern and his poems from Ethel’s (first-person) point-of-view. The novel’s last chapter returns to 1981, with Max hearing about Ethel’s death. Ethel (and Ern) are Sydney-based – which is where McAuley and Stewart were based – but most of the action takes place in Adelaide, where Max Harris was based.

In the 1970s, Adelaide was a beacon of progressive thought in Australia, but back in the 1940s it was a very different place. Orr is South Australian and captures the ambience of the place and time beautifully, as our Sydney-suburban housewife, Ethel, makes her way between the iconoclastic Max, the lively bookseller Mary Martin, and Adelaide’s conservative establishment.

I thoroughly enjoyed the explorations – many of them done with wit if not downright cheek – about truth and authenticity, about poetry not being meant to be understood but to be “interpreted”, and about the art versus the artist. It’s subversive in self-consciously confronting some of the things we say and think about art and literature. It tackles conservatism, our resistance to innovation – “Originality. If your writing’s worthwhile, most people will hate it”, Max tells Ethel. Early in the novel is a discussion within Harris’ theatre group about what play they will perform, one by Shaw or one by Cocteau. Most of the players argue that people won’t come to Cocteau, because they “want a story”. For boundary-pushing Max, “that’s their problem”. He wants to do something “modern” (hence, also, his interest in Ern). This dilemma is not confined to 1940s Adelaide, but is one arts communities grapple with constantly. What will audiences tolerate?

Orr’s skill is in presenting his “big” issues through “authentic”, engaging characters and strong narratives which draw us into their reality. Orr’s characters are always warm and authentic (even when fictionalising an already made-up person like Ethel) and his dialogue is so natural. The story of Ethel as she struggles to prove that Ern is real, and his poetry not obscene, is entertaining – particularly when people start questioning her existence too. It can get mind-bending some times, and quite rollicking other times, as Ethel flips between present and past, but it works.

All of this is in the service of issues Orr thinks are worth thinking about, but it’s the thinking and the questions that are, in the end, more important than the answers, with Ethel, of course, being our guide. Early on, she’s never heard of Sid Nolan, but by the end she can hold her own with the best of them as she struggles to defend herself, Ern and his art against those who question. It’s both heartfelt and funny.

There is a lot to this book, but fundamentally, I see it as being about conservatism. In addition to the whole modernist poetry debate, Orr makes pointed comments along the way about the press and academia, not to mention Australians themselves. Ethel tells Sid Nolan, she’s learnt that “Australians hate anyone who claims to be creative”. In Sincerely, Ethel Malley, Orr is teasing us, goading us even, into being open to new ways of seeing, just as Max Harris wanted to do in the 1940s – and he has done so with his usual skill combined with a good dose of fun.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book and covered its essence very well.

Stephen Orr
Sincerely, Ethel Malley
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2021
441pp.
ISBN: 9781743058084

Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press.

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 4, Adventure novels

Continuing my 1922-themed posts, it became clear as I delved into Trove that certain genres or forms kept recurring in the reviews and articles I was reading about Australian literature. I plan to share them over the next few 1922 posts, starting with adventure in this post.

You might remember that my first 1922-themed post was on the N.S.W. Bookstall Co. Adventure novels, it seems, were among their popular fare. A brief article in The Australian Worker (22 February) discusses a couple such novels, but starts by saying that the N.S.W. Bookstall Co.

continues to deliver the goods, and as the goods, in the shape of vigorous yarns by Australian writers, appear to be selling well enough to make a further continuation certain, the company can be congratulated in believing years ago that local talent would make good if it were given the chance hitherto denied it.

Adventure novels

Some of you might remember a recent Monday Musings I did on Australia’s favourite genres, in which I reported that a Swiss-based study had determined that Adventure and Classics were our favourites. I won’t revisit that now, as you can read the post and its source information yourself if you’d like, but I was surprised that Adventure seemed so popular now. I am not so surprised, however, given the still relative newness of the Australian settler colony in 1922, that adventure was popular then. What did surprise me, however, was that, despite the longstanding strength of the bush myth, the bush was not the main setting I found – but I did find a few.

One was titled The black opal. I don’t know how many novels have been titled The black opal, but they abound, including Katharine Susannah Prichard’s of 1921. In 1922, however, there was one by journalist-cum-novelist Jack North. The Northern Territory Times and Gazette (16 September) writes that it is sub-titled “A story of Australian love and adventure”, but that

it is more than that. Notwithstanding the melodramatic incident which Percy Lindsay selected for his cover design, The black opal is a wholesome, well-written novel in which the lure of the bush triumphs over the glamor of the city.

I think “Jack North” might be a pseudonym. He had written, at that time, two other popular novels, Harry Dale’s Grand National and The son of the bush, plus, apparently, scenarios for the “movies”. (The article writer used those quotation marks for this clearly still strange new medium.)

A more traditional-sounding bush-adventure novel is Roy Bridges’ historical fiction, The cards of fortune, which the writer in the Kandina and Wallaroo Times (20 December), says is set in “the stirring days of the first settlement in Tasmania”. (Not sure all would call those days “stirring”, at least with a positive connotation!) It is, says the writer, “an appealing love story which is developed with the aid of stirring adventure”. (There’s “stirring” again”.) The novel, about a bushranger hunt, is described as a “bright little story of the early days”. Adventure novels are, I guess, escapist!

Island adventure novels

The most common adventure novels I found, however, were island adventures, which I think could qualify as a sub-genre?

The Australian Worker article I mentioned in this post’s opening briefly discusses two novels, S.W. Powell’s Hermit Island and Jack McLaren’s Feathers of heaven. The reviewer clearly admires the publisher, but not necessarily these books. They are both set to the northeast of Australia, and, s/he says,

are big-bulged with thrilling adventures in those places where the codes of life, to put it mildly, are not exactly of the parlor or the Sunday school variety.

They hope “this island type of yarn won’t be overdone”, because, they say

There’s plenty of love, and adventure, and goodness, and badness in Australia without going north-east in a boat to look for these elements of a readable story.

I will digress briefly here to say a little about Jack McLaren (1884-1954), because he was quite a prolific and popular writer. According to Wikipedia, he wrote novels based on his own experiences and was renowned for his “authenticity of background”. The son of a minister, he apparently ran away from school when he was 16, and worked as a cabin boy and seaman before landing in North Queensland in 1902. For the next 10 years he worked and travelled around the islands north and northeast of Australia, like Fiji, Java, New Guinea, Malaya and the Solomon Islands. He wrote for The Bulletin before turning to novels in 1919. Feathers in heaven was around his 7th novel.

The writer in the Kadina and Wallaroo Times (8 March) says that McLaren was one of Australia’s most popular authors. Feathers in heaven, this writer says, “is a novel of stirring adventure written round the illegal hunting of New Guinea’s beautiful birds-of-paradise … [and] … of course there is a girl in the story”. For this writer, the novel offers “wholesome adventure”.

Our Kadina and Wallaroo Times writer also discusses Powell’s Hermit Island, identifying it as being “of the Islands adventure class”, and set “off the beaten track” in Tahiti. It involves suspicion of piracy, for which there is “circumstantial evidence” and “develops rapidly to a wholly unexpected climax”. Sydney’s Sun (12 February), reviewing the same novel, makes a strong point about its Australian quality, starting the review with:

For a fine adventure story, neatly told, it is not always necessary to go overseas. Here is an Australian author, S. W. Powell, who knows the knack. Hermit Island is excellent value … The yarn is as capably done and as well imagined as any that comes out of California, and it has the advantage of speaking our own Australian language. 

S.W. Powell had, at the time, written four popular island-adventure novels. The genre was clearly a goer back in the 1920s.

Another reviewer, this time in the Northern Territory Times and Gazette (18 July), discusses Powell’s The pearls of Cheong Tah. Like the previous reviewers, this one comments on Powell’s inclusion of humour in his novels – along with tragedy and romance.

Some random concluding observations

Did you notice the focus on “wholesome”? “Little” things like this provide such insight into their times.

Also, I struggled to find cover images. These books may have been popular, but most were cheap paperbacks and have not, apparently, survived well. Neither have the literary reputations of most of their authors. As always, it’s interesting to see how popular authors of a time fare over the long term. Could it be argued that the more popular a work, the greater the likelihood of appealing to more ephemeral interests and tastes and therefore of dating?

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness; 3. ALS Women’s night

Leah Purcell’s The drover’s wife (#filmreview)

We have been talking about decolonising over at Lisa’s blog, and it just so happens that last week I went to see actor-writer-director Leah Purcell’s feature film The drover’s wife: The legend of Molly Johnson. If you are Australian, or are knowledgeable about Australian literature, you will immediately guess that this would have been inspired by Henry Lawson’s classic Australian short story of the same name. And, if you know Leah Purcell, you will know that she’s a First Nations Australian and will realise that the inspiration has taken a specific First Nations perspective. (Check out her Wikipedia page to see just how active she is, and has been, in the Australian cultural scene.)

The film is based on Purcell’s book of the same name, which Lisa has reviewed. I have been interested in Purcell for a couple of decades now, as, well before blogging, I read her 2002 book Black chicks talking. It comprises interviews she did with nine First Nations women, in which she asked them to tell their stories. It was excellent – and, of course, mind-opening – reading. In it, I met other women whose work I have been interested in since, such as Frances Rings, the newly appointed artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre; actor Deborah Mailman; and filmmaker Rachel Perkins.

Purcell knows how to re-package her ideas and creations for different purposes and audiences. She did it with Black chicks talking, for example, and she’s done it with this story. ABC News explains that Purcell, a Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman, “first reimagined” Henry Lawson’s short story as an award-winning play, which premiered in the Belvoir St theatre in 2016. Then, in 2019, she turned it into what became a bestselling novel, before producing this movie in 2021. However, as ABC News says,

the journey really began when her mother read Lawson’s short story to her as a five-year-old growing up in Murgon in rural Queensland.

“I was starting to use my imagination and I put myself in that story,” Purcell said. “I was that little boy who was his mother’s protector.”

You can read Lawson’s original story online. It is a classic Aussie bush story of white settler loneliness and courage. But Purcell isn’t the first to have questioned this bush myth. Published in 1896, just four years after Lawson’s story, was Barbara Baynton’s “The chosen vessel” (my review). It also features an unnamed bushwoman, struggling to survive with a young child and a frequently absent shearer husband. Unlike Lawson’s wife, however, Baynton’s does not come off well. Baynton’s focus is less the terrors of the bush, and more the issue of male violence. There have been other riffs and reimaginings over the years of Lawson’s story, but let’s now cue Leah Purcell’s which not only picks up the issue of male violence, but also the invisibility of First Nations Australians in our colonial settler literature.

I didn’t see the play, and I haven’t read the novel, so all I can comment on is the film, which she not only wrote, directed and co-produced but also plays the titular role of Molly. It’s a powerful movie that confronts us on multiple levels. Its main characters are Molly, her 12-year-old son Danny, Yadaka, an Aboriginal man on the run from police, and two idealistic English newcomers, Nate Clintoff, who is to be the police officer in the area, and his wife Louisa who is keen to improve the lot of women. Purcell astutely plays with the tropes of the Western genre she grounds her film in, together with the bush pioneer myth and settler society stereotypes, to tell a complex story about, as Lisa says, “domestic violence and rape; the Stolen Generations; frontier violence; and the hidden Black ancestry of many White Australians”. (I couldn’t have said it better myself, so why not quote Lisa!) These issues are explored against the backdrop of settler society ideas of justice, religious righteousness, and a nascent sense of injustice (as reflected through Louisa’s writings and her discussions with Nate).

I was engrossed from the beginning – emotionally by the plight of the woman, and intellectually by what I was watching Purcell doing. She takes the conventions of the Western film and of the bush myth, in which good and bad are simple concepts based on colonial ideas of law and justice, and spins them to tell a very different story in which justice is never simple, particularly when there is inequity in power, between white and black, and between man and woman. Molly is the nexus for both these dichotomies. It’s a lot for one character to carry but it works. Molly is strong, but also vulnerable, and so, while there’s much she can control living out there in the bush, in the end she can’t keep the world in which she lives at bay.

In Yadaka (Rob Collins), Purcell brings to the fore the “stray blackfellow” from Lawson’s original. Not only is he significant in correcting the absence or “othering” of the original inhabitants in settler literature, but, without spoiling too much, he plays a pivotal role in Molly’s development and self-knowledge.

The film is set in the Snowy Mountains, an area I know and love so much. It opens with a dramatic landscape shot dominated by distorted and somewhat grotesque gum trees, which sets the movie’s unsettled tone. We return to this shot later, to mark our return to that point in the narrative. The cinematography is strong with several close low angle shots of Molly conveying her strength and power, and those expansive shots of big skies and wide, spare landscapes so typical of the Western. It’s not subtle, and at times it felt a bit heavy-handed, but overall it did justice to Purcell’s conception.

A strength of the movie is its music. It’s edgy, in a modern way, reflecting Purcell’s modern revisioning, but it includes strains of folk and western music, reminding us of the world in which it is set and the conventions being drawn on.

There was a misstep for me, though, in the handling of Louisa’s crusade against battered women. While there was awareness of the issue – Barbara Baynton, after all, exposed it in her work – Purcell’s handling, including reference to that “whose story is it to tell” issue, felt anachronistic.

However, it is so good seeing Australia’s colonial past being revisited and presented from perspectives that were so silenced at the time. Leah Purcell’s The drover’s wife is one of many such stories appearing now. Australia has had a love affair with its past, but that past has, until now, been viewed through distorted lenses. Finally, those lenses are being questioned …

Tessa Wooldridge has also reviewed Purcell’s work.

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson
Dir: Leah Purcell
Prod: Bunya Productions and Oombarra Productions, 2021

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 3, ALS Women’s Night

Continuing my 1922-themed posts, I was intrigued that, in 1922, the Australian Literature Society held a Women’s Night. This Society was formed in Melbourne in 1899, with the aim of encouraging both the study of Australian literature and Australian authors.

According to the National Library the Society:

  • held regular meetings which included talks, recitations, readings of unpublished works, musical items and reviews
  • established a general library of first editions and important Australian works which it maintained for nearly eighty years.
  • published a journal Corroboree from 1921 to 23

In 1928, it established the ALS Gold Medal to be awarded to the author of the best novel published in the previous year. The first winner was Martin Boyd’s The Montforts, but that, obviously, came after 1922! What also came later was that this society merged in 1982 with the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, which continues to award the ALS Gold Medal.

Now, back to 1922, and the Society’s Women’s Night. I’ve had a little look at Trove for 1920 and 1921, and while there are references to women’s topics being discussed at ALS meetings, it seems that 1922 may have been the first time they devoted a night to Women’s writing.

As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, there were just two papers presented: Australian Women Prose Writers, by Mrs Vernon Williams, and Australian Women Poets, by Elsie Cole. Before I share the idea that inspired this post, I did find mentions of Women’s Nights in 1927 and 1929. In 1927, The Age (July 12) reports that there was a paper on Stella Miles Franklin, followed by some readings and recitations of works by women, while in 1929, The Age (July 15), again, reported that the night would ‘take the form of a debate, the subject, being “Australia is Lacking in a Back Ground to Inspire Romantic Writing”‘.

And now, back to 1922 again. The report in Table Talk (August 3) reported that Elsie Cole’s paper on the poets said that “We had reason to be proud, if critical, of our present output of women’s work” and that “the prospect for the immediate future was encouraging”. Unfortunately, none of the reports I read gave any details about the content of the papers, so what, for example, were the criticisms?

As for Mrs. Vernon Williams’* paper on the prose writers, they reported her saying that “one outstanding feature of the Australian novel is its purity” but they didn’t elaborate. Williams also apparently said that the Australian novel was full of sincerity and the glamour of romance.

The report shared one other idea from the talk, which was that:

In the early days of Australian literature the output of women writers was more prolific than that of men writers, because the opening of a new continent did not give men opportunity to concentrate their activities in that direction.

I haven’t seen this specifically articulated before, and would love to know exactly what she was talking about. The first “Australian-made novel” novel, Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton (my post), was published in 1830, with the first novel by a woman published in Australia, Anna Maria Bunn’s The guardian, appearing in 1838. But, “the output of women writers” did start before this. Dale Spender writes, in Writing a New World: Two centuries of Australian women writers (see Bill’s post), that from very early on women wrote letters and

women’s ‘world of letters’ provides an alternative and rich resource of information. Women’s thoughts and feelings find expression in a literature which stands as a repository for women’s consciousness and a record of their endurance in the strange land. So the letters of Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning, for example, tell a story of settlement, create heroines of stature who experience a series of adventures which could readily and reassuringly be recounted ‘back home’; but at the same time these letters plot personal struggles with independence and identity. Miles Franklin begins My Brilliant Career at the point at which Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning leave off …

Women’s letters and journals, as Spender shows, provided a rich and important literature, but novels by women did start appearing by the middle of the century with Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morison in 1854, and Louisa Atkinson’s Gertrude the Emigrant in 1857. Ellen Davitt followed with a crime novel in 1864, and then, in the 1880s, novels by Ada Cambridge, Rosa Praed, Tasma, and others were published.

Presumably it’s to these novelists that Williams refers, but, to suggest that, somehow, men had less opportunity to write in the colony’s first century feels like a backhanded compliment – as if women’s lives were easy, and men’s not. However, her recognition of the depth of women’s writing tradition is notable. It’s a recognition that got lost by the middle of the 20th century and that we are still trying to recover now. I must try to access Williams’ paper.

* AustLit explains that Mrs Vernon Williams is the writing name for Elvie Williams, the wife of Vernon Williams, who was “a member of the Australian Literature Society, Melbourne”. She had two articles, “Australian Women Novelists, Parts 1 and 2”, published in two consecutive issues of Corroboree : The Journal of the Australian Literature Society, vol. 1 nos. 10-11, July-August 1922, but they aren’t available online.

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness

Six degrees of separation, FROM Sorrow and bliss TO …

What a cold, cold start we’ve had to winter here in the nation’s capital. We have already had a few maximums under 10°C, and winter has barely started. I hate it, but I am lucky to have a warm house, so I’ll stop complaining and be grateful. And, anyhow, we have hope that our new Government will follow up on its promises on big issues like the Uluru Statement from the Heart, climate change and resolving some long-standing asylum seeker/refugee issues. We wait to see what happens. Meanwhile, let’s get onto this month’s Six Degrees. As always, if you don’t know how this meme works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book, and for May we are back to a novel I’ve not read, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and bliss about a woman, and the aftermath of her separation from her husband. What else can I say about it? I haven’t read it, as I said, but those who have are impressed.

I don’t like linking on content of books I’ve not read, so I’m not going there. Instead, I’m linking on titles comprising opposite concepts – taking us from Sorrow and bliss to Lost & found, by Western Australian-based author, Brooke Davis (my review). Like Sorrow and bliss, Lost & found deals with a sad subject, but both books do it with humour (at least I understand Mason’s does).

Humour, however, is not my next link. Instead I’m linking on the idea of a mother disappearing at the beginning of a novel. This is what happens in Lost & found, and it also happens in Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain (my review), albeit under quite different circumstances. It had been on my TBR for decades, so I was really pleased to find time to read it this year.

My next link is not at all clever. I read Margaret Barbalet in January, and in April I read (actually, listened to) another Margaret – Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection Dearly (my review) which covers a range of subjects dear to Atwood’s heart, including women’s rights and environmental issues.

Another poet whose political passions are well-known is Australia’s John Kinsella, so it is to his prose memoir, Displaced: A rural life (my review) that I’m linking next. He was born in and has now returned to the Western Australian wheatbelt. He writes so evocatively of the place – and of the challenges wrought by the long tail of colonisation.

My next link pays homage to the author, Katharine Susannah Prichard, because last month I attended the online launch of Nathan Hobby’s The red witch, the first thorough biography about her. I’m linking to a short story by her, “The Christmas tree” (my post) because it is also set in the Western Australian wheatbelt. It links beautifully to Kinsella, because, as I wrote in my post, “we are still challenged by the role capitalist structures play in people’s lives and livelihoods”.  Kinsella would agree.

“The Christmas tree” was first published in 1919, and so was another short story, written by another significant woman writer, “The mark on the wall” (my post) by Virginia Woolf. They might be very different stories in very different styles – Prichard’s realist approach versus Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness – but both come from women who have now moved into the canon.

So, a bit of a different month to usual: I have only one male writer, two of the works are short stories, two are by poets, and one I experienced as an audiobook. However, we have travelled around the English-speaking world a little – Australia, Canada and England – and we have spent more time than usual in Western Australia. I can’t see any link back to the starting book.

Now, the usual: Have you read Sorrow and bliss? And, regardless, what would you link to?