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Igniting Change, Small ways to shape our world (#BookReview)

February 16, 2019

Igniting Change, Small Ways to Shape our WorldI really should have posted on this book, Small ways to shape a world, way before this, because it is a quick (albeit meaningful) read, but I am rigorous about the order in which I post on books sent to me for review, and so it has taken until now for it to rise to the top of the pile. I am sorry it has taken so many months for me to get to this book.

Anyhow, enough excuses. Have you heard of Igniting Change? I hadn’t until this lovely little book was sent to me. Igniting Change is, as its website says:

a purposely small organisation that’s passionate about sparking big, positive change with people doing it tough in our communities. We are moved by the humanity and courage of the people we are privileged to work with. We listen, we remain open-minded, we uncover what’s hidden from everyday eyes, we’re guided by the people who experience the issues, we connect unlikely experts to create new thinking and above all we strive to give a voice to people experiencing injustice and inequality. Solid governance and independent funding enable us to take risks when backing outstanding people and organisations, cutting-edge investments that have a real chance of catalysing social change. We call this ‘igniting change’ and we love what we do.

They are, then, about social change and they seem to mainly work from the grass-roots level. Click on the videos on their Projects page to get an idea of how they work, and what they do. One of their mantras is “see the person, not the label” – that is, not “prisoner”, or “homeless”, or “refugee”, and so on.

(Check out the members of the Board for a good picture of who they are.)

Anyhow, Small ways to shape a world is very much about working from the grass-roots. It stems from their belief that “Small Changes x Lots of People = Big Change.” Their promo describes it as “a meaningful, practical book encouraging over fifty small acts of kindness, thoughtfulness and quiet rebellion”. It is, then, about person-to-person kindness, and about the myriad things any individual can do to effect change – no matter how small. As Paul Kelly sings, “from little things, big things grow”.

The book contains a variety of ideas – some are direct suggestions for action, while others are thoughts or questions or adages that suggest action or that simply encourage us to tweak how we think which may then flow on to how we act. Whatever the idea though, it’s inspired by such values as respecting dignity and showing warmth. Some of the ideas are credited to other people and organisations, while others presumably come from their own brainstorming. They address a wide gamut of issues we are confronting – regarding community, social justice, and energy. Here are some picked (sort of) at random!

  • Why do some cultures have elders while others have the elderly? (elders.org)

  • Homeless doesn’t mean nameless. (thebigissue.org.au)

  • Who are the traditional owners in your suburb? (welcometocountry.mobi)

  • People who need the most love often ask for it in the most unlovable ways.

  • Connect with people. Have a talk.

Igniting Change, Small ways to shape our world, page viewThese ideas and thoughts are presented one to a page with a simple, clear illustration on the facing page, some whimsical, some more provocative, most symbolic, but all making a point.

I don’t think there’s much more I can say except that this is the sort of book that probably preaches mainly to the converted, but even the converted can need reminders, because it is so easy to get caught up in our daily challenges and forget the small ways in which we can contribute to the bigger picture.

Lisa also posted on this lovely little book.

Igniting Change
Small ways to shape our world
Richmond: Hardie Grant Books, 2018
ISBN: 9781743794197

(Review copy courtesy Igniting Change)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Stella judges on the zeitgeist in Australian fiction

February 11, 2019
tags:

Last week I reported on the longlist for this year’s Stella Prize, and shared an excerpt from the judge’s comments. For today’s Monday Musings, I’m reiterating most of that – for us to think about and discuss:

Reading for the Stella Prize … [is] a sample of the zeitgeist, a look at what is informing our thinking right now …

It feels like a big year for fiction, and our longlist reflects this. … Family relations and the persistence of the past in the present continue to inspire writers, and several books were concerned with the aftermath of trauma, especially sexual violence. Realism continues to dominate Australian fiction, with a few standout departures into other modes.

We wished for more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers: narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference.

I’m not aiming here to get into a beat-up about their choices – because we all know that judging in the arts is such a subjective thing – but they did raise the issue, so I thought we could have a little think …

Starting with what they say is dominating contemporary fiction:

  • family relations
  • impact (“persistence”) of the past in the present
  • aftermath of trauma (particularly sexual violence)
  • realism

And then, looking at what they felt they didn’t see much of, which was “otherness and diversity”. They defined this as narratives that:

  • are not based in Australia
  • come from and feature women of colour, LGBTQIA people, Indigenous people (and, presumably, other “differences”, such as people with “disabilities”)
  • are subversive
  • are different

There are a several ways we can look at this. Firstly, do we agree with their assessment of Australian fiction, specifically, of course, that written by women – recognising that they are talking about trends, not exceptions as there will always be those. My sense is that they are right. Certainly, several books in their longlist are about family relationships – particularly fathers and daughters/parents and children – and about how the past continues to impact present behaviours and lives.

Secondly, if we agree with the judges’ assessment, does it matter? I’d say it does, because it suggests that we are not being introduced to the breadth and depth of Australian experience but to a subset of it.

Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Lotus IslandThirdly, if we agree it does matter, why is it so? Is it because this is what publishers think readers want to read? It’s interesting, for example, that the most subversive books in the longlist are probably the two from the small independent publisher, Brow Books (Lau’s Purple mountain on Locust Island, and Tumarkin’s Axiomatic), and that the indigenous work in the list (Lucashenkos’ Too much lip) is published by UQP, a university press which has a history of supporting indigenous writing.

Anyhow, what I’m going to do is share here some books written by women and published last year that I think offer “otherness and diversity”, not, as I said, to say that I think these should have been shortlisted – because I haven’t read all the books the judges did, and I don’t know which ones were submitted anyhow – but just to offer some ideas and to have you offer some back!

  • Glenda Guest’s A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline (Text) (my review), which could be seen to largely fit the zeitgeist/trends the judges identified – family relations, the impact of the past on the present – but it is also about “otherness”, in that the main character is an older woman who has been diagnosed with dementia.
  • Krissy Kneen’s Wintering (Text), which I haven’t read but Kneen does tend to be subversive. Is this book so – or is it simply a variation on Tasmanian Gothic?
  • Margaret Merrilees’ story about lesbians, Big rough stones (Wakefield Press) (my review)
  • Angela Meyer’s dystopian-tending-realism-departing story, A superior spectre (Ventura Press) (my review).

This isn’t what you’d call a lot! I did find a few more by men, but. We see stories all the time about “other” experiences, about the many challenges we are facing as a society – on the news, for a start. Where are they in our fiction?

Now, over to you – and if you’re not Australian, I would of course love to hear what you have to say about “otherness and diversity” in your neck of the woods.

(PS This may not publish, as scheduled, on Monday night AEDST as we are out in the wilds of NE Victoria where internet connection is flakey.)

Josephine Wilson, Extinctions (Guest post by Amanda) (#BookReview)

February 9, 2019

I am very pleased to bring you another guest post by Amanda, for a book I’ve not managed to read yet, much as I’d like to: Josephine Wilson’s Miles Franklin Award winning novel, Extinctions.

Amanda’s review

Josephine Wilson. ExtinctionsI loved this book. I was really sorry when it ended. It’s the kind of novel you press into the hands of a good friend. If we lived in the same town I would drive over and lend it to you. [Thanks, Amanda, I wish you could!]

It comes with impressive credentials – Winner of the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the 2015 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. I would never judge a book based on its awards – and putting those aside, Wilson has created an intelligent sensitive story, combining the personal and political with poignant and endearing characters.

I’ll give you a brief synopsis of the plot and a mention of some unique touches Wilson employs. Some reviews out there give away too much, which ruins the book’s unfolding narrative.

As implied by the title – the book deals with extinctions of all sorts – racial, national, natural and personal. Our protagonist is retired engineering professor Fred Lothian, father to Caroline and Callum, reluctant resident of St Sylvan retirement village, neighbour to Jan and desperately missing his deceased wife Martha. The first couple of chapters are a bit slow moving as we are introduced to Fred and in retrospect to Martha. But it picks up the pace quickly and indeed the ending did seem a bit rushed. The story is told mainly through balancing the present with Fred’s memories.

Wilson uses photos and drawings throughout the book to emphasise a point, which works very well. The photos are unique enough to create interest and have sufficient detail for a reader to divine meaning in addition to the narrative. She also likes quoting large paragraphs from other literature, ranging from Shakespeare to Wind in the willows. That I liked less, they seemed overdone and distracting.  Some engineering terms are used as metaphors in numerous chapter titles.

Wilson is a master story-teller. She is excellent at creating suspense. She deftly manages humour and even in this poignant, serious tale it never seems out of place. You’ll find the most entertaining first date in literature in this book. Some writers let their characters meander aimlessly in the story, but Wilson was having none of that. She works her characters like draught horses. They are constantly flung at each other to challenge, chide, ameliorate and alleviate each other. She has a great ear for dialogue and parent-child dynamics. However, this is a political book and sometimes her characters’ conversations can seem didactic – with each taking an opposing view to prove that there is no absolute right or wrong in most matters. Also occasionally Wilson needs to stretch the plot twist to fit the story and even Fred admits that some events were highly coincidental.

Extinctions is full of beautiful sentences – there is a whole paragraph about the early years of educating a child. It’s too long to quote here, but you will recognise it when you get to it. With great writing I often wonder how much is autobiographical. I note in the afterword that both of Wilson’s parents and a mother–in-law passed away during the writing of the book. Also her father was an engineer.

What I liked most is Wilson’s message of hope – that before we all grow old and become extinct, it is never too late to make amends and make the world a better place for the ones we love.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) reviewed it of course when it came out.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJosephine Wilson
Extinctions
UWAP, 2016
ISBN: 97817425888988

Stella Prize 2019 Longlist

February 7, 2019

I don’t do well at having read the Stella Prize longlist at the time of its announcement. In 2017 I’d read none, and last year I improved on that by having read one of the 12-strong longlist. By the end of the year, though, I had read five, which is good for me, given in 2017, I’d only read three. How will I go this year?

I do have a BIG fail though, which is that until now I had read all the winners – Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with birds, Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka, Emily Bitto’s The strays, Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things, and Heather Rose’s The museum of modern love – but I have yet to read 2018’s winner, Alexis Wright’s Tracker.

The judges are again different to last year’s – with the exception of the chair, Louise Swinn, who also judged last year – which is good to see.  The 2019 judges are writer, journalist and broadcaster Daniel Browning; writer Michelle de Kretser (whom I’ve reviewed a couple of times here); bookseller Amelia Lush; Walkley Award-winning journalist Kate McClymont (who is in that Media Hall of Fame I wrote about a couple of weeks ago); and writer and publisher Louise Swinn (the chair). Once again attention has been paid to diversity on the panel.

Here is the longlist:

  • Jenny Ackland’s Little gods (novel/Allen & Unwin) (my review)
  • Stephanie Bishop’s Man out of time (novel/Hachette)
  • Belinda Castle’s Bluebottle (novel/Allen & Unwin) (Theresa Smith Writes review)
  • Enza Gandolfo’s The bridge (novel/Scribe) (Lisa’s review)
  • Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist (non-fiction/Penguin Random House) (Lisa’s review)
  • Gail Jones’ The death of Noah Glass (novel/Text)
  • Jamie Marina Lau’s Purple Mountain on Locust Island (novel/Brow Books) (Amanda’s guest post here)
  • Vicki Laveau-Harris’ The erratics (memoir/Finch Publishing)
  • Bri Lee’s Eggshell skull (memoir/Allen & Unwin) (Kate’s – booksaremyfavouriteandbest – review)
  • Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (novel/UQP)(on my TBR, and coming up soon) (Lisa’s review)
  • Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic (essays/Brow Books) (my review)
  • Fiona Wright’s The world was whole (essays/Giramondo) (on my TBR – I loved her Small acts of disappearance

So, I’ve read and reviewed just two – creeping up my one each year! – and have a guest post for a third on my blog. I have two more on my TBR right now, and a couple more I am very keen to read, including Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist. I have been out tonight, and  so had tried to get a head start by partially drafting this before I went out with my “guesses” inserted – I had only 5 right!

The judges commented on the longlist that:

Reading for the Stella Prize … [is] a sample of the zeitgeist, a look at what is informing our thinking right now …

It feels like a big year for fiction, and our longlist reflects this. As well as some strong debuts, it was reassuring to see so many books from writers whose work we have admired for some time. Family relations and the persistence of the past in the present continue to inspire writers, and several books were concerned with the aftermath of trauma, especially sexual violence. Realism continues to dominate Australian fiction, with a few standout departures into other modes.

We wished for more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers: narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference.

[…]

Ultimately, we chose books that strove for something big and fulfilled their own ambitions. … These are all artists concerned with the most important questions of our age and how to live now, and it has been a pleasure to be in their company.

I like their comment about a wish for more diversity – but I would expect nothing less from them. As always there are surprises, but that’s to be expected. It would be a sad world if we all came up with the same 12 eh?

Anyhow, I’d love to know if you have any thoughts on the list.

The shortlist will be announced on March 8 (International Women’s Day, as has become tradition), and the winner in April.

Angela Meyer, A superior spectre (#BookReview)

February 7, 2019

Angela Meyer, A superior spectreA superior spectre may be Angela Meyer’s first novel, but her already significant writing credentials, including being the author of the short/flash style fiction collection Captives (my review), and the editor of the anthology The great unknown (my review), ensure this is a confident debut. And it needed to be, because Meyer took big risks in this book – structurally, genre-wise, and with her characters.

Let’s start, however, with the title. It hints at genre, doesn’t it? And yes, this book does owe much to genre, but more to genre-bending than to simple genre. It has two storylines – which is part of the risky structure – one set in mid 19th-century Scotland, drawing on historical fiction, and the other also set in Scotland, but in 2024, making it more speculative fiction. There is also a touch of the Gothic here, with visitations, hidden rooms and madhouses, with dark thoughts and hints of perversion. But, the novel is more complex, more sophisticated than that suggested by this idea of two interwoven storylines from the past and the future. The two epigraphs that introduce the novel clue us into this complexity. The first epigraph is from Emily Dickinson and suggests that the “superior spectre” is not “external”, or “material”, but something “interior”, or “more near”, while the second, from Kafka, hints at the dark side of love and human nature.

These ideas are explored through the two main characters: Leonora, a young farm girl from the Scottish Highlands, and Jeff, a dying man who has “escaped” Australia (something that is difficult to do in his chip-controlled futuristic world) to die alone in Scotland. Leonora is poor, but well-read and resourceful; she’s a hard-worker and loves her father; she’s sensual, sexual, but not afraid to express it; and she has a mind of her own, but is independent rather than wilful. She is, in other words, easy to like and wish well for. Jeff, on the other hand, is more ambiguous, and thus a challenge for us readers. Not only does he admit to some questionable sexual proclivities, but his behaviour in Scotland, particularly towards Leonora, becomes increasingly selfish. He knows it, but in the end puts his needs and desires ahead of hers. How, though, given their different eras?

Well, let’s now turn to the structure. Meyer sets us up at the beginning with a comfortable, predictable structure in which third-person Leonora’s story alternates with first-person Jeff’s. There’s nothing particularly remarkable in this, but it doesn’t last. In Part 2 (of this four-part novel), Leonora’s story also becomes first-person. It happens because, as the back cover blurb has told us, Jeff is using some experimental technology (a “tab”) that enables him to inhabit Leonora’s mind, and at the end of Part 1 he decides to change how he brings her to us. His aim, he says, is to enable us to “partly inhabit her as well” though in so doing, he warns us, our thoughts too, like Leonora’s, may be “infected” by him. I like books in which the structure itself underpins the meaning of the work. In this case, the structure unsettles us – as in, where are we now, who are we with – and mirrors the discord being experienced by Leonora, who wonders

about how powerful our thoughts can be. We might think we are sick when we truly have no ailment. But if we present the symptoms, and believe them, are we not sick anyway? . . . I wonder if a person could learn to be aware of when the mind is influencing a bodily reaction, and also when an instinct is overruling the mind.

So, in A superior spectre, we have a destabilising structure, a slippery character in Jeff who knows he doesn’t deserve our sympathy but wants to justify himself nonetheless, and a creative intertwining of genres – but to what purpose? There are several, I think, some personal, some sociopolitical. The latter is obvious. For Leonora there are the gender expectations which limit what a young girl of her class and background can do: she cannot study at university as some young women she meets are doing; she cannot marry the Laird for whom she falls; and she cannot protect herself from being deemed mad when she admits to strange visions of flying machines and horseless carriages. For Jeff, whether we like him or not, there is the lack of personal freedom that comes with living in a so-called technologically-advanced (dystopian) society. It’s not completely coincidental that Meyer wrote her final draft of this book on Jura, where George Orwell finished 1984.

But, it’s the personal – particularly the grappling with one’s inner demons or “spectres” – that gives the book its greatest power. Jeff’s selfishness, his poor self-control and yet desire to explain himself to us, recall characters like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. It’s hard to completely hate a character who is so open about his self-disgust even while he does nothing about it, and who engenders at least some sympathy from his Scottish landlady. She doesn’t approve, but she doesn’t reject either. In the end, Jeff is more pathetic than hateful, partly because his “spectres” are plain to see.

Leonora’s “spectres” come from her challenge in matching her sensual nature with the life she finds herself in, from her desire to find that freedom espoused by John Stuart Mill:

It is difficult for me to read about freedom and tyranny without relating these words to my own situation. Mill’s number one basic liberty is a freedom of thought and emotion. The individual being sovereign over his own body and mind. But what if your thoughts are being suppressed not just from the outside, but from some inner tyrant also?

She knows her aunt wants the best for her, a “good” marriage, but fears this would mean

suppressing the thoughts and emotions I have? It is the opposite of liberty; it is to put myself potentially in the hands of another tyrant. I feel I am pressing at walls all around.

Jeff’s “infection” of her (his tyranny), then, can have multiple readings: not only is it a manifestation of his selfish disregard of others, but it represents her own inner spectres, and symbolises the male control she rejects.

A suitable spectre is not an easy book to pin down, but this just makes it more enjoyable. And if that’s not a good enough reason for you, how about that it offers an intelligent interrogation of past and future, of inner conflicts and outer challenges, through two vividly drawn, not-easy-to-forget characters?

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAngela Meyer
A superior spectre
Edgecliff: Ventura Press, 2018
270pp.
ISBN: 9781925183917

(Review copy courtesy Ventura Press)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading Victoria

February 4, 2019

The inspiration for these Monday Musings posts comes from all sorts of places, but mostly from online sources and print media. Today’s, however, comes from a catch-up I had last week with my group of litblogger mentees (at which Angharad and Emma from 2017 met Amy from 2018.) It was delightful. You won’t be surprised to hear that a main topic of conversation was reading and writing – during which Emma mentioned Reading Victoria and the stories that have been lobbing weekly into her email inbox. How did I not know about this? Ah well, I do now – better late than never!

Reading Victoria is a Melbourne City of Literature initiative, created in 2018 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Melbourne’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature. The aim was to publish “a new piece of writing each week, free and online, themed around a suburb or town in Victoria. From fiction to nonfiction, poetry to prose, the only constant was the titles.” By “constant”, I think they mean that the titles comprise, simply, the name of the place being written about – nothing fancy, just, say, Mallacoota or Ramsay Street. The place, as you say from these examples, could be pretty much any physical place. The About page, linked above, says that by the end of the 2018 they will have published 60 pieces. (Hmmm, lucky Victoria. They seem to have found 8 more weeks in their year. Wish I could!!)

Anyhow, the main page on their simple, clear, website is their Suburbs & Pieces page, which so far lists 57 pieces. It’s now well into 2019 so will there be 60, or have they stopped? I’ve subscribed so will soon find out. It would be lovely if the project continued. The site implies it was just for 2018. It doesn’t say how it is funded and whether the writers (and the editors, Sophie Cunningham, Andre Dao, Elizabeth Flux, Omar Sakr and Veronica Sullivan) are paid? It would be good to know these things?

Meanwhile, back to Suburbs & Pieces. Have you clicked on it already? I probably would have. However, on the assumption that you haven’t, or that you’re not Australian and would like a little more context, I’ll describe the pieces a little more to give you a flavour.

The content is wonderfully varied. I picked some at random to look at – based either on places or authors I know. The first one to catch my eye was Wangaratta (Week 6 by Andy Connor). Wangaratta is an attractive little country town on the Hume Highway between where I live and Melbourne. Connor’s piece is non-fiction, a little memoir, reflecting on all the reasons he had for wanting to escape it and wondering why, upon a return visit, he found you can ” feel nostalgia for a place you never felt you belonged”. Fair question.

Sofie Laguna, The chokeAnother non-fiction piece is Sofie Laguna’s Echuca (Week 14), which is on the Murray River near when she set her novel The choke (my review). Her piece is moving, but I particularly like this which gives you a sense of the novelist’s ear and eye:

I read about the Barmah Choke – a place in the Murray where the banks come closer, flooding at certain points in the year, contributing to the wetlands environment. I liked those words – Barmah and Choke and the way they sat together – the first so round, lifting at the final vowel, and the second so tight, hemmed in by biting consonants. The words seemed to contradict each other.

These two pieces are non-fiction but there are also fiction pieces, poems, small plays, interviews. Many well-known published authors are here including Tony Birch, Helen Garner, Alex Miller and Jane Rawson, but there are new-to-me writers too, writers who have been published in journals like Lifted Brow, or are performers, or, even, comic book artists (see Corio, Week 41, Eloise Grills).

Some of the stories have been published elsewhere. At least, I recognised Bruce Pascoe’s fiction piece Mallacoota which appeared, with a few changes and under a different title, in Writing Black. But that doesn’t matter. In fact, one of the great things about short form writing is that it can be “curated” in different places and collections, and that writers can continue to “fiddle” with their pieces for each iteration. Not being a writer, I don’t know, but I’m guessing that sometimes this “fiddling” is to fix up something they don’t like, and sometimes to tailor the piece to its new “home”?

There is of course a very brief bio for each writer at the end of their piece providing their writing background or credentials. That’s particularly useful for writers you don’t know.

For anyone interested in writing about place, this project has a lot to offer. Many of the pieces are gritty, pulling no punches about the places they write about (Sydney Road, Week 38, by Fury is particularly strong), while others are affectionate, or even satirical. There are pieces by indigenous writers (like Tony Birch, Yarra River, Week 46), and by those from migrant backgrounds (like Alice Pung, Footscray, Week 30). When this is published, I will be staying somewhere along the one of Australia’s iconic roads, the Hume Highway, and it is here too: Hume Hwy (Week 48, by Sophie Cunningham).

In some ways this project reminds me of the Library of America Story of the Week program, except that it’s about sharing America’s literary heritage. Reading Victoria, on the other hand, is focused very specifically on contemporary responses to place.

Do you know of any similar initiatives to this – and do they interest you?

Vale Andrew McGahan (1966-2019)

February 2, 2019

My reading group was only talking about Andrew McGahan (1966-2019) this week. We knew he was terminally ill, but little did we know that his end was so near. How very sad, then, to hear today that he died just yesterday, at only 52 years of age.

Andrew McGahan, Praise, Allen and UnwinNow, I know that Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has written a tribute but I do want to write one too, because he’s an author who made an impression on me. After all, he introduced me to a genre that would not be my natural calling – grunge lit (or, perhaps more “formally” known as dirty realism!) I enjoyed it. Well, I appreciated his books anyhow. I read both Praise (1992) and 1988 (1995), back in the mid-1990s, which was long before blogging. I wrote to my Californian friend in 1995 – my letters to her are a useful resource sometimes – that I found 1988 “interesting reading” even if I found the 21-year-old protagonist “frustrating in his inability to take hold of his life”. Frustrating perhaps, but the vivid sense of hopelessness and helplessness that McGahan conveyed in these books has stayed with me, which says something about his writing. (It helped too that the protagonist’s girlfriend in Praise suffered from eczema. There’s something validating, as many of you know, in reading about a character whose challenges are yours!)

Andrew McGahan, The white earthAnyhow, I went on to read his very different novel, The white earth (2004), a rather ambitious multi-generation book about indigenous and non-indigenous Australian love of land/country. It was inspired by the 1992 native title legislation and the conflicting attitudes towards it. It was controversial in some quarters. I liked it. In my letter to my Californian friend, I did say it was a little “clumsy” and used some fairly conventional images and symbolism, but again, over time, it’s a book whose “message”, whose heart really, has stayed with me, while other books I read back then haven’t.

I haven’t read any other of McGahan’s novels. though he wrote three more, Last drinks (2000), Underground (2007) and Wonders of a godless world (2009). According to Wikipedia, he also wrote young adult novels, a play and the screenplay for the film of Praise. The reason he came up at my reading group earlier this week was because one of our members – a recently retired rep for McGahan’s publisher Allen & Unwin – was reading Last drinks. It’s about police corruption in Queensland, and she was wondering if Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe was going to visit similar ground. It doesn’t – but she did tell us that McGahan was taking his diagnosis philosophically and was continuing to work on his new novel. It will be published later this year.

The wonderful thing about McGahan was his versatility, having tried his hand at several genres and forms. He didn’t do a bad job at them either, as the following awards for literary, crime, science fiction and children’s fiction reveal:

  • Praise: the Australian/Vogel Award (for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under 35 years of age); the Commonwealth Writers Prize for First Novel (Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region)
  • Praise (screenplay): AFI Award for Best Adapted Screenplay; the Queensland Premier’s Award for Best Drama Script.
  • Last drinks: Ned Kelly Award for Crime Writing for Best First Novel. (That must mean best first crime novel?)
  • The white earth: Miles Franklin Award; Commonwealth Writers Prize Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region; Age Book of the Year; Courier Mail Book of the Year.
  • Wonders of a godless world: Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.
  • The coming of the whirlpool: CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) Book of the Year.

For a lovely insight into who McGahan was, albeit from 2004 when The white earth came out, check out this article with him in The Age. The Guardian Australia’s announcement of his death and tribute is also worth reading.

I am very sorry to hear that he has died, and pass my sympathy to his family, friends and colleagues. Fifty-two is just too young to die. He may not have been, for me, the “perfect” writer, but he made a lasting impression on me, so much so that those three books I’ve read frequently come to mind. In the end, what writer could ask for more? (Except for some more years, perhaps!)