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Monday musings on Australian literature: Refugee literature

June 21, 2021

I had planned another post for this week, but that can wait, as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has reminded me that it is Refugee Week, and I thought that should take priority. Lisa has posted on a book relevant to the week, and includes in her post a link to a reading list of books she provided last year. Do check her posts out, because she also briefly describes the successes and failures of Australia’s treatment of refugees.

Refugee Week was first commemorated in Australia in 1986 in Sydney, and became a national event in 1988. It runs from Sunday to Saturday of the week which includes 20 June (World Refugee Day), so this year it actually runs from Sunday 20 to Saturday 27 June. Its aim, as you can imagine, is “to inform the public about refugees and celebrate positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society” in order to encourage Australians to welcome them and help them become integral part of our community.

Before I get to my main topic of refugee literature, I thought it would be worth reminding us of a book that was not written by a refugee but which, among other things, makes a point about the contributions made to Australia by postwar European refugees. I’m talking Madeleine St John’s The women in black (my review). For baby-boomers, this novel brought back the suspicion with which Australians viewed, for example, the strange food introduced into Australia at the time, like salami, for example! My sense is that we learnt a lesson from this and are now more welcoming of the wonderful new foods refugees can bring to us. But, of course, refugees bring much more than simply food to a country. For St John’s Europeans, this included more cultured or intellectual interests, and greater equality between the sexes.

Recent refugee literature in Australia

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountains

There is a wealth of post-war European refugee literature published in Australia, but for this post I want to focus on more recent literature. And probably the best known recent work of refugee literature in Australia was/is Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains. As it turns out, this Kurdish-Iranian asylum-seeker to Australia has ended up in New Zealand. However, his book, which he wrote on a mobile phone and transmitted in a series of single messages, won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction. It was translated from Persian into English by Omid Tofighian.

Refugee literature comes in various forms – memoirs, of course, of which Boochani’s book is an example, but also novels, poetry and drama. Most commonly, it’s the next generation whose voices are heard, than the adults who came here.

AS Patric, Black rock white city

These “next” generation writers include those who came as quite young children. They are true bearers of both worlds. Anh Do, author of the memoir, The happiest refugee, is an example. He came to Australia as a Vietnamese boat-person in 1980 when he was just a toddler. Nam Le, author of the short story collection, The boat, was a baby when his parents arrived here, also as Vietnamese boat people. Two of the stories in his collection deal specifically with the experience of migration, but all, as I recollect, confront the idea of survival which must surely have been inspired by his family’s experiences.

Another example is AS Patrić, who was a child when he came to Australia from Serbia (and the Yugoslav Wars). He won the Miles Franklin Award with his debut novel, Black rock white city (my review), which graphically portrays the feeling of displacement experienced by refugees.

Alice Pung, by contrast, was born in Australia a year after her parents arrived as refugees from Cambodia. She has written memoirs about her family, including Her father’s daughter (my review).

Indian-born Aravind Adiga’s novel, Amnesty (Lisa’s review), has recently been shortlisted for the 2021 Miles Franklin award. He is not a refugee, and does not live in Australia, but his novel deals with with some of the most complex issues confronting Australia at the moment, that of people coming to Australia via people smugglers, seeking asylum but not deemed to be refugees. This novel forces its protagonist to confront his status, while also looking at how his position in Australia makes this such an issue.

Refugee literature makes many contributions to our literature. One is refugee writers’ willingness to challenge literary norms and genres, and to push boundaries. Boochani and Patrić are particularly good examples of this. Another is the focus they bring to our perception of Australian culture and identity, confronting us with issues like racism and promoting social justice causes. Alice Pung’s writing exemplifies this. Both, though, force us to rethink the status quo, and to see both our literature and our culture through different eyes and we are, surely, richer for it.

I’m afraid that this is a brief post because, as some of you know, I am family and grandchild visiting in Melbourne. However, I hope I have done at least a little justice to Refugee Week.

I’d love to you to contribute to the discussion, with, for example, your own favourite examples of refugee literature – and why you like them.

Favourite quotes: from Marion Halligan’s Fog Garden

June 19, 2021

Some time ago, I started a little ad hoc Favourite Quotes series but I haven’t added to it for some time. This post, I actually drafted back then, but never got around to completely it, but I will now!

One of my favourite Australian writers, though I’ve only reviewed one of her recent books on my blog, is Marion Halligan. It’s fitting therefore, that she feature in this little series. The quotes – and there are four – all come from The fog garden, which was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award and the Nita Kibble Literary Award (which is for “life writing”). I loved it, and felt it deserved these and more accolades.

I read The fog garden in 2002, a year after it came out, and so, unfortunately, a few years before blogging. It’s an autobiographical novel. In other words, it’s a novel, it’s fiction, but it draws from Halligan’s life. It is about Clare, a novelist, and how she copies with grief after the death of her beloved husband. The novel was triggered or inspired by, or a response to – I’m not sure which here is the most accurate – the death of Halligan’s husband of 35 years.

What I love about it is that as well as being about grief, and the wisdom one learns from the tough experiences of life, it is also about fiction. What I love, in other words, is that it’s about life, it’s about writing, and it is also about reading. It asks us readers to think about how we read. It’s cheeky – and those of you who know how much I love Jane Austen, how much I love Carmel Bird, will know how much I love cheeky writers.

So, here is our first person narrator writing about her character Clare:

She isn’t me. She’s a character in fiction. And like all such characters she makes her way through the real world which her author invents for her. She tells the truth as she sees it, but may not always be right.  (p. 9)

I mean, really, you’ve got to love that. It’s the real world, but a version of it invented by the author for her character. Just because it’s a recognisable world, and just because the things Clare says and does are “true” doesn’t mean that they are the things author Halligan said, did and believed. They could be but they aren’t necessarily so, and we should not assume they are so, because this is fiction not a memoir. If Halligan had wanted to write a memoir she certainly would have. By writing fiction Halligan was freer to explore her feelings and to play with where they might take her.

Anyhow, here again is our first person narrator writing about writing Clare:

A reader could think that, since Clare is my character, I can make all sorts of things happen to her that I can’t make happen to myself. This is slightly true, but not entirely … only if it is not betraying the truths of her life and character as I have imagined them. (p. 10)

Of course: once you create a character, that character must be true to what you have created.

And here is a little insight into the challenges of writing. I certainly know about writers’ metaphors that have taken me in wrong directions.

That is the trouble with metaphor, it may take you to places you don’t want to go. (p. 279)

And, finally, one of my favourite quotes from all the books I’ve read, and one I’ve shared before.

Read a wise book and lay its balm on your soul.

If you haven’t read The fog garden, and ever get a chance, do give it a go. It’s a wise – but also lively – book.

Meanwhile, do any of these quotes speak to you?

Miles Franklin Award 2021 shortlist

June 17, 2021

I haven’t posted on the Miles Franklin Award since 2019, and I didn’t post this year’s longlist when it came out last month, but, despite my woeful record – I’ve yet to read any on the longlist – I felt it was about time I returned to Australia’s best known literary award.

Unfortunately, I was driving in the back blocks of northeast Victoria when the announcement was made, with no Internet connection in our room overnight. We have landed in civilisation – hmmm – depending on you definition, and are once more connected! I thought I’d start by sharing the longlist:

The longlist

Book cover
  • Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty (Lisa’s review)
  • Robbie Arnott’s The rain heron
  • Daniel Davis Wood’s At the edge of the solid world
  • Gail Jones’ Our shadows
  • Sofie Laguna’s Infinite Splendours (on my TBR and will definitely be read this year)
  • Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth (Lisa’s review)
  • Laura Jean Mckay’s The animals in that country (my, I wish I’d read this already, given its popularity on awards lists)
  • Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s
  • Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone sky, gold mountain (on my TBR)
  • Philip Salom’s The fifth season (on my TBR) (Lisa’s review)
  • Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile ((on my TBR and will definitely be read this year)
  • Madeleine Watts’ The inland sea

The judges describe the spread as “‘a rich mix of well-established, early career and debut novelists whose work ranges from historical fiction to fabulism and psychologism”.

And now, the shortlist:

  • Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty
  • Robbie Arnott’s The rain heron
  • Daniel Davis Wood’s At the edge of the solid world
  • Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth
  • Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s
  • Madeleine Watts’ The inland sea

Some random observations:

  • Two of the authors – Adiga and Wood – are not Australian-born or based, but meet the award’s criteria because their subject matter is Australian (that is, they present ‘Australian life in any of its phases’). Adiga won the Booker Prize in 2008 with The white tiger, and Wood is apparently the founder and publisher of Splice, a small UK-based press.
  • None of these books are on my TBR pile – wah – though I have been wanting to read Lohrey so this might be the impetus I need.
  • There appears to be less diversity in terms of author background, though Adiga is Indian.
  • There are four women and two men, which is fine, particularly given the award has rebalanced the gender representation well over recent years.
  • None of these authors have won the Award before, but two, Arnott and Lohrey, have been listed before.
  • Two – Pippos and Watts – are debut novelists.
  • Lisa (ANZLitLovers) will be happy as she was mightily impressed with Lohrey’s Labyrinth (see her review above).

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

The chair of the judging panel, Richard Neville, said

‘In various ways each of this year’s shortlisted books investigate destructive loss: of loved ones, freedom, self and the environment … There is, of course, beauty and joy to be found, and decency and hope, largely through the embrace of community but, as the shortlist reminds us, often community is no match for more powerful forces.’

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), author and activist Sisonke Msimang, and critics Melinda Harvey, Bernadette Brennan and James Ley.

The winner will be announced on 15 July.

And, for a bit of fun, we saw this on a school notice board as we drove by today:

I always knock on the fridge door just in case salad’s dressing. (Eltham Primary School) 

What do you think – of the shortlist, I mean!?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Return of The Age Book of the Year

June 14, 2021

Early in my retirement, I spent quite a bit of time creating and editing articles on Australian literature in Wikipedia. I focused on a couple of subject areas in particular, Australian women writers and Australian literary awards. One of the awards I worked on was the well-regarded The Age Book of the Year Awards.

Gillian Mears' Foal's bread

They were established by Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, and were first awarded in 1974. For 15 years – between 1998 and 2012 – they were presented during the Melbourne Writers Festival (like the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards are during the Sydney Writers Festival.) They started with two awards – fiction and nonfiction – but in 1993, a third was added for poetry. One of the winning books from these categories was chosen as The Age Book of the Year. Sadly – at least, sadly for those who think literary awards have value – this award was cancelled in 2013. However, I have just read – in The Age of course – that it has been revived, and the winner will be announced, once again, at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

The revival was written up by The Age’s literary editor, Jason Steger:

In a double boost for writers, readers and the book industry The Age is sponsoring the Melbourne Writers Festival and reviving the Age Book of the Year award…

Apparently, The Age’s current editor, Gay Alcorn was “dismayed” when she joined the paper in 2020 and found that it no longer supported the Festival. Steger quotes her as saying, “I am thrilled that it has been rectified. The festival is about books and writing, ideas and debate in this city – exactly what The Age champions.” Even if you don’t like Awards, you will hopefully like this editor’s belief that a newspaper should champion “books and writing, ideas and debate”.

This year there will only be a fiction award, but there are plans to revive the other two categories and the overall “book of the year” in the future. With just three months to go, they’d better get their skates on to even do just one award this year! My web search has not found any further information about how the prize is going to be managed, how (or whether) books are submitted, and/or who will be judging. Neither is there any information about what the actual prize is. We will just have to wait.

We’ll also have to wait to see whether long and shortlists will be announced. For me, as a reader, these lists are as important as the award itself, as they provide good guides to what is going around.

Recap of Past Fiction Awards

You won’t be surprised that past winners of the fiction category include writers who are some of our biggest literary names, but before I share some of them, I should explain that the award was described as “Imaginative writing”. The result is that an early winner was a poetry collection – AD Hope’s A late picking – awarded before poetry was given its own prize. It also includes short stories, but as these are fiction, that shouldn’t be a surprise!

So, let’s look at some of the winners. Over the Award’s 38 years, there were 39 winners, as one year the award was shared. Of these, 16 were by women. The first award was made in 1974 to David Foster’s The pure land, and the last, in 2012, to Gillian Mears’ Foal’s bread (my review).

Book cover

The writer who won the most awards is Peter Carey, with four, for True history of the Kelly Gang (2001), Jack Maggs (1997), The unusual life of Tristan Smith (1994), and Illywhacker (1985). One writer received three awards, Elizabeth Jolley, for The Georges’ wife (1993) (Bill’s review), My father’s moon (1989) (my review), and Mr Scobie’s riddle (1983).

Three writers won twice – David Malouf, Joan London and Thea Astley.

If you compare this award with other major fiction awards over the same period – such as the Christina Stead Award (NSW Premier’s Literary Award) and the Miles Franklin – you will see a large overlap in authors, but not so much in actual titles. In other words, Carey, Jolley, Astley, and so on, have won awards on each list, but for different books. Carey, for example, won the Miles Franklin in 1989 for Oscar and Lucinda, and the Christina Stead in 1982 for Bliss. Jolley won the Miles Franklin in 1986 for The well, and the Christina Stead in 1985 for Milk and honey, while Thea Astley won four Miles Franklins, but all for different books than her two The Age winners.

Of course, there are also authors who only appear on one list. Nicholas Hasluck, for example, won The Age’s award but neither of the other two.

None of this is particularly surprising. Occasionally, we see a book sweeping the awards, but mostly – and this is a healthy thing, I’d argue – the accolades and largesse are spread around.

What is worth noting but not surprising about The Age’s award and the other two I’ve mentioned here is that before 2012, very few authors from diverse backgrounds won. Since then, authors like Kim Scott, Michelle de Kretser, Melissa Lucashenko, Tara June Winch and Melinda Bobis have won literary fiction awards, and it has happened often enough for it to be no longer particularly commented on, which is as it should be. Presumably, The Age’s award will continue this trend.

We await the next move …

George Orwell, My country right or left (#Review)

June 12, 2021

Having recently posted on the fourth essay, “The prevention of literature“, in my book of George Orwell essays, I’ve decided to plough on and try to finish it. The next essay is the short, cleverly titled, “My country right or left”. It was first published in Autumn 1940 in Folios of new writing.

It’s a curious little essay. I’m going to introduce it by sharing the Orwell quote used by the Orwell Foundation under its banner: “What I have most wanted to do… is to make political writing into an art”. You can certainly tell from “The prevention of literature” that he sees literature as being necessarily political. That essay was written in 1946, just after World War 2 had ended. “My country right or left” was first published just one year into this war – and is politically-driven.

The essay starts with:

Contrary to popular belief, the past was not more eventful than the present. If it seems so it is because when you look backward things that happened years apart are telescoped together, and because very few of your memories come to you genuinely virgin. It is largely because of the books, films and reminiscences that have come between that the war of 1914-18 is now supposed to have had some tremendous, epic quality that the present one lacks.

I wasn’t sure at all, from this opening, where it was going. Soon, however, it’s clear that war is the driver for the essay which turns out to be about Orwell trying to rationalise, or work through, his socialist beliefs, his previously avowed pacifism, and his patriotism (and thus support for the war).

He writes about being a middle-class school boy during World War 1 and being oblivious to what was happening, particularly to “the true significance” of the big events. He writes:

The Russian Revolution, for instance, made no impression, except on the few whose parents happened to have money invested in Russia. 

I’m sure that’s not unusual! He talks about how pacifism

had set in long before the war ended. To be as slack as you dared on O.T.C. parades, and to take no interest in the war was considered a mark of enlightenment.

Interestingly, however, this pacifism, he says, gradually gave way to a certain nostalgia in those who had not experienced the war! He suggests that this was why his generation was so interested in the Spanish Civil War. He then moves onto World War 2, to the growing awareness in the mid-1930s that it was coming and – this is his main point – his realisation that he “was patriotic at heart” and “would support the war”.

Orwell’s sees this as a no-brainer. He says:

If I had to defend my reasons for supporting the war, I believe I could do so. There is no real alternative between resisting Hitler and surrendering to him, and from a Socialist point of view I should say that it is better to resist; in any case I can see no argument for surrender that does not make nonsense of the Republican resistance in Spain, the Chinese resistance to Japan, etc. etc. 

But, he admits that this support stemmed primarily from “the long drilling in patriotism which the middle classes go through”. The drilling had, he said, “done its work … once England was in a serious jam it would be impossible for me to sabotage”. This patriotism, however, in not incompatible, he argues, with his socialist view that “only revolution can save England”. That “has been obvious for years”. “To be loyal both to Chamberlain’s England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility”, he writes, but it is, in fact, a fact, because such dual loyalties were happening everyday. Revolution could not happen with Hitler in control, so, Hitler must be resisted.

His final point is to criticise the left-wing intellectuals who do not understand this, though his method is curious. He turns to the idea of “patriotism”, arguing that “patriotism” should not be equated with “conservatism”, because, unlike “conservatism”, “patriotism” can encompass change. Indeed, he proposes that “socialism” can grow out of the emotions that underpin “patriotism”, whether “the boiled rabbits of the Left” like it or not.

So, curiously argued perhaps, but I can imagine the socialist-leaning, middle-class raised, intellectually open Orwell wanting to nut out how to marry his socialist beliefs with the very real threats his imperfect Britain was facing – and coming up with something confronting, but true.

Wikipedia writes that “according to his notes to his literary executor in 1949”, this was one of three essays that he did not want reprinted after his death. I can sort of see why, and I don’t know why the executor didn’t respect this. However, I do like the insight this essay provides into how Orwell thought, and that it shows him to be an independent thinker, rather than a parroter of received truths.

Previous reviews of essays from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, “Confessions of a book reviewer“, and “The prevention of literature“.

George Orwell
“My country right or left” (orig. 1940)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 21-41
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading and publishing, pandemic-wise

June 7, 2021

In his 1946 essay, “The prevention of literature”, George Orwell named “the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books” as one of the threats to literature. I commented in my post that I didn’t know how that stood now in England, but that I thought Australians were currently buying books. The week’s Monday Musings seemed a good opportunity to check this out.

It didn’t take long to confirm. Jason Steger, literary editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, reported on 4 June, in his weekly emailed newsletter, that:

total book sales in Australia, according to Nielsen BookScan, jumped by 9 per cent to 66 million in 2020 … It’s proof that even as we sink more and more time into streaming services and social media, we’re still finding entertainment and enlightenment in books, and increasingly so during times of crisis and change.

This confirms what the Australian and New Zealand book industry’s Books+Publishing reported last (southern) spring (30 September):

For the first eight months of 2020, adult fiction sales were up 12% in value compared to the same period in 2019, and children’s, YA and educational sales were up 7%, according to data from Nielsen BookScan. Only adult trade nonfiction was lagging slightly, with sales down 1%.

This includes some catch-up, because, apparently, sales were down 3% in 2019 after 5 years of “marginal growth”.

Unfortunately, the figures do not include “ebooks and audiobooks, as their sales aren’t tracked in Australia in any reliable way”. We don’t know, therefore, whether, with lockdowns, more people turned to eBooks, making the increase even better than they look.

On the other hand …

While this looks positive, it’s not evenly so. Books+Publishing notes that bookshops in major city centres and some shopping centres struggled – particularly in Melbourne with its long lockdown – while sales in suburban strip shopping centres and regional towns were up on last year. The major winners were the online retailers and discount department stores. I don’t know whether these “online retailers” include the bricks-and-mortar shops which introduced online options.

Book cover

Books+Publishing also looked at the impact on publishing. They reported that major publishers “appear to have weathered the fallout from Covid-19 better than many of the smaller publishers, particularly those with titles doing well in discount department stores, chains and online retailers”. Many smaller publishers reported significant declines in sales. An exception was Melbourne’s Affirm Press which chose not to delay publishing any of its titles. It had excellent results with Pip Williams’ debut novel The dictionary of lost words which went into reprint in its first week.

Steger takes up the impact on writers, particularly debut authors who had “book launches, festival appearances and publicity tours cancelled”. He links to Melanie Kembrey’s article on how “six authors got their books published – in the hardest of times”. The article, actually, focuses more generally on these debut authors than on the impact of COVID-19, but a couple of authors do talk about it. Sam Coley, author of State Highway One, had a sense of humour about it saying:

Since you’re not going to make any money out of it, that’s the real fun part of it, drinking wine on our publisher’s expense account … It was disappointing. It was difficult to launch a book online and then still be inside your own house.

He also had a publicity tour of New Zealand cancelled (thus missing more excellent wine-drinking opportunities, I’d say!)

Vivian Pham, author of the well-regarded The coconut children, was “relieved” that the coronavirus meant cancellation of public events. It was a silver lining, for her, as it gave her time to process what was happening. She didn’t feel “ready”, having had no “public speaking” experience. She said she’d “mainly been doing online events and book clubs which feel really personal.” She liked that the pandemic “slowed things down” because it had been “overwhelming.”

Many of you will have seen/attended online events, like those mentioned by Pham. One lovely one that I attended was Writers in Residence, which focused on emerging writers. Blogger Lisa (ANZLitLovers) offered to host Virtual Launches and had three authors take this up.

What sold?

You may have noticed in the figures above that most areas increased, except for adult nonfiction which showed a small decrease. Steger reported in January on 2020’s bestselling books. He starts by noting a trend already under way, “the continuing absence of one of the staples of many annual bestseller lists, international and American fiction, particularly crime”. How interesting.

A decade ago, the top 10 books sold in Australia included only one Australian book (a cookbook), says Steger. However, in 2020, only two US books were on the list (one being Delia Owens’ Where the crawdads sing). Mark Newman, managing director of the 57-shop Dymocks chain, said there’s been a growing trend towards Australian stories. This started in 2016 with Jane Harper’s The dry. Novels which appeared in 2020’s top 10 included Trent Dalton’s All the shimmering skies and Jane Harper’s The survivors. Newman said that 2020 had been “particularly strong for Australian authors with new books.

Bruce Pasco, Dark emu

Other Australian books which appeared in the top 20 included Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu which was first published in 2014.

Books+Publishing categorised what people were reading, and came up with “escapist fiction, self-help and children’s books (middle grade)”. According to Allen & Unwin, crime by both Australian and international authors, was selling well, particularly from “well-loved local and international authors … as people are looking for something they know they will enjoy”. This was not me. Although for reasons many of you know I read less, my reading preferences didn’t change.

Anyhow, Books+Publishing writes,

In the absence of browsing opportunities, established brands, titles and authors were the clear winners. ‘Debut literary fiction has been more challenging,’ says Sherwin-Stark [Hachette Australia]. ‘In normal times, our debut authors would be out and about meeting booksellers and readers on publication, and this has just not been possible.’

The impact of the lack of “browsing” is something I hadn’t considered. You can browse books online, but, do you? Do you?

Sherwin-Stark also says something that I’m sure many of us observed: 

“the pandemic has encouraged the industry to get more creative in their promotion. ‘Publishers and bookshops have been incredibly innovative to find ways to connect readers with authors—virtual events are excellent and attracting very large viewing audiences and these events will become a part of our promotional mix permanently.’

So there it is … a little round-up on the pandemic’s impact on the bookselling and publishing.

I’d love to hear about your experience of pandemic reading?

Six degrees of separation, FROM The bass rock TO …

June 5, 2021

It’s June downunder – well, I suppose it’s June everywhere! – but here, downunder, June also means winter, so, wah! Oh well, the sooner it starts, the sooner it’s over! And, while we are suffering it, we can aways enjoy fun blogging things like our Six Degrees of Separation meme. If you don’t know how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule, as most of you know, is that Kate sets our starting book – and I’m sorry to say that again it’s a book I haven’t read, but I love her choice because it’s this year’s Stella Prize winner, Evie Wyld’s The bass rock.

Catherine McKinnon, Storyland

I was spoilt for choices with this starting book, in that there are several obvious links to books I’ve read, like, a previous Stella Prize winner or another book by Evie Wyld. But, I wanted to challenge myself a bit more than that, so, hmm, you probably won’t like this, but Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland (my review) opens in the voice of a young man who is employed by the explorer George Bass! Yes, I know, going from title to minor character is cheeky but it’s my blog and I wanted to remind readers of Storyland, because it’s a good read.

Jane Rawson, A wrong turn at the office of unmade lists

Storyland covers time multiple periods in Australia, including two futuristic ones, the first being 2033 when climate change has caused significant destruction resulting in people struggling to survive. Jane Rawson’s A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review) is set in two time frames, one being 2030, when climate change has wrought destruction in Australia resulting in … well, you get the gist. It’s also a good read that deserves to be remembered.

Kim Mahood, Position doubtful

My next link is another cheeky one because we are taking a wrong turn and ending up in a doubtful position, or, should I say, in Kim Mahood’s wonderful memoir, Position doubtful (my review). It’s set in Australia’s Tanami Desert region and chronicles Mahood’s regular trips there to explore and understand her relationship to place, and how her relationship sits against that of the Indigenous owners.

Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate nomad, book cover

We are staying in deserts for my next link but on the other side of the world. In other words we are going to the Middle East, with Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s biography, Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark (my review). Like Mahood, Stark spent a lot of time in the desert, and was, in fact, one of the first non-Arabians to travel through the southern Arabian deserts.

Charles Dickens, On travel

Freya Stark was a travel writer among other things, so my next link is to a writer who wrote about travel among other things, Charles Dickens. The book is a little collection of his essays on travel, titled On travel (my review)! In my review I wrote that “Reading these reminds me yet again why I love Dickens. I enjoy his acute observation of humankind and his sense of humour. He makes me laugh. Regularly. And then there is his versatile use of the English language. The man can write.”

Can you guess where we go from “versatile use of the English language” and “the man can write”, particularly given we are also talking essays? I think it’s pretty obvious, George Orwell. My link is Penguin’s Great Ideas selection of his essays titled Books v. Cigarettes. I have not reviewed the book, but I have reviewed four of the seven essays in it: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, “Confessions of a book reviewer” and, just yesterday, “The prevention of literature“. I do love a good essay.

Last month I linked only Australian authors which I thought was a bit ethnocentric of me, so this month I did my best to leave Australia, with an American author (Geniesse) and two English ones (Dickens and Orwell) as well as three Australians. As often happens in my six degrees, four of the writers are women and two men. However, I can’t help thinking this is one of my weirder chains, but I had fun doing it.

Now, the usual: Have you read The bass rock? And, regardless, what would you link to?

George Orwell, The prevention of literature (#Review)

June 4, 2021

One of the reasons a work becomes a classic is its timelessness, its continued relevance to each period in which it is read. This is certainly why many of George Orwell’s works are seen as classics. Scarily, there is nothing more relevant now than his writing on the impact of totalitarianism – of which his 1946 essay, “The prevention of literature”, is one example.

The essay starts by responding to a PEN meeting that was held on the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica. Milton defends, Orwell writes, “the freedom of the press”, and he was concerned that not one of several hundred people present “could point out that the freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose”.

Orwell continues to say that there are two main threats to “the idea of intellectual liberty”: the theoretical enemies, or proponents of totalitarianism; and, the immediate, practical enemies, bureaucracy and monopoly. He spends little time on this latter, but I’ll mention it because it is as valid now as it was then. He sumarises it as:

the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and the films, and the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books.

I’m not sure how the last of these stands now, but I believe Australians are buying books, and particularly did so during the pandemic. However, his first two points are certainly still valid concerns, eight decades later.

Orwell’s prime focus, however, was the impact of totalitarianism on intellectual freedom, and thus on literature. He spends some time discussing attacks on freedom of thought and the press. He argues that

in the foreground the controversy over freedom of speech and the press is at bottom a controversy over the desirability or otherwise of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the bias and self deception in which every observer necessarily suffers.

I love this qualification, but I think you can see where this is going in terms of my opening paragraph. I’m not going to write a treatise on this, but Russian-American Masha Gessen wrote a response to it in The New Yorker, in 2018, which is well worth reading for their historical understanding of where Orwell was coming from as well as for their commentary on its relevance to how. They wrote that:

We live in a time when intentional, systematic, destabilizing lying—totalitarian lying for the sake of lying, lying as a way to assert or capture political power—has become the dominant factor in public life in Russia, the United States, Great Britain, and many other countries in the world. When we engage with the lies—and engaging with these lies is unavoidable and even necessary—we forfeit the imagination. But the imagination is where democracy lives. We imagine the present and the past, and then we imagine the future.

What Gessen is referring to here is, first, the point that Orwell makes about totalitarianism’s “disbelief in the very existence of objective truth” – its lack of interest in “truthfulness” – and, second, its quashing of the “imagination” which is fundamental to literature.

Orwell argues that totalitarianism engenders instability, that totalitarians alter their perspectives at a moment’s notice to suit the prevailing situation. Such a society, he writes, “can never permit either the truthful recoding of facts, or the emotional sincerity, that literary creation demands”. You don’t have to be in a totalitarian state for this to happen, he adds. This problem can also occur wherever there is “an enforced orthodoxy – or even two orthodoxies”, where you cannot write sincerely. This point, I think, is worth considering in terms of “rules” about who can write what. I am certainly sympathetic to the concern about people’s stories being appropriated and, more problematically, being over-ridden, but there are many stories and “truths”, and sincere (I like this word) writing about them should be welcomed and respected. We learn about ourselves through the give-and-take, the conversation, that the arts facilitates. It is truly positive that we are now hearing more voices – this is what we must encourage and protect – but it would be dangerous if all these voices were confined to boxes.

Related to this is Orwell’s understanding of literature. He writes that “above a quite low level, literature is an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience”. For him, essentially all literature – particularly “prose literature” – is political in some sense. He says “there is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near the surface of everyone’s consciousness”. It sounds very much like our time.

Finally, after some other fascinating discussions – some of which made sense, some less so to me, such as his discussion of verse – he concludes that “a bought mind is a spoilt mind” and that “the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity”.

“The prevention of literature”, although written at a very particular point in world history, turned out to be more relevant than I would have hoped possible. It raises many questions about the threats we are currently facing to intellectual liberty and freedom of expression, and thus, to “truthfully” reporting, to “sincerely” questioning, what we see happening.

Previous reviews of essays from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, and “Confessions of a book reviewer“.

George Orwell
“The prevention of literature” (orig. 1946)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 21-41
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Memorable Australian fictional families

May 31, 2021

A bit of a fun post this week that I hope will engage you, regardless of where you live or what you read. This post is a sort of companion to one I wrote back in 2017 on Memorable Australian characters. I’ve had this post in mind ever since then, but have kept putting it off because – well – how many truly memorable fictional families are there in Australian literature? I have a few which I’ll share below, but first I though to whet your appetite with some non-Australian ones like, of course, Jane Austen’s Bennets and Louisa May Alcott’s March family.

What makes a memorable family? Is it the relationship between the members? Is it the liveliness or some other strong characteristic of certain members? Is it the family’s ability to rise above misfortune or tragedy? Is it the chemistry of the family as a whole? Or is it all in the writing?

So, here is my list, presented alphabetically by the family’s name …

The Darcys: When I thought about this topic, Ruth Park’s Darcy family was uppermost in my mind. It comprises parents, daughters, a son-in-law and more as the books progress. I first read The harp in the south (1948) and its sequel Poor man’s orange (1949) in my mid-teens and I loved them because of the warmth of the family – they were real, they disagreed with each other, they struggled to make ends meet, but they fundamentally loved and supported each other. I also loved that nearly four decades later, in 1985, Ruth Park wrote a prequel, Missus (my review), in which she tells how the parents, Mumma and Hughie, met and got together. The thing about these books is that not only do they contain the story of an engaging family, but they tell an important story about early to mid-twentieth century Australia.

The Lambs and the Pickles: Winton’s two families, like the Darcys, have become classics of Australian literature – as is the house in which they live together, the titular Cloudstreet (1991). Park’s novels are very much about the Aussie battler, and so, in a way, is Cloudstreet, except that it’s a book of a different time and a different literary sensibility. Winton uses his families to confront us with our assumptions about who we are. Wikipedia quotes Australian picture-book author, Mem Fox, as saying “If you have not read Cloudstreet, your life is diminished . . . if you have not met these characters, this generous community, these tragedies, the humour. It is so wonderful.” Can’t say much better than that. For some, Cloudstreet is our GAN.

The Langtons: This family does not, I suspect, jump immediately into people’s minds, but Martin Boyd’s Langton Tetralogy, which started with The cardboard crown in 1952, and finished a decade later with When blackbirds sing (Lisa’s review), offers a fascinating insight into a very different sort of family to the Darcys, Lambs, and Pickles. The Langtons are well-to-do and are based on Boyd’s own, somewhat eccentric, intellectual and artistic family. They, the Langtons, think little of whizzing over to England when life is unsatisfying in Australia. I have read the second novel, A difficult young man (my review), and would happily read more. Wikipedia quotes academic Gillian Dooley on why these books may not as well-read today:

“Boyd’s subject matter is no doubt the principal reason for his neglect. By any standards, his prose is strong and luminous and his novels are beautifully crafted and immensely readable. But the late twentieth century had little patience with the scandals and vicissitudes of Anglo-Australian aristocratic families, with no apparent connections with convicts, sealers or whalers, or the indigenous people. Boyd was admittedly something of a good old-fashioned snob.”

Like Lisa, and I believe Dooley, I think Boyd’s novels are worth reading for their writing, their wit – and for their insights into a different place, time and people. I don’t agree with what seems to be a fairly common notion that the well-to-do are neither valid nor interesting to read about – particularly if the writing is of high calibre.

Ethel Turner, Seven Little Australians

The Woolcots: If you don’t know who the Woolcots are, you are probably not Australian! They are Ethel Turner’s family in her Seven little Australians series. These are children’s books so the family focus here is on the seven children, their relationships with each other, and what they get up to. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, Seven little Australians, the first in the series which was published in 1894, was an instant hit in Australia and overseas. Here is some praise from Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin (7 November 1894) which suggests why it was popular:

Because there is no preaching, or homilies on the evils of wrong-doing, children will read the book more readily, and they will be dullards who will escape the moral tone of it. Our authoress gives us nice descriptions of Australian scenery, all the more attractive that they are truthful and not over-coloured. Old hands, we dare-say, will pick holes in the book, but on the whole it is truthfully realistic. 

So that’s my (very) little eclectic list. I know there are others but my aim is not to be comprehensive but to start a discussion about some of the “classic” families in literature and why we like them.

Now, over to you. Who are your most memorable families, Australian or otherwise, and why?

Delia Owens, Where the crawdads sing (#BookReview)

May 28, 2021

Delia Owens’ bestselling debut novel, Where the crawdads sing, is a problematical novel, as my reading group discovered – and yet, I couldn’t help being emotionally engaged. It reminded me a little of a childhood favourite, Gene Stratton Porter’s A girl of the Limberlost. My heart went out to Owen’s protagonist, Kya, the maligned, ignored, Marsh Girl, and I loved the writing about the North Carolina marshland. But, intellectually, I had to work to defend my enjoyment, which I’ll aim to share here.

“in the end, that is all you have, the connections”

I’ll start with the obvious, a summary of the plot. The main narrative runs from 1952 to 1970, and is told in two chronologies that eventually meet. The novel tells the story of Kya, who, in 1952, is six when her Mum and, soon after, her siblings leave home. Four years later, when she’s ten, her father also departs, leaving her alone, in their North Carolina marsh shack. She can’t read, has no money, and few skills. But, she’s an intelligent, resourceful little girl, and, with the help of a few kind people, she makes a life – albeit a lonely one – for herself. The novel commences, however, in 1969 with the discovery of the body of a young man, Chase Andrews, who is a local football hero. Was it an accident or was he murdered? The second chronology, then, is a crime story, following the investigation of this death through to the court case. You can probably guess where the two chronologies meet.

Owens manages this structure skilfully, drawing us into Kya’s life, and how and why she develops into the person she is in 1970, while, simultaneously, slowly building suspense by recounting the details of the investigation. The writing is lush and evocative, ensuring that we engage with Kya and her struggle to survive, her increasing loneliness and her desperation to connect with others. We see her turn to nature and wildlife to learn about life, as well as to provide herself with sustenance and give her a minimal income (by selling fish and mussels, for example).

This is nature writing at its best, with stunning descriptions of the marsh, and the birds, fish and insects that inhabit it, but it is also eco-fiction, with occasional allusions to development. Tate, a young man who befriends Kya (and provides her with a much-needed connection) tells her:

They think it’s wasteland that should be drained and developed. People don’t understand that most sea creatures—including the very ones they eat—need the marsh.”

The marsh is Kya’s family; it is what, in the absence of family, forms her:

She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.

It is hard, as a reader, not to care about Kya. Will she find the connections she so badly wants – “Being completely alone was a feeling so vast it echoed” – and will they stick?

“it’s usually the trap that gets foxed”

However, it’s easy to pick holes in the book. Kya’s survival (given her youth) and her development into an educated young woman (given she only spent one day at school) can stretch credulity. Many of the characters feel stereotyped, from the good “colored” people, who put themselves out to help Kya, to the prejudiced townspeople, who reject and exclude her (as they do all marsh people). “Barkley Cove”, writes Owens, “served its religion hard-boiled and deep-fried”. And, if you don’t like your heartstrings being obviously pulled, you may not engage with Kya at all.

All this makes it problematical, because it’s one of those books that whether you love or hate depends largely on what sort of reader you are, what you like to read, and/or how you read this particular book. There are many ways to read Where the crawdads sing – a crime story, a romance, a coming-of-age story, historical fiction, a modern fairy-story or allegory, even, to name a few. Some of these ways demand more realism than others, and expose holes which are irrelevant to other ways. It is one of these other ways that appeals to me.

This way is to read it more like a fairy story or allegory, as a story about the triumph of the maligned, a comeuppance for the underdog. If you read it this way, the stereotyping of the minor characters, and the improbability of Kya’s survival and achievements, serve to emphasise the challenges faced by the underdog. It is hard to explain what I mean without giving away the ending, but I’ll try.

Throughout the novel, we are not only reminded of the prejudice and mistreatment of Kya (as representative of the marsh people) but are also aware of the ostracism of “colored people” as they were called then. Kya turns to nature to learn about life. Early in the novel, when the “colored” Jumpin’ warns her about Social Services looking for her, friend Tate tells her to “hide way out where the crawdads sing”:

Kya remembered Ma always encouraging her to explore the marsh: “Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the crawdads sing.”

“Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”

One of Kya’s main challenges is to work out the differences between what she observes in nature and in human behaviour:

“In nature—out yonder where the crawdads sing—these ruthless-seeming behaviors actually increase the mother’s number of young over her lifetime, and thus her genes for abandoning offspring in times of stress are passed on to the next generation. And on and on. It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive—way back yonder.”

These two quotes – among others – hint at the novel’s underlying idea, which is that it’s not only “critters” who are “wild”, that human beings will be ruthless too. Exploring this ruthlessness in its natural and human manifestations, and how Kya navigates it, is a major theme of this book – and explains why Owens has written it the way she has. The resolution is deeply satisfying (albeit I didn’t love the device used to achieve it).

Where the crawdads sing is a thoughtful read for those who feel passionate about the maligned of this world. It is also a glorious lovesong to the marshland. I’m glad my reading group scheduled it.

Delia Owens
Where the crawdads sing
London: Corsair, 2018
ISBN: 9781472154637 (Kindle ed.)