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Anosh Irani, The parcel (#BookReview)

October 19, 2017

Anos Irani, The scribeOne of the main reasons I read is to enter worlds unknown to me – physical worlds and more interior or personal ones. Anosh Irani’s novel The parcel meets this criterion perfectly. It is set in the Kamathipura red-light district of Bombay/Mumbai, and its main character is a eunuch, or hijra, named Madhu. Brought up as a boy, but never comfortable with that gender, teased and ostracised for his feminine walk, he joins the hijra world at 14 years of age. When we first meet her, though, she’s forty.

The novel opens with a first-person prologue from Madhu, who describes herself as “neither here nor there … neither man nor woman”. It’s clear that she’s at a crossroads in her life, just as Kamathipura is, with the developers moving in and AIDS wreaking havoc. The novel then moves to third person subjective, but still with Madhu who remains our guide until the first person epilogue. It’s a clever structure: it ensures that we are immediately engaged, but then facilitates a narrative that shifts easily between present and past, as Madhu goes through her days while reconsidering her life.

From the beginning, we see that Madhu is deeply unhappy. She is and always has been “a shivering, jittery soul trapped in the wrong body”. She starts her day smoking a beedi, which she flicks away:

She smiled as the beedi disappeared into a gutter. Even dead cigarettes wanted to get away from her as soon as possible.

As the first chapter progresses, we feel Madhu’s pain. She’s forty, no longer in her prime, relegated from being her brothel’s most sought-after prostitute to a mangti hijara, a beggar peddling blessings. She’s grateful to gurumai, the now-failing hijra brothel madam, for taking her in, but she mourns her family who had never given her the love and acceptance she craved. More and more her thoughts turn to them and to her decision to leave when she was fourteen.

“an act of compassion”

It’s important that Madhu be established for us as a figure of pathos, as a character we care about, because by the end of the first chapter we meet “the parcel”, a young 10-year-old virgin girl from Nepal sold by her aunt into sex-slavery. Madhu’s job is to prepare her for her “opening” by the man who has paid for her. It’s a horrific and shocking start to a novel which explores the murky morality of human beings – and we are now attached to Madhu. What are we to think?

Madhu and the parcel are not the only characters, of course. Irani creates a community of people surrounding them – the prostitutes, the brothel madams, the hijra leaders, and Madhu’s ex-lover and dearest friend Gajja. While there is warmth, trust, and loyalty between many of the characters, overall it is a devastating picture of marginalised people who struggle to survive in a world where survival, no matter how or in what form, is all there is.

This is a character-driven novel. We are acutely aware not only of Madhu’s inner conflict, but of her fundamental decency, and her desire to reduce the pain of those around her. This is why she had taken on parcel work many years previously. She’d seen the cruelty with which they were treated and wanted to prepare them – she has no notion of helping them escape – so that the trauma will be minimised, so they will live, so they will not go mad. For her, it’s “an act of compassion” – but, oh my, what this “compassion” involves is unbearable to read. It’s the ultimate perversion of the I’m-doing-this-for-your-own-good scenario, except we are not talking about a little slap, or a time-out. We are talking cruelty – being caged in a dark place, starved, and emotional deprived, in order to to remove hope and teach submission. This is better, Madhu believes, than the pimps’ method of preparing “the parcels for whoredom by plundering them beyond belief, turning them into vegetables.”

The parcel is, however, also a plot-driven novel. As Madhu divulges more of her past – and increasingly questions her decisions and behaviour as well as those of her parents – we wonder what decision she will make about her future, because a decision is surely coming. We also wonder what will happen to “the parcel”. Will Madhu save her? And we wonder about Kamathipura, as internal politics within the hijra hierarchy, and with and between brothel madams, are revealed. It’s not only Madhu who’s in transition, but the community as a whole.

And, it’s an ideas-driven novel. In a way it could be seen as Irani’s love-letter to the hijras. He says in his acknowledgements at the end that he grew up opposite Kamathipura. It inspires and haunts him he said, and he is grateful for the “transgendered people, sex-workers and residents … who opened up their hearts and minds to him over the years”. For Irani, writing this book, I’d say, is “an act of compassion”, and he weaves through it the history of and legends involving this “reviled and revered” group of people, the hijras.

But, there are other ideas too, including the moral complexities inherent in Indian society (and in fact society in general). Prostitution, Madhu sees, keeps “the privileged and selfish safe” by satisfying men’s needs:

As long as the people outside Kamathipura were not harmed, what happened inside the cages was justified. It prevented rape. But in order to prevent rape, parcels were being torn from their homes and raped every minute.

This double-standard is forced home later in the novel when there’s an uproar over the rape of a bride. Madhu is bothered by

how much coverage this incident was getting: a bride had been violated on that most sacred of nights. But what about ordinary women on ordinary nights?  Or indecent women, perhaps, like sex workers? Or hijras? What happened when less-than-ordinary souls got violated? Why not create a furore then? Why let their pain slide away like rainwater into a gutter?

“Like rainwater into a gutter” is one of the many striking images used by Irani. The writing is direct, accessible, and full of images that startle with their clarity, such as Madhu seeing that, for the parcel, “hope was leaving in the way the sun left the evening”, or observing that, for the aging hijra leaders, “as their bones turned brittle, money and power were the only forms of calcium that worked”.

Madhu is a finely wrought, complete character. With maturity, she comes to question her simplistic understanding of her parents’ and indeed gurumai’s actions. Her life becomes increasingly empty and lonely, and yet still “she believed that sometimes life gave you a lesser version of a dream, and it was up to you to take it.” You could, perhaps, say that this is what she does at the end, an end that’s inevitable and, in its own way, redemptive.

In a recent interview, Australian author Richard Flanagan said that novels ask questions. In The parcel that question concerns compassion. I can’t think of a better question for our times.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has written an excellent review of this book.

Anosh Irani
The parcel
Melbourne: Scribe, 2017
ISBN: 9781925322262

(Review copy courtesy Scribe Publications)

Monday musings on Australian literature: International Day of the Girl and adult Aussie fiction

October 16, 2017

Kirst Krauth, Just a girlLast week, on October 11, was UN International Day of the Girl. Its aim was to focus “attention on the need to address the challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights”. More than that, the day, says the UN, also marked “the beginning of a year-long effort to spur global attention and action to the challenges and opportunities girls face before, during, and after crises.”

With literature being such an important part of how many of us learn about the world, my thoughts turned to books about girls – not to pure-YA, which is not my area of interest, but to literary fiction for adults. Adult readers can be, I know, suspicious of books with child protagonists, but there are reasons for reading them – and the International Day of the Girl encapsulates many of them.

Child protagonists in adult fiction

So, what differentiates, say, a YA novel with a teenage protagonist from an adult novel with such a protagonist? Well I suggest it’s largely to do with intention. YA (and children’s) literature centres on young people’s lives – on their thoughts, their activities, their relationships with each other, and their needs. The intention of these books tends to be young people learning about themselves and the world they live in. In YA literature, this is usually about identity and/or coming of age. John Marsden’s Tomorrow, when the war began series is an obvious, if dramatic, Australian example.

However, adult literature featuring young protagonists is something quite different – though there are cross-overs. Nothing, when it comes to defining literature, is ever black and white. Quite coincidentally, two days after I started drafting this post, I went to an event in which Sofie Laguna was in conversation with Karen Viggers, and Sofie Laguna, as some of you know, has written adult novels with child protagonists. Naturally, the question of these protagonists came up. Laguna said that writing in a child’s voice – that is, a vulnerable voice – enables her to comment on the adult world in a more powerful way.

The child protagonist in an adult novel is (generalising here) the quintessential naive narrator. The child’s worldview – even if not exactly innocent – lacks the experience and knowledge of the adult’s, so readers will recognise that what the child sees is not necessarily how or why it is. In this way, the child narrator can throw new light on, force us to see another perspective on, whatever issues – psychological and/or societal – that they find themselves confronting.  By contrast, child protagonists in children’s literature would normally be taken at face value because they are speaking for and to a similar age-group to themselves. Would you agree? Or am I drawing a long bow?

Anyhow, the point of all this is to say that there is value in reading adult books with child protagonists, because they can both expose truths about children’s lives to adults as well as truths about adult lives. Hence, this post.

Now, because this post is in my Monday Musings series and was inspired by the International Day of the Girl, my examples will be confined to adult Australian books featuring girl protagonists. The more I thought about this topic, the more examples came to me, so I had to keep it manageable. I have therefore decided to focus on contemporary examples set in contemporary times. This means excluding novels written in the past and/or historical fiction about a past, such as Emily Bitto’s The strays, Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight, Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of Eucalyptus, Henry Handel Richardson’s The getting of wisdom, Madeleine St John’s The women in black and Christina Stead’s The man who loved children.

Tara June Winch, Swallow the airAlso, I’ve decided to include memoirs in my list because they make a significant contribution to teaching us about the lives of girls. So, my small, but hopefully varied, selection (in alphabetical order by author):

  • Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (my review): a memoir about Clarke’s growing up as an Australian-born girl of West Indian parents, and the ferocious racism she faced in the Western suburbs of Sydney.
  • Brooke Davis’ Lost & found (my review): novel with three protagonists, one of whom is a seven-year-old girl whose father dies and mother abandons her, and who sets off on a journey to find her mother.
  • Tegan Bennett Daylight’s Six bedrooms (my review): short story collection, mostly featuring young women from teens to twenties, dealing with outsiderness, lack of confidence, loss, sexual maturation.
  • Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too afraid to cry (my review): memoir about Eckermann’s growing up as an indigenous child with loving but non-indigenous parents, and the trauma she suffered by being dislocated from her culture while being ostracised (and worse) because of it.
  • Kate Holden’s In my skin (read before blogging): memoir of an adolescent (and early twenties) girl who, uncertain, unconfident, ends up with a drug habit that leads her into prostitution.
  • Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (my review): novel about a sexually precocious and internet-active young adolescent girl who’s more confident than her experience supports, and who gets herself into some tricky situations.
  • Rochelle Siemienowicz’s Fallen (my review): memoir, that had its origins in a novel, about a sexually precocious girl and young woman coping with a strict religious upbringing.
  • Tara June Winch, Swallow the air (my review): novel about a young indigenous Australian girl who, having suffered many losses, takes a journey to find her origins and herself.

I have been necessarily brief and therefore a bit simplistic in my descriptions of these books, but hopefully they give a sense of what such books offer to someone who’s interested in learning about girls and the challenges they face – from racism and cultural dislocation through family dysfunction and loss to coping with identity and sexual maturation. In some cases, the issues are not gender-significant, but in most, being female contributes an additional element to the challenges faced, which makes them particularly relevant to UN’s International Day of the Girl.

And now, I’ve love to hear your thoughts about young protagonists in adult books, and/or your suggestions for titles. Yours can be Australian or otherwise, but let’s keep the protagonists female.

Sofie Laguna in conversation with Karen Viggers

October 14, 2017
Sofie Laguna and Karen VIggers

Sofie Laguna and Karen Viggers

What a treat it was to witness a conversation between two lively, intelligent Australian women writers in the company of other writers. I mean, as you can see from the post title, Miles-Franklin award-winning author Sofie Laguna and local writer Karen Viggers whose book The lighthousekeeper’s wife has just hit 500,000 copies sold in France!

I must say that I felt a bit like an interloper, given the event was organised by the ACT Writers Centre in their “Developing Writers and their Work” program, but I did enjoy eavesdropping on what writers talk about and want to know!

“I wasn’t ready to win”

The evening started with Sofie (I’m going to use first names) reading from the second chapter of her new book, The choke. Then we got down to business, starting with how Sofie handled her Miles Franklin win for The eye of the sheep (a book which still sits on the pile next to my bed, I’m afraid.) She had a new baby at the time and wasn’t expecting to win. She felt out of her depth. She had no speech prepared, and was suddenly surrounded by media and the press. It was both too much and something you want, she said. However, she felt the prize would be positive for many years to come, and said it made her feel her work was now validated by the literary establishment.

Karen Viggers, The lighthouse keepers wifeKaren then asked her about her experience as a woman in the industry, but Sofie turned this back on Karen – as she did several times during the conversation! Karen, though, was up for the challenge. She commented that she did feel her gender has impacted her career, including such things as the covers of her books.

Sofie agreed that she works in an unfair world, and that women get less attention. She talked about dealing with practical demands of winning the prize and managing a baby. It helps, she said, to trust your instincts. However, “you still have to empty the dishwasher every day”. That got a rueful laugh from many!

“Character IS the plot”

Sofie Laguna, The chokeMany times during the interview, Sofie returned to character. It’s clearly what she writes for, and about.

Karen asked her how she “found” Justine’s voice, the 10-year-old girl living on the Murray with her war-damaged grandfather in The choke. Sofie referred to her training as an actor, and how actors discover that some characters are easier to inhabit than others; she finds young voices easy. Young protagonists, she said, can have a fresh view on the world. Moreover, the more vulnerable voice of child characters frees her to comment on the adult world in a more powerful way.

Sofie then talked about Justine’s Pop. He’s narcissistic. He cares about Justine, albeit not necessarily as he should or could. She admitted that yes, he was another damaged character, but that seeing him that way was too simplistic. Many of us, she said, are damaged in some way. It was clear that she felt there’d been too much focus in interviews on “damage”!

Nonetheless, Karen commented, Sofie did write demanding books, to which Sofie responded that she’d grown up with war-caused loss and damage in her family, something she hadn’t talked about before.

The conversation then returned to Justine, who is dyslexic and generally powerless. Karen asked whether there were ways in which Justine was powerful. Sofie said that while Justine’s in a difficult world, she has the power – can choose – to respond in positive ways. She’s able to form connections. Unlike Pop, she’s not self-absorbed, and can enter other people’s worlds, can empathise. Sofie believes there’s much positivity in the book.

Sofie said that it’s the characters and the tensions between and within them that drive the narrative.

Later, when asked whether her books are character- or plot-driven, whether the plot fits the character or vice versa, she said that character IS the plot.


While character is Sofie’s focus, Karen noted that place is significant in the novel. Sofie described how the Murray River and the Barmah Choke inspired her setting. She said the Murray is brown and gritty which works metaphorically in her story. The choke is where the river becomes narrower. Trees in the choke may look like they’re dying, but they don’t die, they keep growing, which makes a lesson for Justine.


Sofie believes that hope is important. She quoted a writer’s adage, which is that you want readers thinking:

“I fear she won’t, but I hope she will”

Writing to this tension keeps readers reading. (I love this, and will try to remember it.)

Around here, the issue of writing about disadvantage came up. Sofie said that people living disadvantaged lives often find themselves in self-destructive patterns. And yet, like the women in her book who don’t have much power, they can find ways to survive. However, she said, her subject is the richness of world, not specifically poverty and disadvantage. Her stories would not work if she decided to write about disadvantage. She sees her job as being to endow world with life not to be a spokesperson for marginalisation. Anyhow, privilege doesn’t save people from suicide, crime, etc, she argued.

The writing process

Given that the session’s focus was “developing writers”, Karen concluded by turning to the writing process. A lesser interviewer would have been flummoxed at this point when Sofie responded that she had “no answers for questions about how she does it”. But, of course, she did have answers, and she shared them. She:

  • plunges in with a plan
  • writes millions of drafts
  • doesn’t always write from beginning to end, and sometimes stops when she has more to say which can make it easier to start next sitting
  • has found that, with experience, writing has got faster over the years
  • knows her character’s “soul”, but the rest she gets to know as she writes. She noted that initially she found it hard to differentiate Justine from The eye of the sheep’s Jimmy, but Justine’s character developed as she kept writing
  • prefers one-person to multi-person narratives
  • doesn’t choose to write for a specific audience (i.e. young people or adults) but writes for character, and the audience falls into place
  • likes to have some time and space between books (partly because of the promotion she needs to undertake for the most recent book)

It felt at times that Sofie was discovering more about her book as she discussed it with Karen. Her excitement and Karen’s flexibility in going with it made the conversation fun and engaging. It was one of the liveliest I’ve been to, and we all laughed when Sofie said that she wasn’t like this at the breakfast table! I’m glad I decided to go.

Ellen van Neerven (ed.), Writing black (#BookReview)

October 13, 2017

Writing black: New indigenous writing from Australia is one of the productions supported by the Queensland Writers Centre’s if:book that I wrote about in a recent Monday Musings. It’s an interactive e-book created using Apple’s iBooks platform, and can be downloaded free-of-charge via the if:book page or directly from iBooks.

Title page for Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi

Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi (Using fair dealing provisions for purposes of review)

Writing black was edited (and commissioned) by Ellen van Neerven (whose book Heat and light and story “Sweetest thing”, I’ve reviewed here). It contains works by 20 writers, in a variety of forms, including prose by writers like Bruce Pascoe, Tony Birch, and Marie Munkara; poetry by Tara June Winch, Lionel Fogarty, Kerry Reed-Gilbert and Steven Oliver (most of which are presented in both text and video); and twitter-fiction by Siv Parker. For each writer, there is a “title” page which provides a brief biography, and the works are illustrated with gorgeous sepia-toned photography by Jo-Anne Driessens.

In her editor’s introduction, van Neerven states that, by the time of publication, there had not been a “digital-only anthology of Australian indigenous writing”. This book addresses that gap, but with a very particular goal. It was, she writes, “moulded by possibility”, by the fact that “the multimedia and enhancements a digital publication allows lifts the imagination”. Certainly, we see some of these possibilities in this production.

Her point, though, that particularly interested me was this:

Expectations of what we write about are changing, no longer the narrow restriction of life stories and poetry. Indeed, Indigenous writers do not need to write about Indigenous issues at all, if they choose not to. With more Indigenous books and authors comes a new generation of readers — open-minded to what Indigenous writers can write about, and across new forms and experiences.

Great point – just as it’s important that we see indigenous people on television and in movies, for example, without their indigeneity needing to be referenced or be part of the story. Anyhow, we see this broadening of content in Writing black – in Jane Harrison’s “Born, still”, for example – although, not surprisingly and completely understandably, given where we are on the reconciliation journey, many of pieces do have political intent.

This brings me to one of the appealing aspect of this production, which is its variety, not only in form as I’ve already mentioned, but in tone and content. The pieces span moods from the intensity of Tara June Winch (“Moon”) to the cheeky humour of Marie Munkara (“Trixie”), from the anger of Kerry Reed-Gilbert (“Talking up to the white woman”) and the frustration of Steven Oliver (“You can’t be black”) to the melancholy of Bruce Pascoe’s (“A letter to Barry”). Many of the pieces speak to loss of country and identity, and the emotional impact of these. What makes them particularly powerful is that they come from all over, from the tropical north to country Victoria to various urban settings.

Another appealing thing, which stems from its being an e-Book, is that we can hear poets perform their own work, as well as read the text ourselves. One of these is the new-to-me Steven Oliver. He has four poems in the collection – “Real”, “You can’t be black”, “Diversified identity” and “I’m a black fella” – with video of him reading each of them. He (or his poetic persona) is an urban dweller who regularly confronts questions concerning his indigenous identity. In “Real” he describes a discussion with another who refuses to accept he’s “black”, who produces those crass arguments like he’s “more of a brown” and “not really a full”, but who suddenly turns when our poet responds that his English name suggests he’s not “from here”. Oliver writes:

Listen here Abo, you know-it-all coon
It seemed that my friend has spoken too soon
Just moments ago I was not the real thing
Yet now by his words my heritage clings

This is a long-ish poem, but is accessible. Its use of rhyming couplets provides a light touch that keeps the reader engaged while the actual words drive home a serious point about Aboriginal identity. I hope it’s taught in schools.

Another poem of his, “You can’t be black”, also addresses assumptions others make about what being Aboriginal is:

You can’t be black
When the media shows Aborigines they live on communities
And struggle with petrol, poverty and disease
So you can’t be black
If you’re black you wouldn’t have nice clothes on your back.

Oliver’s poems are made to be performed, as are those of the next poet Kerry Reed-Gilbert.

She also comes out fighting, with five poems. She writes of being in a bar, waiting for the racist slurs (“A conversation and a beer”), or of being exploited by people who only want to know her to further their own aims (“Talking up to the white woman”). She speaks in the voice of a white racist in “Because my mum said so” to show how racism is learnt through families. This is a particular concern of mine. I’ve seen schools trying their hardest to teach tolerance and respect – but that role-modelling at home is mighty powerful stuff.

Another well-established poet who has been politically active for decades is Lionel Fogarty. His two poems in this collection focus more on caring for country, on sharing the land, on passing knowledge on.

The prose pieces are, overall, more diverse. There’s Tristan Savage’s cheeky short film script, “Gubbament man” about Freddy the indigenous “discrimination prevention officer”. Siv Parker’s twitter-fiction piece “Maisie May” was originally released as tweets over several hours on, note, 26th January, in 2014. It tells of a trip to country for the funeral of Aunty Maisie May who “could tell you about country and our ways that we lost over the years.” Marie Munkara is here too with her particular brand of humour to tell about “Trixie” who takes revenge on her ex. There’s also Tony Birch whose “Deep rock” clearly draws from (or fed into) his novel Ghost River (my review). And there’s David Curtis whose “What kind dreaming” tells of three young indigenous men, two already becoming familiar with the life and law of their country and the other a greenhorn from the city, who go bush. Our greenhorn soon learns a few things from the other two, who respect “them old people”.

In an interview in Sydney Review of Books, Ellen van Neerven comments briefly on why she wanted to do this “digital collection”:

For me it’s as much about audience and access. There is a really hungry international audience for Indigenous writing but also lots of roadblocks in getting the books out there. Being able to access work online is definitely an advantage and we’ve had a lot of feedback and contact from people overseas who have been able to find out about Indigenous writing and read content from 20 different authors that way.

And that’s exactly it. This oh-so-rich collection introduces readers to many of Australia’s current significant indigenous writers, not to mention the range of issues that interest them. And it’s free to download. That we should be so lucky! A big thanks to if:book and the Queensland Writers Centre for supporting such innovative and sophisticated projects as this one.

aww2017 badgeEllen van Neerven (ed.)
Writing black: New indigenous writing from Australia
State Library of Queensland, 2014
ISBN: 9780975803059

Monday musings on Australian literature: Grateful Brits send books to Aussies

October 9, 2017

As I was searching Trove for another topic, I came across some articles that I just had to share, particularly given my recent posts on bookswapping and bookselling for charity.

These articles date from post-World War 2 when Britain was living under strict rationing, which continued for a long time – until 1954, in fact. To help the struggling Brits out, Australians – often through CWA (Country Women’s Association) groups – sent food parcels. The British people were very grateful, as an article from the Molong Express and Western District Advertiser (Wednesday 14 January 1948) conveys. Molong, a small town in central New South Wales, was one of the many towns to send food across the waves, and in this article, the editor writes that “almost daily, the Town Clerk (Mr. E. H. Scott) receives letters of appreciation from British people for gifts of food from the Molong municipality. The writers range from all walks of life — from hospital matrons to mayors and old age pensioners.”

Mr Scott, he continues, provided some of these letters for the paper to publish. Here’s a selection:

I wish to thank you and the residents of Molong for the generous gifts of food to our people. I wish you could have seen the gratitude of the old people  … Some of them could not express their thanks for tears, but so many said “Thank the dear people of Australia for me.” …  Mayor of Blackburn


We thought it was really very kind of you to send us such wonderful food parcels, and, although we know that you have been thanked by the authorities here in England, we felt obliged to send you a personal letter of thanks. To people like us who have only one ration book, it is a little difficult at times, although, of course, we are not grumbling. We thank you very much for your kindness …


We have today received at the hospital … a gift of tinned jams, marmalade and tinned rabbit from Australia … I felt that I must write, and tell you just what that thought means, for us. Not only are we extremely grateful for your kindness, but the thought and spirit behind the gift means perhaps more to us when we think that you, so many miles away, have spared such a lot of time and have given, so much that we may share the good things of your country. I am afraid it is beyond my powers of expression to make you realise exactly what we feel, but I do want you all to accept our most sincere and grateful thanks. With all good wishes and much happiness to you all, I remain, yours sincerely  … Matron, Liverpool.


I have just been presented with two tins of jam, one tin of powdered soup, one tin of casserole rabbit and 2 lb. of dried pears, being a present from you … there is no name on the tins to go by, only “From the residents of Molong, N.S.W.” I address this letter to thank you very much … Hardly a week passes without a cut in our food ration, and a little extra food is very welcome. The extra food is for my wife and myself — both old age pensioners … may God bless you …

I guess it’s only right that we sent back to England some of those pesky rabbits! Seriously though, what wonderful letters. They would surely have encouraged continued kindness from the citizens of Molong. (And doesn’t your heart go to Eva Wood who says, “Of course, we are not grumbling”?)

That’s the background to this post!

“Book parcels for food”

Early on in this process of Australians sending food to Britain, the British wanted to reciprocate in some way. As London-based R. G. Lloyd Thomas wrote in The West Australian (7 September 1946):

For long the people of Britain have been rather worried by the one-sided traffic in gifts from Australia. They have received very gratefully enormous quantities of food parcels and found no tangible method of appreciation which would satisfy their independent spirit.

Book Stack

(Courtesy: OCAL, from

But then, the “Women’s Institute, the equivalent in this country of the C.W.A.” lit upon an idea, that of reciprocating with parcels of books for distribution “to the people of the outback and the nearer but still amenity-remote areas which lack public libraries, and find it difficult to obtain an adequate supply of books”. What a wonderful idea, eh?

Not all the books would be new, Thomas writes:

Collections are being made of books regarded as suitable, some new, some from the bookshelves of the donors, and others purchased secondhand. They are being cleaned and repaired when necessary and made up into parcels which will be sent to the people and organisations who have been sending gift food parcels to Britain. The first consignment of books to Western Australia will be sent from Lancashire and Yorkshire Women’s Institutes.

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald (27 July 1946), describes the geographical arrangements a little more: “the Yorkshire and Lancashire institutes will send books to Western Australia, South Wales to New South Wales. Cheshire and Staffordshire to South Australia, Cambridgeshire and adjoining counties to Tasmania, Surrey and Middlesex to Queensland, and Essex and Bucks to Victoria”.

Lloyd Thomas, noting that “one of the few things here off the ration is books”, says that the women hope to reach every person and organisation responsible for sending food parcels. He comments on “the joy and humiliation these food parcels have brought to the women of England”, and that

the naturally proud independence of the people has been disturbed by the one-sidedness of the gesture. The majority could and would willingly pay for the parcels – but to do so would destroy the fundamental requirement of admission of these parcels, that they are unsolicited gifts.

These books, he says, will have special bookplates which will identify the donor and recipient, and it is hoped that the books will “form a valuable link of friendship between Britain, the Dominions and the Colonies who have shown such a spontaneous and generous attitude.”

Interestingly, Lloyd Thomas concludes by noting that while the food recipients are too grateful to offer suggestions, certain items are particularly appreciated:

Rich fruit cakes travel well in tins and provide an exceptional luxury these days. Tinned meats and milk are always welcome and (provided it is packed only with tinned food) soap of any sort. Jam (with special emphasis on marmalade) is a much-appreciated supplement, and, if Australians themselves can obtain any, tinned fruit. Dried fruits, sweets and nuts are welcome rarities. In fact, outside coffee (plentiful and unrationed) tinned soups and meat extracts, any foodstuff is welcome. Honey and dripping, provided they are melted into tins to ensure transport through the tropics, are other precious commodities for the English housewife.

Such a lovely insight not only into rationing, but also the food and cooking culture of the time. I mean, dripping! (But this just shows my fortunate life, doesn’t it?)

I apologise for the heavy use of quotations in this post, but in stories like this, there’s nothing like the expression of the times. Anyhow, I’d love to know how successful this reciprocal program was …

Six degrees of separation, FROM Like water for chocolate TO …

October 7, 2017

I’ve decided to change my blog titling practice for my Six Degrees meme, from including the end book to not! I’ve decided it’s more fun to read the post following the connections until the end, rather than knowing the end book at the beginning? Let me know what you think. But now, the formalities. Six Degrees of Separation is a meme currently run by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). To find out more about it please click the link on her blog-name. It’s a fun meme.

Laura Esquivel, Like water for chocolateNow, the book Kate chose for October is one I’ve actually read, unlike many of her other choices, but it was long before I started blogging. It’s Laura Esquivel’s Like water for chocolate. Unfortunately, I no longer have my beautiful hardback copy, having lent it to someone and never got it back, as happens sometimes in our reading lives. As always, I’ve read all the books in my chain, though not all since I started this blog.

Fannie Flagg, Fried green tomatoesI had fun choosing my first book. Should I go with chocolate in the title (like Chocolat), or Mexican authors (like Valeria Luiselli), or magic realism (like Gabriel Garcia Marquez), all of which or whom I’ve read? Nope! The subtitle of Esquivel’s book is “a novel in monthly installments (sic) with recipes, romance and home remedies”, so I’ve chosen another book that (like Chocolat in fact) also glorifies food and eating, Fannie Flagg’s Fried green tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. I read it before blogging, so no review to link to I’m afraid.

Marion Halligan, The pointFood plays a shocking role at the end of Flagg’s warm Deep-South-set comedy, but I’ve decided not to go there. Instead, I’m linking on the cafe idea, and have chosen another book that I read before blogging, Marion Halligan’s The point, about a beautiful, top-class, but fictional, glass restaurant in my city, the capital of Australia. I did say I wasn’t going to follow Flagg’s shocking end, but I need to admit that there’s a murder in this book so it’s not all champagne and caviar! It deals with haves and have-nots, with insiders and outsiders (for which the glass motif works well, of course.)

Emily BItto, The strays, book coverAnd now, I’m going to get to books I’ve read since blogging. Another book which deals with insiders and outsiders is Emily Bitto’s The strays (my review). Its narrator is an outsider who is welcomed into a Victorian artists’ community as the friend of the founding artists’ children. She has her life, her expectations, her dreams turned around, until things go awry. How much it was all to her benefit is a question we ponder at the end, and that is also a relevant question for my next book …

William Lane, The salamandersWilliam Lane’s The salamanders (my review) which has its origins in an artists’ colony though the book is set sometime after that colony had disbanded. However, it too explores the impact on the children of the artists. It’s a very different book to Bitto’s, however, delving into bigger issues relating to the land. Salamanders, and lizards in general, feature, both to represent the antiquity of the Australian continent and also, I think, resilience.

Thea Astley, DrylandsRegardless of the intent, this motif reminded me of the bar, cheekily called the Legless Lizard, in Thea Astley’s Drylands (my review)! It’s set in the dying town of Drylands and presents a bleak picture of Australia. Here is the quote I used in my review, describing Drylands as

a God-forgotten tree-stump of a town halfway to nowhere whose population (two hundred and seventy-four) was tucked for leisure either in the bar of the Legless Lizard or in front of television screens, videos, Internet adult movies or PlayStation games for the kiddies.


No one was reading anymore.

Drylands could be called dystopian, albeit one set in the present not the future. And that made me think of Jane Rawson’s A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review). There’s no doubt about its definition as a dystopian novel, dealing as it does with the devastating effects of climate change. Coincidentally, it also has several scenes in a bar!

Well, we haven’t travelled far once leaving the Americas – besides returning there briefly in Rawson’s book – but we have spent quite a bit of time in kitchens and bars. What does that tell you about me?

Have you read Like water for chocolate? And whether or not you have, what would you link to? 

Catherine McKinnon, Storyland (#BookReview)

October 5, 2017

Catherine McKinnon, StorylandIt is still somewhat controversial for non-indigenous Australian authors to include indigenous characters and concerns in their fiction, as Catherine McKinnon does in Storyland. But there are good arguments for their doing so. One is that not including indigenous characters continues the dispossession that started with white settlement. Another is that such fiction brings indigenous characters and stories to people who may not read indigenous authors, which is surely a good thing?

However, such writing requires sensitivity, or empathy, on the part of non-indigenous writers. Indigenous author, Jeanine Leane says that this can only be achieved by social and cultural immersion (which can include informed reading of indigenous writing). McKinnon addresses this in a couple of ways. In her author’s note, she refers to discussing “stories and ownership” with local Illawarra region poet and elder, Aunty Barbara Nicholson, which resulted, for example, in her telling a brutal story from the convict perpetrator’s point of view rather than from the indigenous victim’s. She also acknowledges Nicholson “for reading, local knowledge and generous advice both early on in the process and nearing completion”. But now let’s get to the reason for all this …

Storyland is set in the Illawarra region south of Sydney, and tells the story of the Australian continent, post-white settlement, from 1796 to 2717. It has a nine-part narrative arc that takes us through five characters and six time periods: Will Martin 1796, Hawker 1822, Lola 1900, Bel 1998, and Nada 2033 and 2717. These form the first five parts of the novel. The final four parts return through Bel, Lola, Hawker, finishing with Will Martin, each picking up its character’s story where it had been left first time around. Got it? Two of these characters – Will and Hawker – are based on historical figures, while the rest are fictional.

… a tricksy plot

Will’s employer, the explorer George Bass, says early on that “the land is a book, waiting to be read”, and this, essentially, is what the book’s about. Will is a 15-year-old who sailed with Flinders and Bass in 1796 on their search for a river south of Sydney. On their trip they meet “Indians” whom they fear might be cannibals. We leave them at a nervous moment in their encounter to move to 1822 where we meet the convict Hawker. He’s a hard man, who believes you need “a mind like flint and a gristly intent”. He has his eye on a young indigenous woman, but also on improving his future. From him, we jump again, this time to 1900 and young hardworking dairy-farmer Lola who lives with her half-sister and brother Mary and Abe, both of whom have indigenous blood. There is racism afoot, with a neighbouring farmer suspicious of Abe’s friendship with his teenage daughter Jewell. We leave this story, with Jewell having gone missing, to meet Bel in 1998.

Bel, the youngest of our protagonists at 10 years old, spends her summer rafting with two neighbourhood boys on a lagoon that features in each of the stories. They befriend a couple, Ned and his indigenous girlfriend Kristie. Bel is a naive narrator, but adult readers quickly see the violence at the centre of this relationship. Meanwhile, down the road lives the slightly younger Nada, who is the pinnacle of our chronological arc, featuring in 2033 and 2717. In 2033, climate change has created havoc in the land, and a dystopia is playing out …

Country and connection

I hope this doesn’t sound too confusing – or fragmented – because in fact Storyland is a very accessible book. Superficially, it seems disjointed, but McKinnon connects the stories through links that gradually register as the narrative progresses. For example, the transitions between each story all feature birds, such as this one from Hawker to Lola:

The women are disappearing into the forest. And then they are gone. Lost in the dark trees. An owl


calling boo-book, boo-book.

(My html skills aren’t up to replicating the layout I’m afraid) Other links include the aforementioned lagoon, a creek, a cave which most characters reference, a big old fig tree and an ancient stone-axe. None of these are forced, or feel out of place. Instead these places and objects naturally connect the stories, despite their very different narratives, to provide a continuity that transcends the people to focus on the land itself – because, ultimately, this is a story about the land and our ongoing relationship with it.

McKinnon, the author bio says, has been a theatre director and playwright, as well as a prose writer. This is evident in the voices (all first person) and dialogue which beautifully capture the rhythms, vocabulary and grammar of the different characters and their times. Will Martin talks of “Indians”, Hawker talks of “forest”, while turn-of-the-century farmer Lola uses structures like “Jewell and me carry buckets of skimmed milk” and “When he were done”. Ten-year-old Bel is language-proficient, with a good vocabulary, but she sees things through a ten-year-old’s eyes, such as this on the abused Kristie, who “has her big black sunglasses on” and “looks funny, her lips look bigger or something”.  (In a delightful in-joke, her father Jonathan is writing his PhD on unreliable narrators).

The real star of the novel, though, is the land. McKinnon traces its trajectory from an almost pristine state at the dawn of colonisation through being farmed by Hawker and Lola to climate-change-caused destruction in 2033 followed much later by a mysterious post-apocalyptic world. She similarly traces our relationship with indigenous people from early caution, uncertainty and tentative goodwill, through 19th century brutality and ongoing dispossession, to the continuing racism and exploitation of the twentieth century.

The question to ask here is why did McKinnon structure the story the way she did, starting and ending with 1796? Here is Will at the end, exploring a beach on his own:

The white sand curves around the land; the dunes in the late night are dark mountains and valleys; the forest behind is thick and green to the sky. This is a wild place. Too wild for civilisation. It is a place for adventure.

And “the water is fresh” to drink! Is McKinnon, by ending with this more idyllic picture of the land, suggesting that there’s still hope? This is how it was, this is what could happen. Does it have to? Can we yet turn it around? Well, yes, perhaps. As Uncle Ray says to Bel, “it’s our job to look after all this land around here. If we don’t, bad things can happen.”

“To dare is to do”, George Bass tell Will, and this is what McKinnon has done in Storyland. She has combined historical, contemporary and speculative fiction to tell us a story about our land – and our relationship with it and with the people who know it best. This land, these mountains, creeks, lagoons and trees, were here first, Uncle Ray says, and this makes us “part of their history, not the other way around”. The message is clear.

Storyland is a beautiful book physically – in cover, design and construction – as well as being a moving and relevant read. I dare you to read it today.

Bloggers Lisa (ANZlitLovers) and Bill (The Australian Legend) liked this book too.

aww2017 badgeCatherine McKinnon
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2017
ISBN: 9781460752326

(Review copy courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)