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Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 2: Short stories

October 26, 2020

When I started this little sub-series, I wondered how to describe it – genres or forms or genres and forms? In the end, I chose “genres” on the assumption that we could define it very loosely to include forms. I hope this works. After all, the content is more important than the name!

I decided to make my second topic Short Stories because it’s around now that the relatively new Australian Short Story Festival has been held. You will see from this post, that the way the forms/genres I discuss in this sub-series are supported vary greatly. Short stories, for example, don’t seem to have a focused organisation supporting them the way genres like historical fiction and crime do. However, they are supported in their own ways.

Short story publishers

Although the scuttlebutt is that publishers do not like short stories, there are some who commit to them in an ongoing way, and these are the ones I’m going to share here. Many publishers, though, do, in fact, publish collections, such as, recently, Laura Elvery’s Ordinary matters (by University of Queensland Press) or Carol Lefevre’s Murmurations (by Spinifex Press, my review).

Black Inc’s Best Australian stories series has been published annually for at least two decades, with each edition edited by significant Australian short story writers like Charlotte Wood (2016) and Maxine Beneba Clarke (2017).

Book cover

Margaret River Press published their short story prize anthologies, annually, from 2012 to 2017. I have reviewed a couple of these anthologies, which included competition winners and commended stories. They announced in 2019 that they were “taking a break”. They may be taking a break from this competition, but they are continuing to publish short story collections. I reviewed one only recently, Emily Paull’s Well-behaved women.

Carmel Bird, Dead aviatrix

The wonderfully named Spineless Wonders describe themselves as “a multi-platform publishing company devoted to short, quality fiction produced by Australian writers”. They support “brief fiction in all its forms – from short short stories to novella” including ‘microlit’ which combines microfiction and prose poetry. Most of their publishing is digital, I believe, and I have reviewed Carmel Bird’s foray into digital publishing, The dead aviatrix: Eight short stories.

Other publishers which support short stories in a significant way include MidnightSun Publishing and Kill Your Darlings, which has now published two annual editions (2019 and 2020) of New Australian fiction.

Short story prizes

Back in 2015, I wrote a Monday Musings on short story awards, so I won’t repeat that here. Please check it out for awards like the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and the Margaret River Short Story Competition. But, there are some new ones established since then, and genre ones I didn’t mention, that I’d like to share here.

  • Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award: Established in 2018 –  named for Carmel Bird (who has appeared on my blog several times), hosted by Spineless Wonders and supported by the Copyright Agency – this award is for short story collections up to 30,000 words in length. The stories can be in any fiction genre, with all prose forms being acceptable, including non-fiction prose. The award includes cash prizes and world-wide digital publication of the three winning entries. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has posted on this award.
  • Scarlet Stiletto Awards: Established in 1994 by Sisters in Crime (who will appear again when I focus on crime), this national award is for “short stories, written by Australian women and featuring a strong female protagonist”. Its purpose was “to support and unearth new talent”. Past winners have included writers who have appeared here – Cate Kennedy, Angela Savage – and a young woman who went to school with Daughter Gums, Anna Snoekstra. This award is actually a suite of awards comprising several awards – such as “Best New Writer”, “Best ‘Body in the Library'”, “Best Foreign Linguistics Story”, “Best Story with a Disabled Protagonist”, to name a few.

There is a comprehensive list of short story competitions available in 2020 on the Australian Writers Centre site, which underscores how much support there really is for this oft-maligned form!

Australian Short Story Festival

As I said at the beginning, the reason I chose Short Stories as my second topic for this sub-series is this festival. Founded by Anna Solding (MidnightSun Publishing) and Caroline Wood (Margaret River Press) in 2016, it’s an annual festival celebrating short stories in written and spoken forms. It aims to connect Australian and international short story writers, storytellers, publishers, literary magazine editors, and readers. It’s apparently the first national event to focus exclusively on the short story.

The first festivals were held in Perth – I watched the social media campaigns with great envy! In 2019 it was held in Melbourne. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the 2020 festival, scheduled for Adelaide, was cancelled because they felt that “online festival experiences can never quite replicate the immediacy of the face-to-face festival”. This is a festival I plan to attend one day.

Book cover

For those of you interested in short story recommendations, check out my reviews of short stories or look at Readings blog post on Short Stories (written to align with the 2019 Australian Short Story Festival). One of the books recommended is Chris Womersley’s A lovely and terrible thing, which I’ve reviewed here, so I’ll conclude this little post with it!

Do you like short stories? Why or why not?

Book (Re)Launch: Sara Dowse’s West Block

October 25, 2020

Sara Dowse West Block

Way back when, I read Sara Dowse’s debut 1983-published novel West Block. It ticked all the boxes – it was by a woman, by a feminist, was set in Canberra (a rare thing), and was about the Public Service within which I also worked. I enjoyed it immensely and have often wanted to re-read it. I was therefore thrilled to hear that it was being re-published – and with a new introduction by Dowse.

This new edition, by For Pity Sake Publishing who published Dowse’s latest novel, As the lonely fly (my review), was virtually launched at a Zoom Event today.

The launch …

The launch comprised a conversation between Dowse and Michele Seminara who is a poet and managing editor at the Canberra-founded creative arts journal Verity La.

Sara Dowse, West Block

Seminara commenced by describing Dowse as a “legend of Australian literature”. She was also one of the Canberra Seven, about whom I have written before. The conversation, though, focused mostly on the book’s subject matter …

West Block, for the non-Canberrans here, is one of the original buildings in our Parliamentary Triangle. Built in 1926 it, and East Block, flanked what is now known as Old Parliament House. These buildings were the home of the public service.

So, Dowse’s novel, West Block, is about the bureaucracy. From 1974-1977, Dowse was the inaugural head of the women’s affairs section established to support PM Gough Whitlam’s first women’s adviser, Elizabeth Reid. Dowse became, she believed, the first femocrat.

Dowse spoke about her intentions for the novel which she started writing a couple of years after the 1975 Dismissal. She wanted to tell the story of what happened and how public servants coped in the aftermath. She wanted it not to be “just” a women’s story but a story about what women saw, about how women perceived government. “I wanted to nail them”, Dowse said, meaning she wanted to write about the male world from a feminist perspective.

The conversation, not surprisingly, also covered the politics then and now, particularly in terms of what was achieved and what has lasted. Dowse, describing the times as “unbelievably exciting”, talked about their focus being issues like child care. She said many reforms were introduced. Some were “tweaked” by the Hawke government, but they’ve been gradually whittled away since the Coalition returned to power.

She talked about the Australian federal public service, and of admiring its commitment to serving the people. She saw this public-good oriented value as being distinctively Australian, including amongst conservatives. (She couldn’t understand the antipathy with which Australians would speak of Canberra, their national capital.) However, she said, much of this value has been lost since PM John Howard turned governing into a business-style, economic rationalist, model. She talked about how private sector inflated salaries are being given as a reason why you can’t get good people into the public service, but her belief is that good people who know that the measure of their worth is not purely monetary will still work in the public service. (They’re not poor, in any event, she said.)

Dowse also told us that the main character, Cassie, is based on her, though Cassie is Australian – and unlike her, has red hair and green eyes! The joy of being a writer is that you can create characters you’d like to be! Cassie, like Dowse was, is also a single Mum juggling work and parenthood.

Seminara asked Dowse about her book’s structure with its five chapters focusing on different individuals. Dowse said she was influenced by two John Dos Passos works, Manhattan transfer and the USA trilogy. She was inspired by his telling a big story through overlapping individual stories, though he also married fiction with nonfiction which she didn’t do.

A point that came up a few times through the conversation related to the publishing and literary environment in Australia at the time she was publishing this book. For example, a fiction-nonfiction blend would not have been accepted then (though it would now.) She was also inspired by Dos Passos’ experimental writing, but that too she had to tone down for Penguin to publish the work. Upon the book’s release, one of the common questions posed about it was “is it a novel or is it stories?” This question is still with us, I believe, though writers are increasingly playing with this form (such as, most recently on my blog, Carol Lefevre’s Murmurations, my review.)

Seminara commented that she loves Dowse’s characters, with their commitment to public interest. They are, she said, “admirable as characters, flawed as people.” She also spoke of how Dowse had managed to make art out of traditionally boring subject matter. More art is now being made of such subjects, but Dowse, she said, was one of the first here to put humanity and drama into it.

Dowse briefly talked about this new edition, which was suggested by publisher Jen McDonald. Dowse said that this was her apprentice novel, and wondered how she would face having it out in the world again. However, she did not want a word changed. It had, she said, to live on its record. I am greatly looking forward to reading it again – and I fully expect it to appeal to me all over again, albeit with older eyes and understanding of how the world works.


Dowse also read from the book, and answered a couple of emailed-in questions:

  • John Dos Passos’ influence. Dos Passos, she said, wanted to deal with the coming of mass society, and he did it by oscillating within a group of characters to build up a picture of society. This encompassed both the personal and the political, which, she reminded us, had been the feminists’ mantra: the personal is the political.
  • Susan Ryan‘s recent death and what has been left unfulfilled by it. Dowse expressed great sadness at Ryan’s death, as they had worked closely together. She said young girls now have the right to big dreams but there are still barriers. She believes the feminist voice has been rekindled through awareness of these barriers, injustices, domestic violence, and the ongoing childcare issue. While many things that were started under Whitlam have been truncated, whittled down, Ryan had achieved much, she said, including getting the ALP to accept Affirmative Action.

This was an excellent launch, and I’m glad it was on at a time that I could make. Do consider reading the book. It has much to offer.

Launch of West Block new edition
Online Zoom event by Barbie Robinson of Living Arts Canberra
25 October 2020

Delicious descriptions: Gay Lynch on place, in colonial South Australia

October 24, 2020
Book cover

In my recent post on Gay Lynch’s historical fiction novel, Unsettled, I spent so much time writing about it, that I didn’t share any quotes as I usually do, so I’m using a Delicious Descriptions post to share just a couple of descriptions of the setting, which is around Gambierton/Mt Gambier in South Australia.

In one scene, Rosanna is looking for a lost child – a deft use by Lynch of the “lost child” motif common in colonial Australian literature – and comes across “a formidable rock-face … pigface flowers rioting across its surface.”

Her head spins when she finally looks down, searching the red rings like the contours of cut gum that encircle the unbroken walls of the crater. A wagtail aggravates a flock of swallows, resting on their tails and diving off, riding invisible currents over the startling void. Not a flutter of childish frilly clothing. Father Woods and Skelly have long conversations about the Pleistocene period when molten lava cooled forming the solid parts of the south-east landscape and great seas retreated, leaving behind corals and small crustacaens. Moorecke has told Rosanna Booandik stories about giant Craitbul’s cooking mound, for that is what she calls it.

In this little excerpt Lynch not only describes the physical landscape, but she conveys Western and Indigenous understandings of it. She doesn’t presume to tell Indigenous stories but she lets us know that other stories about the land exist. She also conveys here the relationship Father Julian Tenison-Woods (a real historical character) and Rosanna’s brother, Skelly, have concerning exploring and documenting the natural environment.

My second choice describes a ride Rosanna takes, with Moorecke, to the shipwrecked Admella (which many of you know was also featured in Jane Rawson’s 2017 novel From the wreck):

Moorecke directs Rosanna due west. Up to his girth in water, skirting sinkholes, Lucifer crosses deep bogs. They pass through long grasses, scrub and stands of black-wood. He takes logs in his stride with Moorecke jolting like a post office package, hands on his haunches, and Rosanna standing on the balls of her toes in the stirrups. They curve their backs against the stiff salt wind like crooked trees–like carratum, Moorecke says. A swamp harrier drops before them and screams as it rises, a scrabbling creature dangling from its talons.

White mist settles like a ration-blanket around their shoulders. They approach the sea, making their way with caution past sink-holes and through limestone-littered clearings. Sea heath and spear grass cling to the dunes. Lucifer begins to flag. Fingers stiff with cold, Rosanna lengthens his reins. The hollow roar of the sea reminds her that she has seen these limestone cliffs undercut by ferocious waves on a ride with Edwin. ‘I know this place. There is a spring.’

‘No stopping here.’ Moorecke lifts Rosanna’s hair to bellow in her ear. ‘Blackfellas’ caves’.

Once again the landscape is described, but Lynch imbues it with a disturbing sense to prepare us for the horror they are about to confront. Again, too, there is reference to Indigenous culture, and the implication that some places are sacred and should not be visited. In such ways do historical novelists show rather than didactically tell the things they want us to understand.

Any thoughts?

Gay Lynch, Unsettled,, 2019.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Modern sensibilities and Historical fiction

October 19, 2020
Book cover

Following last week’s Monday Musings, and my recent review of Gay Lynch’s historical novel, Unsettled, I thought it might be worth teasing out the fraught issue of “modern sensibilities” in this genre.

By teasing out, I mean that this will not be a thorough analysis of the topic so much as my sharing a few ideas and thoughts for you to respond to with your own.

I was inspired, of course, by Bill (The Australian Legend) – who wouldn’t be! – when he commented on my review of Unsettled that “I’m glad that she included the Boandik people and that they had some input. I suspect though that Rosanna has modern sensibilities when it comes to Indigenous relations.”

I could research the journals and letters of women at the time to see what discernment there might have been among those women, but most likely women from oppressed groups like Rosanna’s are not well represented in the papers held in libraries and archives. For a start, many may not have been able to read, though Rosanna could. Those who could read would have, like Rosanna, struggled to afford paper. Writing journals and letters was probably rare for them.

Consequently, I’ve decided to tackle the wider issue, rather than try to prove this particular one.

Why do people write historical fiction? I quoted HNSA in last week’s post as saying that historical fiction presents “an authentic world which can enrich a reader’s understanding of real historical personages, eras and events”.

Lynch made it clear in her Acknowledgements, as I wrote in my post, that she wanted to “to materialise Lynch girls” who were absent in all meaningful ways from the record. She noted that their “lack of documentation and therefore their invisibility reflect their early settlement status on the frontier.” So, how to do this without documentation? And how are we to assess this?

Let’s start with what we want from historical fiction? What I want is light to be thrown on issues relevant to now. Sure, stories can be fun for their own sake, but I like my stories to have something more. I want to be challenged to think about how things were, and how they affect or reflect how things are. In other words, I want to get at the “truth” of history. The thing of course is that the “truth” of history does change with the times, whether we like it or not.

Right now, in Australia, historical “truth” includes issues like the invisibility and powerlessness of women, and the dispossession of Indigenous people. It hasn’t always been so. There was a time when historical “truth” focused on what many of us now view as the ANZAC myth. There was a time when the story of early settlement was only about the hardship faced by and the achievements of the white settlers. And, so on … history may be based on facts but how those facts are interpreted, which facts are interpreted, who is interpreting them and why, makes all the difference.

In a past post, I included the following from novelist Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey (2008):

It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.

The novelist, then, can explore “truths” that society may scorn (reject) as not being “historical” or, I would add, that is not readily available on the historical record. However, how do you convey historical “truths” in situations where they come with a lack of record, with minimal evidence or facts. If you are powerless and dispossessed you are unlikely to leave a verifiable mark. How, in this circumstance, do you convince your readers that your characters and/or story are authentic as well as true?

Authors, I’d argue, have to start by presenting the times and characters in ways that feel authentic; they have to get enough of the “facts” right that we are happy to go along with what might be less easy to verify. Then, they have to present an interpretation of the facts that makes sense according to what we believe or know to be true.

I have been interested in this issue for some time, and have shared on this blog the thoughts of various novelists expressed at events I’ve attended. I thought I’d reiterate some here.

Robyn Cadwallader, The anchoress

Robyn Cadwallader, who has written two mediaeval historical novels, The anchoress (my review) and Book of colours (my review), spoke of her interest in ordinary women and how they “managed to find value in their lives within the constraints” of their times. She spoke of the challenges of making these women’s gains and achievement believable for those times, of not wanting to “damage” them “by presenting them differently from what they are”.

Rachel Seiffert, who has written historical fiction about the Third Reich, spoke about how her character in A boy in winter doesn’t know the Holocaust is proceeding. Her challenge was to show that he had to make choices not knowing the full story, which the readers do know.

(Seiffert’s point here is relevant to the idea that we should only read fiction written at the time it is about. As she says, people at the time do not “know” their whole time. They cannot therefore provide the perspective we gain in retrospect, and which historians and historical novelists offer us.)

Roslyn Russell, Maria Returns Barbados to Mansfield Park

Historian and historical fiction novelist (Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park), Ros Russell, spoke about ethical responsibilities, saying that historians must not distort what they find. They must be true to their sources, but she always looks out for things that might say something different to the prevailing narrative.

In the end, the issue of “modern sensibility”, particularly where the author has rendered the period authentically, comes down to the reader. We have to decide whether that authenticity includes the novel’s characters sounding just like prevailing views of their era, or whether we accept that there were always people who “bucked” that prevailing view.

As you probably know, I’m with the latter group. So, if I’m happy with the overall authenticity, I’m prepared to give novelists the benefit of the doubt if their characters express views that seem to be “modern”. So-called “modern” ideas don’t pop out of nowhere, after all …

Now, over to you … where do you stand on this issue?

Gay Lynch, Unsettled (#BookReview)

October 18, 2020

Coincidentally, my first review after this week’s Monday Musings on historical fiction happens to be a work of historical fiction, Gay Lynch’s cleverly titled Unsettled. Consequently, I’m going to start there, that is, talking about the form.

Well, more or less, because I should at least give you a sense of its subject. It is set primarily in South Australia’s Gambierton (later Mt Gambier) from the 1859 to 1880, with most of the action taking place in the 1860s. It’s the story of an Irish family, the Lynches, who migrated to Australia in 1848. The Lynches, as you might have guessed from the author’s name, are based on her husband’s family. Unsettled explores their story primarily through two fictional characters, Rosanna and her younger brother Skelly.

… in the spirit of the story

Which brings me to the genre. In her Acknowledgements, Lynch provides some useful insights into the book. Firstly, regarding intention, she says that she specifically wanted “to materialise Lynch girls, absent from every family anecdote and official documents, church, state and school, apart from their birth documents … the girls’ lack of documentation and therefore their invisibility reflect their early settlement status on the frontier.” The challenge, of course, in “materialising” invisible characters from the past is to make them real, and avoid anachronism. This is difficult when records are few, but I think there are enough records of frontier women in general to validate Lynch’s conception here.

Lynch also addresses where she has changed Lynch family “facts”, such as their and their employers’ names. She also says that her two main characters, Rosanna and Skelly, “exist only in [her] imagination”, but “her lived experience as Lynch wife and mother, verifiable historical events, and historical Lynch antecedents” offered her “the connective tissue” needed for their fictional lives.

She goes on to say that “in the spirit of historical fiction” she has kept close to official records so that the characters drawn from life are as “true” as she can make them, but that “in the spirit of story, some events may not be verifiable”. That, of course, is historical fiction; it’s about fleshing out lives and times with story, where the facts are not known or are minimal.

Finally, she addresses her inclusion of the local Boandik people, an issue we often discuss here. She writes that they “tell their own South-East story – they still live on that once dangerous frontier, on land they never ceded – of their attempted eviction and genocide”. She says she “benefitted from knowledge shared by Boandik custodian Ken Jones”, conversed “with Boandik linguist linguist David Moon”, and was supported in addressing “important questions about voice and Indigenous historicity”. As I’ve said before, it’s really up to the Boandik people to say whether they agree with their representation, but Lynch has, it seems, done the right thing: she has included them in her narrative (in an appropriate way) and has conferred with the people she ought about doing so.

I’ve spent a bit of time on this I know, but it’s important with historical fiction to be very clear about what it is we are reading. I’m not an expert in South Australian settler history, but I feel Lynch has provided me with enough here, in addition to the knowledge I do have, to reassure me that her story is a valid one, so let’s get to that …

“now that the country is settled”

Nearly halfway through the novel, Rosanna converses with her employer, the hard, English station-owner, Mr Ashby. He is searching for some local Indigenous people who, he believes, have been “filching” from him. Rosanna, who has befriended the young local woman, Moorecke, tells him that Moorecke “belongs on this land”. She adds, hoping to throw him “off the scent”, that she rarely sees “Blacks, now that the the country is settled.”

Here, and throughout the novel, Lynch layers meanings in brief exchanges. Implied in this little scene, for example, are multiple power imbalances – between settlers and the original inhabitants, between the landowning English and the oppressed Irish, and between man and woman. And of course, overlaying this is the fraught idea of being “settled” and all its connotations, political and personal, physical and emotional. “Now that the country is settled” implies of course that it was “unsettled” before. This novel, with its title, “Unsettled”, keeps this foundational wound front and centre in our minds, which, dare I say, “unsettles” us.

This layering of meaning is one of the reasons I found the book an enjoyable read, because I enjoy such thoughtful, provocative writing, but the enjoyment here is compounded by the characters, particularly Rosanna and Skelly. Both are well individualised, with the novel’s third person perspective shifting mainly between them.

Over the course of the novel, Rosanna is our guide to what happens on the frontier. She works for the landowning Ashbys; she spends time with and learns from Moorecke of the Boandik people; she rides with the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon and confesses to Father Tenison Woods. She falls in love naively, makes many mistakes big and small, can be mean and tender, but she is a warm, courageous young woman who is determined to make her way authentically through a world which pays little attention to the dreams, let alone rights, of women. A world, in fact, in which “men are dangerous creatures if thwarted”.

Skelly, her sensitive and somewhat frail younger brother, is both foil and support to Rosanna. Their relationship contains the typical sibling tensions, but love and loyalty underpin it. It is what happens to Skelly at a school in Melbourne that propels Rosanna’s actions which provide the novel’s opening drama.

As is common in historical fiction, Lynch uses a family drama to drive the narrative forward and engage our emotions and interest. Lynch also imbues her story with references to both Australian and English literature of the times. For keen-reader Rosanna, Anthony Trollope’s Irish heroine Feemy Macdermot, from his first novel The Macdermots of Ballycloran, offers lessons to heed.

The main work that threads through the novel, however, is Edward Geoghegan’s play The Hibernian father, which was a popularly performed tragedy in mid- to late-nineteenth century Australia. It tells a tragic story of the Lynches of Galway, whence our own Lynches had come. The tragedy distresses our young Lynches, and threatens to destabilise them as they struggle to forge their lives without failing in the same catastrophic way. Rosanna’s father Garrick Lynch reassures his family that “it’s an ancient story … from bloody times”, but the irony is that “bloody times” are still with them.

In the end, all of this has one goal, to serve the real point of Lynch’s story, the complicated politics of settlement, oppression and dispossession, the injustices of colonialism. As Rosanna becomes aware, during an interaction with her employer Mrs Ashby, “living on the edge of civilisation unsettles everyone”. Gay Lynch’s book does the same – and that, I’m sure, was her intent.

Challenge logo

Gay Lynch
Balmain:, 2019
ISBN: 9781925883237

(Review copy courtesy the author.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 1: Historical fiction

October 12, 2020

While my prime focus here is literary and classical fiction, I do also delve into other forms (like biography, autobiography/memoirs, poetry, history), and other genres (like crime, dystopian fiction, and historical fiction). So, I’ve decided to start a little MM subseries on other genres and forms, starting with historical fiction. My aim is less to analyse the genre itself, than to share some of the ways in which it is supported in Australia.

I’m starting with historical fiction because of the recently announced longlist for the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize, which Lisa (ANZLitLovers) posted on recently. Let’s start with the prize’s home, the …

Historical Novel Society of Australasia (HNSA)

HNRA describes itself as

the third arm of the international Historical Novel Society, and is recognised as the home of the historical fiction genre in Australasia. The Society promotes the writing, reading and publication of historical fiction … Our events showcase the best literary talent and enable readers, writers and publishing professionals to celebrate the genre.

They consider historical fiction

to be important to both the entertainment and education of readers as it contributes to the knowledge of the reader and provides a valid perspective beyond the viewpoint of the historian. Both the imagination and dedication of historical novelists present an authentic world which can enrich a reader’s understanding of real historical personages, eras and events.

The secret River cover

While I agree that there is an educative aspect, we readers need to appreciate what sort of education we’re getting. We can’t expect certifiable facts but can expect insight into how things were or might have been. My favourite historical fiction, though, does more; it explores the past in a way that throws light on the present. I find the statement that historical fiction provides “a valid perspective beyond the viewpoint of the historian” interesting in light of The secret river controversy. Beyond? I think alongside might be better?

Anyhow, on the ARA Historical Fiction Prize page, they define historical fiction. It:

  • means novels written at least 50 years after the events described, or written by someone who was not alive at the time of the events and who therefore approaches them only by research.
  • can include historical mystery, historical romance, historical fantasy, and historical fiction written for children and young adults; and also alternate history, pseudo histories, time-slip novels, multiple-time novels, and parallel narrative novels with flexibility to crossover between eras stretching from 50 years or more in the past until contemporary times.

HNSA has now held three biennial conferences – in 2015, 2017 and 2019. They also offer a suite of prizes/awards of which the new ARA Historical Novel Prize is “the crown jewel”. The others are the ARA HNSA Short Story Contest and the TCW HNSA First Pages Pitch Contest. They also offered a Colleen McCullough Residency on Norfolk Island in 2019, and this year instituted the Elizabeth Jane Corbett Mentorship for Young Adult historical novelists (that is, for previously unpublished writers of young adult fiction, not for writers who are young adults1)

ARA Historical Novel Prize

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of men

This prize, which is supported (fascinatingly) by a building and facilities company, the ARA Group, is worth $60,000, with $50,000 going to the winner, and $5,000 each to two short-listed writers. It is open to Australian and New Zealand writers. The longlist was announced on 6 October, with the shortlist of 3 books to be announced 28 October, and the winner on 10 November.

The inaugural 2020 longlist is:

  • Sienna Brown’s Master of my fate 
  • Nigel Featherstone’s Bodies of men (my review)
  • Catherine Jinks’ Shepherd
  • Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain (want to read, Theresa’s review)
  • Dominic Smith’s The Electric Hotel (my review)
  • Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus (my review)
  • Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of lost words (on my TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • Tara June Winch’s The yield (my review)

Surprisingly for me, I have read half of them!

HNSA Conferences

In 2019, the conference included a full-day academic stream, focusing on the overall conference theme of History repeats. There were three panels through the day: Genre and gender; Genre and the discourse of history; and War and conflict. Abstracts of the papers can be found at the link above.

Jessica Anderson, The commandant Book cover

One of the papers was “‘the truth of the book’: Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant as a work of biofiction, Merran Williams“. I have reviewed this book, which is Anderson’s only historical fiction work. In her abstract, Williams says that “Historical novels have the ability to provide unique insights into untold histories” and that

Anderson subverted the traditional biofiction of a man of importance by feminising the masculine history of Patrick Logan and the Moreton Bay convict settlement and telling much of his story from the point-of-view of the soldiers’ female family members. I focus on her fiercely forensic approach to historical research and how she applied this to her writing practice to produce a work of historical biofiction that shines a light on a foundational period of Australian history.

This is a stream of the conference I’d love to attend if it ever came my way.

AWW Challenge

Challenge logo

Many of you know that I have been involved in the Australian Women Writers Challenge pretty much from its inception. It collects on-line reviews by contributors of any books – all forms and genres – written by Australian women. At regular intervals, mostly monthly or bimonthly, volunteers post round-ups of reviews contributed in the previous period for specific genres/forms. Our current Historical Fiction volunteer is Theresa Smith (Theresa Smith Writes.)

You can find her Historical Fiction round-ups at the AWW site. The Books Reviewed search page will find all contributors’ reviews posted to the challenge. The site comprises an excellent resource for reviews on books published recently and in the past, because our reviewers read widely.


The Nib Literary Award could be seen to support this genre in a broad way, because, although its winners tend to be non-fiction, its aims are to celebrate excellence in research, including in fiction.

Courtney Collins, The burial

There is also an interesting international site called which devotes a page to Australasia. It’s uncomfortably simplistic in its understanding, offering this about Indigenous Australians regarding historical fiction: “Native Australians, dubbed Aborigines by European settlers, did not fare well as colonization spread, but modern novelists recognize the positive aspects of their culture”. However, for readers looking for a list of Aussie historical fiction books, there’s something here. The list includes classic and contemporary novels – including writers like Eleanor Dark and Brian Castro! I learnt a few things, including that Courtney Collins’ The burial (my review) was published in the USA as The untold.

I’d love to hear what you think about historical fiction – even you Bill! – particularly regarding whether you like and why or why not?

Bill curates: Monday musings on Indigenous Australian writers

October 9, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

The feature of Whispering Gums that we all most look forward to is Monday Musings. But when did they start? It took me a while to locate – WordPress really needs the ability to scroll through post Titles by Date – but it turns out Sue put up the first one on 9 Aug. 2010 (here). Check it out, it’s only short, not much more than a statement of intent. No. 2 (here) covers 5 Australian novels, of which two would have to be my all time least favourite. So I’ve chosen for today, No. 3, from 23 Aug. 2009.

My original post titled: “Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous writers”

Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch (Courtesy: Friend of subject, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

It’s important I think that my third post be on our indigenous writers. Again it’s going to be pretty idiosyncratic as my reading in this area has been scattered, not for lack of interest so much as the old “so many books” issue that we all know only too well. I was first introduced to indigenous writing at high school where I had two inspirational teachers who encouraged us to think seriously about human rights. It was then that I bought Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s (or Kath Walker as she was then) book of poetry, My people.

In my first Monday Musings post, I mentioned David Unaipon who is generally recognised as the first published indigenous Australian author. However, it was Oodgeroo Noonuccal, with her book of poetry, We are going (1964), who heralded contemporary indigenous Australian writing. So let’s start with her.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal My people (1970, poetry)

Noonuccal’s poetry is largely political. She wrote to right the wrongs which indigenous Australians confronted every day: the racism, the white-colonial-slanted history, the lack of land rights, and so on. Much of her poetry is therefore strong but accessible “protest” poetry. My people collects poems from her first two books and includes new works as well. Here are just a few lines to give you a sense of what she was about:

… Do not ask of us
To be deserters, to disown our mother,
To change the unchangeable.
The gum cannot be trained into an oak.
(from “Assimilaton – No!”)

Gumtree in the city street,
Hard bitumen around your feet,
Rather you should be
In the cool world of leafy forest walls
And wild bird calls.
(from “Municipal gum”)

I love the way she uses gums to represent her people – who they are, where they should be. Some of the poems are angry, some are conciliatory, and others celebrate her culture. I loved the book then, and I still value it now.

Sally Morgan My place (1987, memoir)

The next book in my collection, chronologically speaking, is Sally Morgan’s memoir My place. Sally Morgan is primarily an artist but her memoir became a best seller when it was first published. In it she chronicles how she discovered at the age of 15 years old that her colour did not come from an Indian but  an Aboriginal background, and her subsequent investigations into her family’s rather controversial story. I don’t want to go into the controversy here. Rather, the point I’d like to make is her story-telling: it is warm, funny, and thoroughly engaging.

Women of the centre (1990, short life-stories); Black chicks talking (2002, short life-stories produced in film, book, theatre and art)

Telling stories is an intrinsic part of Indigenous Australian culture. It’s how traditions have been passed on for 40,000 years or more. It’s probably simplistic to draw parallels between traditional story-telling and the telling of stories in general. After all, we all love stories. Nonetheless it is certainly clear from the little experience I’ve had and the reading I’ve done, that story-telling is an intrinsic part of Indigenous Australian culture and is becoming an important way of sharing their experience with the rest of us. This was powerfully done in Bringing them home: The stolen generation report of 1997 which contained not only the history of the separation of children from their parents and recommendations for the future, but many many first person stories which drove the drier points home.

Two books that I’ve read which contain personal stories by indigenous women are Women of the centre and Black chicks talking. The introduction to the former states that its aim is to help we non-Aboriginal Australian readers to understand lives that are so different from our own and “to provide personal written histories for the descendants of the women involved”. This latter is becoming an urgent issue in indigenous communities today – the capturing of story before more is lost. In Black chicks talking Leah Purcell interviews nine Aboriginal woman – some urban, some rural, some well-known, some not – about their lives. Another wonderful read.

Life stories/memoirs represent, in fact, a significant component of indigenous literature. Another work worth mentioning, though I’ve only seen the film and not read the book (shame on me!), is Doris Pilkington’s “stolen generation” story of her mother’s capture and subsequent escape involving an astonishing trek home, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Alexis Wright Carpentaria (2006); Tara June Winch Swallow the air (2006); Marie Munkara Every secret thing (2009)

Finally, a brief mention of three recent fictional works, two of which I’m ashamed to say are still in my TBR pile. These are the two David Unaipon Award winners by Tara June Winch (reviewed since then) and Marie Munkara (reviewed since then). If you are interested in the latter, please check Musings of a Literary Dilettante’s review.

I have though read Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria (my post). It’s set in a fictitious place, tellingly called Desperance, in northern Australia. Its focus is colonialism (ie European invasion of the land), and conflict within black communities about how to respond. To explore these, Wright touches on lot of ground, including land rights, deaths in custody, mining rights, boat people, and petrol sniffing to name just a few. She flips between the real and the magical, she uses language that is image-rich and often playful, and she tells some very funny stories. It’s a big, wild and rather complex read that manages in the end to be hopeful despite itself.

This is just a small introduction to the wealth of Australia’s indigenous literature. It won’t be the last time I write about it. I will also in the future post on white Australians who have written about Aboriginal Australians, writers like Thomas Keneally who wrote The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith but who now says he wouldn’t presume to write in the voice of an Indigenous Australian. A vexed question really. I believe there should be no “rules” for writers of fiction and yet, sometimes perhaps, it is best not to appropriate voices not your own. But that is a question for another day…

Meanwhile, back to Alexis Wright – and stories:

Old stories circulating around the Pricklebush were full of the utmost intrigues concerning the world. Legends of the sea were told in instalments every time you walked in the door of some old person’s house. Stories lasted months on end, and if you did not visit often, you would never know how the story ended. (Carpentaria, p. 479)


I’m not surprised – and am glad – that Bill chose this one from my early Monday Musings, because this is an area of Australian literature that is dear to his and my hearts (and to Lisa’s who runs her Indigenous Literature Week each year.) And phew, I’m glad I’ve since read those two novels that were on my TBR back there in 2010.

[You can find all my Monday Musings by clicking on the Monday Musings category, or this link]

Would you, wherever you are, like to recommend any indigenous writers?

Fannie Barrier Williams, Women in politics (#Review)

October 7, 2020

It’s been months since I posted on a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering, but this week’s piece by African American activist, Fannie Barrier Williams, captured my attention. Several LOA offerings this year have been relevant to the times – including stories about infectious diseases – but this one is so spot on for so many reasons that I could not pass it up.

Fannie Barrier c1880, photographer, public domain via Wikipedia

Fannie Barrier Williams (1855-1944) was, according to Wikipedia (linked above), an American political and women’s rights activist, and the first black woman to gain membership to the Chicago Woman’s Club. According to LOA, she was also the first African-American to graduate from Brockport Normal School and “quickly became part of Chicago’s black elite when she moved there with her lawyer husband in 1887”. She was a distinguished artist and scholar.

However, it’s her activism that is my focus here. Wikipedia says that “although many white women’s organizations did not embrace their black counterparts as equals, Barrier Williams made a place for herself in the Illinois Woman’s Alliance (IWA).” She represented the viewpoint of black Americans in the IWA and “lectured frequently on the need for all women, but especially black women, to have the vote”.

And so we come to her little (in size not import) piece, “Women in politics”, which was published 1894. It concerns women voting. Universal suffrage was still some way off in the USA, but Barrier Williams commences by arguing that the “fragmentary suffrage, now possessed by women in nearly all states of the union”, will certainly and logically lead to “complete and national suffrage”. So, with this in mind, she, says LOA’s notes, “challenged women to use their newfound political power wisely”. She asks:

Are women ready to assume the responsibilities of this new recognition of their worth? This question is of immense importance to colored women.

She then poses, provocatively,

Must we begin our political duties with no better or higher conceptions of our citizenship than that shown by our men when they were first enfranchised? Are we to bring any refinement of individuality to the ballot box?

Her concern is that women – but we could read anyone really, giving it broader relevance – should not vote on partisan lines. Her concern is that voting along party lines will achieve nothing, and that

there will be much disappointment among those who believed that the cause of temperance, municipal reform and better education would be more surely advanced when the finer virtues of women became a part of the political forces of the country.

Hmmm … this seems to trot out the belief that women will bring “womanly” virtues, those more humanitarian-oriented values, to politics, which history has not necessarily borne out. However, this doesn’t belie the main point about voting thoughtfully.

She then discusses the opportunity for women to vote in Chicago for the trustees of the state university, but notes that the two women candidates have aligned themselves, respectively, to the republican and democratic tickets. She says that “so far the campaign speeches and methods have not been elevated in the least degree above the dead level of partisanship”. She doesn’t want to discredit these women’s good motives but argues that

this new opportunity for self-help and advancement ought not to be lost sight of in our thirst for public favors, or in our eagerness to help any grand old “party.” We ought not to put ourselves in the humiliating position of being loved only for the votes we have.

It seems that these two women candidates were white women. What she says next reminds me of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism (2000)which Angharad of Tinted Edges recently reviewed. Angharad writes that “Moreton-Robinson argues that because of feminism’s inherent but insufficiently examined white perspective, Indigenous women are excluded, minimised or merely tolerated conditionally. She argues that because race is considered to be something that is “other”, white feminists are unable to acknowledge their own race and associated privilege, their own role in perpetuating racial discrimination and are therefore unwilling to relinquish some of that power.”

A similar point was made over 100 years earlier by Barrier Williams:

The sincerity of white women, who have heretofore so scorned our ambitions and held themselves aloof from us in all our struggles for advancement, should be, to a degree, questioned. It would be much more to our credit if we would seek, by all possible uses of our franchise, to force these ambitious women candidates and women party managers to relent their cruel opposition to our girls and women in the matter of employment and the enjoyment of civil privileges.

She continues that “we should never forget that the exclusion of colored women and girls from nearly all places of respectable employment is due mostly to the meanness of American women” and that voters should use the franchise to “check this unkindness”. She urges voters not to focus on “the success of a party ticket for party reasons”. This would make them “guilty of the same folly and neglect of self-interest that have made colored men for the past twenty years vote persistently more for the special interests of white men than for the peculiar interests of the colored race”.

Strong words, but history surely tells us true ones. So, she asks voters “to array themselves, when possible, on the side of the best, whether that best be inside or outside of party lines”.

For Barrier Williams, as for many who fought for women’s suffrage, the vote was not just about equality but about what you could do with the vote. It was about having the opportunity to exert “a wholesome influence in the politics of the future”. The words may be strange to our 21st century ears, but the meaning still holds true – and is a timely one to consider now!

Fannie Barrier Williams
“Women in politics”
First published: The women’s era, 1894
Available: Online at the Library of America

Monday musings on Australian literature: Alison Lester

October 5, 2020

Saturday, as I noted in my Six Degrees of Separation post, was National Bookshop or Love Your Bookshop Day in Australia (and in Great Britain too, it seems). For last year’s day, I wrote a post on author-owned/managed bookshops, most of which were located in places other than Australia. The exception was Australian children’s author and illustrator, Alison Lester, so I thought she deserved a little feature post today.

Alison Lester has appeared in my blog a few times, but the first was the most significant, because it was when she and Boori (Monty) Prior were named our first two Children’s Laureates. She was also mentioned briefly in my post referencing the 2018 National Bookshop Day, when Daughter Gums bought a Lester book for a baby shower she was attending! It’s time, then, to give her a little bit of a profile here, even though children’s literature is a sideline focus here.

As I wrote in my Children’s Laureate post, I first became aware of Lester through my own children. As I wrote then, she’s an author/illustrator best known for her picture books, though she has also illustrated chapter books for other writers and written a couple of young adult novels. The first book that she both wrote and illustrated herself was 1985’s Clive eats alligators.

Book cover

This means that Lester was just starting out when my children were young, so most of her children’s books have been published after my children left that stage of their reading lives. But, we did have some favourites, including Rosie sips spiders (1988), Imagine (1989) and Magic beach (1990). As our children grew we also enjoyed Robin Klein’s chapter book, Thingnapped, which was illustrated by Lester.

Lester, like all the best children’s book authors and illustrators has a lovely sense of fun while also conveying important values to children, such as respecting difference, a critical value at a time when rejecting other seems to be on the rise again. Indeed, as her website says, “her picture books mix imaginary worlds with everyday life, encouraging children to believe in themselves and celebrate the differences that make them special”.

Jonathan Shaw of Me fail? I fly has discussed Alison Lester’s books several times on his blog in his Ruby Reads series where he discusses the books he reads to his granddaughter. Lester’s books featured by Jonathan to date are:

  • Clive eats alligators (1985), which features seven children going about their daily lives, except that “Clive eats alligators”. You’ll have to read it to discover that that means! Jonathan says that the fun in this book lies in tracing any one of these children through the book to see “how their interests play out in the different contexts: the girl who loves horses, the bookish boy” and so on. Rosie sips spiders, which Daughter Gums loved, follows the same children in more adventures through life. Lester fans will get a giggle when, in this Rosie book, they read that “Clive jumps in Alligator Creek.”
  • Are we there yet? (2005), a picture book about – yes, you’ve guessed it – family car travel. Jonathan says that her images are “completely beguiling”. Maybe this is why it was the first book given to a child from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Reading Library.
  • Kissed by the moon (2013), about a baby, the night, and nature. Jonathan writes that “pragmatically speaking, I guess it’s a bedtime read, but Alison Lester knows how to put words together, and how to make images, that reach in and touch your heart”.
  • My dog Bigsy (2015), which is one of those books in which the feature character wanders around a farm, meeting other animals, like, for example, Pat Hutchins’ fabulous Rosie’s walk. I haven’t read this Lester yet, but Jonathan says that Lester does it well. I think I’ll be getting it for Grandson Gums.

Thanks Jonathan for posting on these books – for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge where we have appreciated these posts, and so I could use them here! Very thoughtful of you!

Lester has been shortlisted for, or won, Children’s Book or Picture Book of the Year awards several times over the years. She has also won the Dromkeen Medal for services to Australian literature, and was the first children’s writer to be awarded the valuable Melbourne Prize for Literature. She has been shortlisted for the international Astrid Lindgren Memorial Prize. And, of course, she is an active promotor of Aussie children’s literature, including being that Children’s Laureate role and being an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Lester, born 1952, was a farm girl, and still rides a horse when she can. Adventure, that features in her stories, is in her DNA it seems (something I think I missed!) So, I wasn’t surprised to read that in 2005 she went to Antarctica as an Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow. You can read her Antarctic Diary on her website.

Alison Lester Gallery

Now to Lester’s bookshop. It is, I have to admit, not like the others. Located in the gorgeous Victorian town of Fish Creek, near where Lester was born, it is more a “gallery” than a bookshop, and is devoted solely to her work. We have been there, and it is a light, airy, welcoming place that sells her books, cards and other merchandise, and also prints of many of her illustrations. It also has lounges where you can sit and read her books.

So, a rare post for me, given its focus is children’s literature, but most of us here started our reading lives when we were very young, and if we’ve had children or grandchildren we’ve done our best to share that love down the generations.

I’d love to hear about your favourite children’s authors. Who did you love as a child and/or who have you loved reading to children in your life?

Six degrees of separation, FROM Turn of the screw TO …

October 3, 2020

One month into spring here down under, and it is so lovely, particularly with daylight savings starting tomorrow. That will hopefully mean not being woken at 5am by sun and birdsong, much as I enjoy the latter! Now though, onto today’s business, this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme.  As always, if you don’t know this meme and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Once again, the starting book is one I haven’t read, though I have read and enjoyed several books by Henry James. The book is his Turn of the screw. Published in 1898, it’s a classic Gothic mystery featuring a young governess, in a country house.

Louise Mack, Girls togetherI was tempted to go with governesses for my first link, but decided to do something different and go with year of publication. Louise Mack’s Girls together (my review) is a little known Australian coming-of-age novel that was also published in 1898. Commencing as a school story, it’s about protagonist Lennie’s transition from self-focused girlhood to adulthood and its associated more mature world-view. Her life and choices are paralleled to those of her friend, Mabel.

Book coverAnother book which starts with young girls who meet at school – at Vassar College in fact – is Mary McCarthy’s The group (my review). In this case, however, we are talking eight girls, and we follow them through many years of their post-school life.

Book coverMy next link will be obvious to Australians as it is a book which talks about a group of women friends at the other end of their lives – that is, women in their 70s. The book is Charlotte Wood’s The weekend (my review).

Book coverWhile the main focus of Wood’s book is the women, there is another important character, Finn, the aging dog. He doesn’t have a voice in the novel, but a dog who does is Maf the dog in Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan’s The life and opinions of Man the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe (my review). Phew that’s a title, but it was, as I recollect, an enjoyable book!

Book coverAnd here is where I get to the point I really wanted to get to because today, Saturday 3 October, is National Bookshop Day in Australia (or, it seems, now called Love Your Bookshop Day). You may be wondering how I am going to link to this? Well, Marilyn Monroe, as you probably know, was a big reader, so I’m linking to author Ann Patchett’s essay, The bookshop strikes back (my review). I reckon Marilyn Monroe would have loved this little book had she still been with us.

Book coverTo strengthen this post’s tribute to bookshops, I’m sticking with them for my final link. Ann Patchett, as you also know I’m sure, is an independent bookshop owner as well as an award-winning novelist. I included her in my post on author-run bookshops last National Bookshop Day. Another bookshop-owning author I listed in that post was Louise Erdrich, so it’s her The bingo palace (my review) that I’m using for my final link.

Although I didn’t intend it, I’ve stuck very much to anglo-speaking countries this month – Australia, Great Britain and the USA. Moreover, all my authors but one, this month, were women. Not wonderfully diverse then! However, on the plus side, I did manage to work in a tribute to reading and bookshops, because initially I’d headed off in a different direction. 

And just so you know, my favourite fabulous bookshops here are: National Library of Australia Bookshop, Paperchain Bookstore and Harry Hartog Bookseller (Woden).

Now, the usual: Have you read Turn of the screw? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

And, this month  a bonus question: Would you, wherever you are, like to give a little shout-out to your favourite independent bookshop?