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Monday musings on Australian literature: Genre Worlds

November 20, 2017

While reading the GenreCon 2017 twitter feed, which resulted in last week’s Monday Musings, I came across the twitter handle @PopFicDoctors. Intrigued, I checked them out and discovered they are behind a research project and manage the website Genre Worlds: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-first Century. The project is being funded by an ARC (Australian Research Council) Discovery Project Grant, for three years from 2016 to 2018. It involves four academics (the Doctors!) from universities in Queensland, Melbourne and Tasmania. You can read more about them on the site’s Research Team page.

Popular fiction is, they say, “the most significant growth area in Australian trade publishing since the turn of the century” and so their project has been framed “to systematically examine 21st-century Australian popular fiction”. Fascinating. On one level it seems a bit weird to me, with the second decade of the century not even over, to be studying trends in the 21st Century. However, having learnt a lot about Australian popular fiction through my involvement in the Australian Writers Challenge, I can see that the chosen topic – Australian popular fiction – is worth researching. I’ll be intrigued to see what the PopFic Doctors come up with.

They identify their areas of investigation as:

  • the publishing of Australian popular fiction;
  • the interrelationships between Australian popular fiction and Australian genre communities; and
  • the textual distinctiveness of Australian popular novels in relation to genre.

To do this, they will focus on thirty novels in three genres (fantasy, romance and crime) in order to produce “a comprehensive picture of the practices and processes of Australian popular fiction”. (I’d love to see their list but I don’t see it on the website.) The research process involves “detailed examination of trade data, close reading of texts, and interviews with industry figures.” That sounds comprehensive – and, to me, interesting. They have produced a flyer documenting what they achieved in the first year of the project.

GenreWorlds Conference

Now, back to Twitter, I was initially confused about some of their #GCoz tweets because they said they were at “GenreWorlds”. Well, the website explains it. Genre Worlds was a one-day academic conference that was run in association with GenreCon. Its specific areas of interest were: Genre Fiction and New Media, Genre Elements in Play, Industry Developments, Travelling through Time and Space, Genres and Society, and Shaping Genre Fiction.

And so, as I did last week, I’m going to share some of the info I gleaned from that conference’s tweets (#genreworlds17) with the tweeter’s username given in brackets, where not otherwise identified.

Romance fiction

One of the presentations that was popular with tweeters was Dr Sandra Barletta’s on “women of a certain age” in Romance fiction. Claire Parnell tweeted Barletta as saying ‘Romance as a genre for everyone consistently depicts older women as Other’. Other tweets on her paper were:

  • Romance fiction has been at the forefront of acknowledging the importance of diverse representation, but still largely fails to include older women as part of this. (PopFic Doctors)
  • Older women face a double standard in media in regards to fuckability that does not apply to men aka the silver foxes. (Claire Parnell)
  • Romance publishers are starting to seek mature women protagonists … but define mature as 35-45. (Claire Parnell)

So older women are “other” and just 35 to 45 years old! There’s a way to go yet … and Barletta apparently threw out the challenge:

Sandra Barletta’a advice to publishers, writers: Flatter us. Give us something to aspire to be instead of old. Reshape what we see, because what we see matters. Come to the forefront of social change–and make money! (PopFic Doctors)

Other tweets on Romance fiction told me that “Self-published romance has grown substantially from 2010-11 to 2015-16″ (Claire Parnell) and that “Romance far outstrips other genres” (Kate Cuthbert).

And then there was this interesting one about Romance heroes in Harelquin novels versus self-published ones: “@cparnell_c research found Harlequin novels feat. heroes w/ ‘masculine’ jobs – cowboys, officers – and self-pub novels feat heroes w/ wealth-based jobs” (Kate Cuthbert).

Other genres

There were tweets about other genres and sub-genres too. Did you know, for example, that there’s such a thing as Football Fiction? I didn’t, but this tweet informed me: “Representation of female protagonists in YA football fiction is fairly equal. Lee McGowan suggests this is because fiction offers women a place to see themselves in sport when streaming on tv is limited” (Claire Parnell). I think something has been lost in the translation to twitter here, but I’m intrigued that this sub-genre exists.

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

Disguised Speculative Fiction perhaps?

There was also interest in something called interstitial fiction. Laurie Ormond tweeted “Interstitial fiction (blending literary and genre tropes) has been increasingly visible in the last few years” and Angela Hannah tweeted “Are you reading speculative fiction disguised as literary fiction? Interesting discussion of interstitial fiction”. I’m a bit uncertain about the point being made here regarding “disguise”, but Laurie Ormond, probably reporting on the same presentation, tweeted “Literary works are deploying techniques and tropes of genre fiction to explore climate change”.

And here’s another tweet about the relationship between genre, literary fiction and classification: “Australian noir is closely linked to literary fiction and is not always categorized as noir – Leigh Redhead” (Claire Parnell). Is this implying that Australian noir is/can be disguised as literary fiction?

Oh, and there was also talk of New Adult Fiction, but I don’t have many tweets for that – a topic for another day.

On readers, book clubs and literary fiction

Of course, as a reader, I was particularly interested in tweets about the reading end of the spectrum, and there were a few of these.

It’s so fantastic hearing other academics talking about the significance of book clubs and reader experience. (Caitlin Francis)

A couple of other tweets referred to book clubs and their focus on literary fiction:

  • Vassiliki Veros – ‘literary fiction’ dominates library & online clubs. Q&A: lack of ‘gf book club guides.’ (Lynette Haines)
  • Librarians are cultural gatekeepers, especially when selecting books for book clubs @VaVeros(Beth Driscoll)

I’d love to have heard this presentation by librarian-academic, Veros. My reading group rarely uses book club/reading group guides because we have rarely found the questions relevant to how we discuss books, so it’s interesting to see Haines’ tweet suggesting that the lack of such guides for genre fiction may be one reason for such fiction being less commonly read by reading groups. However, being a librarian, albeit a retired one who didn’t work in this area, I take the point about the gatekeeper role played by librarians. They should be alert to the needs of their readers – that’s their job – but selection is always a juggle.

If there’s one overall thing I’ve gleaned from the tweets, it’s that more will be said about the relationship between genre and literary fiction!

Anyhow, there were other intriguing tweets, including one about genre-tagging by GoodReads’ members, but I think this is enough. I was pleased to read that papers from this Conference will be published in a special edition of Australian Literary Studies. I’ll be looking out for it. You may hear more as a result!

Meanwhile, if you haven’t had enough of genre, I’d love to know if anything here has caught your attention.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The sympathizer (#BookReview)

November 19, 2017

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The sympathizerA cover blurb on my edition of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer, captures the novel perfectly when it calls it “intelligent, relentlessly paced, and savagely funny” (Wall Street Journal). I loved reading it. It’s quite coincidental that I read this straight after Hoa Pham’s Lady of the realm (my review) but they make an interesting pairing because both deal with the Vietnam (or American) War and its aftermath, both are written in first person from a Vietnamese character’s point of view, and both question what happens when revolutions win. But, their approaches couldn’t be more different.

The sympathizer starts with an in-your-face statement by a never-named narrator: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” It is April 1975 and the war has ended with the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army, but in the second paragraph we discover something else about our narrator. He is not talking to us but to a “Commandant”. So, where is he, and why is he talking to a Commandant? We don’t fully find out until near the end, although we soon discover that he is being held captive and is writing his “confession”. The story he tells, the story we read, is his confession. And what he confesses to is his life as a North Vietnamese mole in the close employ of a South Vietnamese General.

In this role, he leaves Saigon in the chaotic evacuation and ends up in Southern California, still working (now unpaid) for the General, while at the same time sending covert reports back to his “aunt” in Paris. In other words, in the USA, he maintains his life as a man of “two faces”, a man who is “able to see any issues from both sides”. He can do this, not only because of his role as a mole, but also because he is a bastard, the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest who had seduced her and had never acknowledged his son. With feet in both camps – the Orient and the Occident – he is well-placed to comment on their respective cultures and actions while, at the same time, symbolising their conflicts, confusions and misunderstandings. Near the end he says:

I was always ever divided, although it was only partially my fault. While I chose to live two lives and be a man of two minds, it was hard not to, given how people had always called me a bastard. Our country itself was cursed, bastardised, partitioned into north and south, and if it could be said of us that we chose division and death in our uncivil war, that was also only partially true. We had not chosen to be debased by the French, to be divided by them into an unholy trinity of north, centre and south, to be turned over to the great powers of capitalism and communism for further bisection …

What makes this book such a great read – besides its heart and themes – is its writing. Nguyen migrated to the USA with his parents when he was 4 years old. In the notes at the back of my edition, he describes growing up in a Vietnamese enclave in California, and how he’d decided that he couldn’t live life well with two languages, so decided to “master one and ignore the other. But in mastering that language and its culture, I learned too well how Americans viewed Vietnamese”. This seems to the main driver for this book – to tell a story about the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective – but his aim is wider than that too. It is to comment on war, on its futility, and on the way American culture seems to thrive on it.

The first chapter introduces us to the central feature of Nguyen’s writing, satire, and my, it shows how well he mastered his adopted language. If the pace is relentless, as the Wall Street Journal says, so is the satire. Its targets are broad, and non-discriminatory, though, admittedly, American life and culture bear the major brunt. In Chapter 3, he discusses prostitution:

I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed wall of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home, ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness.

The language is sly and wry, as our narrator of the divided-soul teases us – provokes us – again and again with dualities and paradoxes. Literally, he is a communist sympathiser, but his true sympathies are broader. “Although it’s not correct, politically speaking”, he says, he feels “sympathy” for the South Vietnamese poor who were attacked by their own soldiers. “No one asks poor people if they want war”, he writes.

And so the book continues. There are comic set-pieces such as his role as a Vietnamese expert on the making of a film that reads very much like Apocalypse Now. The experience teaches him that not controlling the way you are represented results in “a kind of death”. There are also awful scenes of torture and violence, including those where he is ordered by the General, even in the USA, to eliminate apparent opponents. He says of the General’s plans:

The General’s men, by preparing themselves to invade our communist homeland, were in fact turning themselves into new Americans. After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.

This idea of “freedom and independence” is the complex conundrum that underpins the fundamental irony of the book, from its opening chapters when Ho Chi Minh is quoted as saying “Nothing is more important than independence and freedom”. What these mean, what people do in their name, and why so often they are taken away by the very people who called for them, are scrutinised by Nguyen via his narrator.

The sympathizer is, in many ways, a bitter novel, because it sees clearly into the human heart, and its messy, divided nature, its “moth-eaten moral covers” – but the bitterness is offset by a sense of resilience and a belief that it need not be like this. A big thanks to my Californian friend Carolyn for sending me this.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by this novel.

Viet Thanh Nguyen,
The sympathizer
New York: Grove Press, 2015
382pp.
ISBN: 9780802124944

Tony Birch wins the 2017 Patrick White Award

November 16, 2017

The Patrick White Award is one of Australia’s very special literary awards, and one that I posted in detail about last year when Carmel Bird was the winner. It’s special for a number of reasons. It is named for Patrick White who is, to date, Australia’s only Nobel Laureate in Literature. But, as I wrote last year, it’s particularly significant because it was established by White himself, using the proceeds of his Nobel prize money. Known for being irascible, White was also a principled and generous person. Having won two Miles Franklin Awards, among others, he stopped entering his work for awards in 1967 to provide more opportunity for other less-supported writers. His award goes to writers who have made significant contributions to Australian literature but who haven’t received the recognition they deserve.

This year’s award, as I heard on ABC Radio National when I was heading out for my patchwork group’s fortnightly cuppa, was announced at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre last night. It is special for another reason:  the award has been made to Tony Birch, making it the first time the award has been made to an indigenous Australian writer. In one sense I feel uncomfortable about labelling, because Birch has won the award on the merit of his output, but on the other hand such wins can raise awareness and provide encouragement for all those “others” who feel (and, you’d have to say, are) locked out of the mainstream.

Tony Birch, Ghost riverSo, Tony Birch. He’s a Melbourne-based writer, who has written two novels, many short stories, and poetry. His first novel, Blood, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award, and his second, Ghost River (my review) won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s award for Indigenous writing. I have also reviewed one of his short stories, “Spirit in the night” (my review), which was published in the excellent Australian Review of Fiction series.

Australian literary editor Jason Steger, writing about Birch’s win, quotes Birch on White:

“I admired the fact that as a writer in his older age he protested against the Vietnam War, that he was a great supporter of Whitlam after the Dismissal and that he had been involved with Jack Mundey’s protests and the Green Bans.”

Steger continues that this attracts Birch:

because he is “very involved” with the campaign against the Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. And as a research fellow at Victoria University, his work “is essentially about the relationship between climate change and what we now call protection of country”.

The most interesting (and most memorable) parts of Ghost River werefor me, the environmental story about saving the river and Birch’s depiction of the lives of and treatment of homeless men. Michael Cathcart, in his interview with Birch on ABC’s Books and Arts Daily Program, commented that while Birch’s work features indigenous characters, his themes seem broader. Birch responded pretty much as Steger also quotes him:

I suppose my writing is broadly about class, but more essentially about valuing people who might otherwise be regarded as marginalised.

Patrick White would, I’m sure, have been proud.

Monday musings on Australian literature: GenreCon 2017 by Tweet (#gcoz)

November 13, 2017

GenreCon 2017 BannerFirst off, no, I didn’t attend this year’s GenreCon which took place this weekend past in Brisbane, Queensland. However, I did see many of the tweets that emanated from attendees (using hashtag #GCoz) and found many of them extending beyond the genre focus. So, I thought I’d pass some on.

Not all tweeters identified the sessions their tweet/s related to, so I’m going to “curate” them under issues that interest me! (I will name the tweeter in brackets after their tweet. Note that the quote marks are for the tweeters’ words, which mostly comprise their summary of what they heard rather than a verbatim quote.)

But, before we get started, I’ll share my favourite tweet. It quotes Garth Nix on being an introvert at conferences:

“I just pretend to be the kind of person who likes to talk to people”. (Aiki Flinthart)

For writers

GenreCon is clearly geared to writers more than readers. Consequently the program included sessions like Writing Through Fear with Anna Campbell and Top Ten Tricks and Traps of Publishing Contracts with Alex Adsett, and discussion panels like What Every Writer Ought to Know about their Book Cover.

Tweeters shared advice on how to work within a “genre”, on the need to “know” your genre and its practitioners, and on what to do when your book is published, but I’ll leave those. You can check the hashtag yourself if you are interested. For readers here I’ve chosen other topics …

Americanising text

This is a controversial issue I’ve discussed with Lisa (ANZLitLovers) recently on her blog when she reported on the AALITRA Symposium. I’m not sure who originated the comment, I’m sharing here, but it makes a point: “Nothing throws someone out of a story like a misplaced thong” (Lynette Haines). Or a rubber! I guess tolerance for “Americanisation” depends on the audience you want to attract.

Book covers

Now this is another issue that can get hackles raised, though this didn’t come through in the GenreCon tweets. However, the point made by Escape Publishing/Harlequin publisher, Kate Cuthbert, is interesting:

“Covers are not about the image, they’re about the emotions they evoke” (Jess Irwin).

Cuthbert also apparently said that “Big W accounts for about 40% of Australian book sales, so if they come back and say they won’t stock a book with that cover, you change the cover” (Josh Melican).

And, most worryingly, Cuthbert said that  “Genre fiction has a representational problem which needs to be addressed. If you put a non-white character on the cover, it doesn’t sell as well. That’s a financial reality, but it’s shit. @katydidinoz [ie Kate Cuthbert] has refused to white-wash covers in the past” (Josh Melican).

Awards

Angela Slatter, VigilAuthor Angela Slatter discussed awards in her plenary address, which she has now posted on her blog. One tweeter wrote: “The talented @AngelaSlatter discusses the ‘award-effect’ (and reminds us that everyone’s trajectory is different and your journey will not be the same” (Tehani Croft). Croft shared Slatter’s slide:

  • Winning an award does NOT make you a better writer
  • Losing an award does NOT make you a worse writer
  • Awards can be useful but your career will NOT die without them

And, just to make sure the point was clear, Slatter also said “Awards garner media attention … on slow news days” (Tansy Rayner Roberts).

The market

A few other points were tweeted about the market besides the Big W figure above. Most came from the literary agent Alex Adsett. She commented on “the energy put into international rights sales by smaller publishers like Text, particularly compared to less active and larger publishers” (PopFic Doctors). I’m certainly aware through overseas bloggers like Kim (Reading Matters) and Guy (His Futile Preoccupations) that Text is active in promoting their books in England and the USA. They are an inspiring publisher.

Adsett also discussed audiobooks, advising that “Authors retaining audiobook rights is becoming a dealbreaker for big publishers over the last 18 months because of how big audiobooks are becoming” (Claire Parnell). PopFic Doctors tweeted that “audiobooks now account for 1% of the market, which is BIG”. One per cent doesn’t sound big to me, but seems it is.

And finally, also from Adsett, is a comment about genre identification: “Many publishers won’t take horror so Alex will pitch as dark fantasy; can genre be spun as literary?” (Rivqa Rafael). Adsett apparently also said that in Australia, writers don’t need an agent, unlike in the USA, but I wonder if authors, on their own, would all know these finer nuances of pitching? As for Rafael’s question regarding whether “genre can be spun as literary”, I’d say yes, but therein hangs a tale for another day I think.

On writing

There were many sessions on the craft of writing, such as writing fight scenes (for women), developing characters, and writing sex and sexuality in the twenty-first century.

American author Delilah Dawson spoke about writing characters: “Delilah Dawson’s cheat sheet of quick ‘charisma points’ for characters: loyalty, wry humour, nice to kids, kind to animals, artistic in some way” (Jess Irwin) and “Delilah Dawson finds out what your characters most want and what they fear most and this feeds into the climax” (Leife Shallcross).

Fiji-born New Zealand writer Nalini Singh’s comment on how to handle hard times in writing was tweeted by many who loved her idea of “squirrels”: “I’m a big fan of having ‘play projects’ aka ‘squirrels’ (you’re working on a hard part in your main project & ‘ooh, squirrel!’) … having these side projects gets you off the treadmill … see where the squirrel leads you … keep it secret to avoid stress.” (Angela Meyer)

Claire G Coleman, Terra NulliusAnother writer who was frequently tweeted was debut indigenous Australian author, Claire G Coleman (Terra nullius). She clearly had a fresh way of saying things, such as this on inspiration: “A lightning bolt of inspiration is when something in one part of your brain collides with something in another part of your brain and they have babies (Tehani Croft). And this on editing: “Nobody finishes editing. Someone just takes it off you one day” (Narrelle Harris). I can relate to that! I often fiddle with my blog posts long after they’ve been published. Author Emma Viksic also entertained with her comment on editing: “I did kill them, or as I like to say: sent them to the farm to play with other happy words” (Elizabeth McKewin). Love it!

And finally, I liked this one on rules, from the aforementioned Adsett:

“if you’re good enough you can break the rules … but you have to show you know what the rules are” (Tansy Rayner Roberts)

On diversity

Several tweets discussed the issue of diversity. It was clearly a big issue at the conference. There were discussions about Romance fiction, whose popularity is increasing, including more diverse characters. Romance writer Jodi McAlister said that “we’re seeing many more narratives for queer characters beyond the coming out narrative. Queer characters are getting love stories as well as stories about dragons and adventures where it’s not about the character being queer, it’s just who they are” (Claire Parnell). In other words, “You shouldn’t need a reason to include diverse characters…” (Daniel de Lorne)

McAlister also said very pointedly that “Those seen as worthy of love in our love stories tells a lot about what our culture values” (Kali Napier). That’s also worth its own post.

Finally, the issue of how to write these diverse characters came up – relating to that issue we’ve discussed here many times regarding white writers writing black characters. Adsett tweeted Claire G. Coleman’s advice: “Don’t write any diverse character you haven’t had a coffee with, aren’t friends with”.

Creative Native, not an attendee I think, didn’t much like this advice, tweeting: “Plenty of people have ‘had a coffee’ or were friends w[ith] Native, disabled, Bipolar, Autistic, Fat me yet still managed to spout harmful nonsense.” Fair enough. It takes more than one coffee, but I suspect Coleman wasn’t being quite that simple. However, Creative Native did give good advice to writers: “Get a Sensitivity Reader w[ith] the marginalised identity/identites you’re writing about – & deal honestly w[ith] criticism (!!!)”. Which is exactly the approach I’ve come to think best …

Phew, this ended up being way longer than I planned. Hopefully my headings and highlighting have enabled you to pick out what interests you without having to read it all!

Did anything interest you?

My literary week (10), Non-fiction November and Lady Chatterley

November 12, 2017

I had hoped to finish my current book by this weekend, but it’s been a busy week with a two-day trip away, an exhibition launch, and a Friends’ of the NFSA event, on top of usual commitments. However, I do have some “literary” bits and pieces to share. I’ll start with the one that isn’t hinted at in the post title!

Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits Exhibition

Stupidly, I didn’t take any pics of the two events I attended – a special members preview and the gala opening – for this exciting new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). Created collaboratively by the NPG and the National Film and Sound Archive (which provides most of the images), this exhibition contains 275 images from Australia’s film industry. I’m including it here – besides wanting to promote it – because the curators, Jennifer Coombes and Penny Grist, have organised the collection to convey a narrative, from set-up to resolution. This results in images from different eras and genres being placed side by side, forcing us to think about them from different perspectives. I’ll be back to spend more time. (Meanwhile, you might like to check out the interactive exhibition of the Cinesound movie company’s gorgeous Casting Books.)

Cover Story (or, Vinyl Covers with David Kilby)

Still with the NFSA, on Friday I went to an event organised by our Friends’ group at which record collector David Kilby presented a selection of record covers. David often collects records for their covers, rather than their contents, and at this presentation we could see why. But, how to present them? There are various possibilities, but the one David chose was to display examples from the “categories” he collects – and my, does he have some fascinating categories. Some relate to audio content – such as Religious songs, Instructional records, or Co-star with me – and some to the cover art. There are, for example, covers which use “stars” who have nothing to do with the content. Jayne Mansfield was a popular choice here! Wonder why! Then there are those which depict actions, such as smoking, or types of people, such as plumbers. You really had to be there!

Music to read lady Chatterley's lover by, album coverBut, the group I’m sharing here is the “Music to [insert action] by”, and particularly, “Music to read by”. To represent this group, David displayed the cover for Music to read Lady Chatterley’s lover by. The music comes from Richard Shores and his Orchestra, and there are ten tracks: Love, Hate, Sorrow, Gay, Blues, Surprise, Frustration Nostalgia, Fear, Hysteria! The cover notes briefly refer to the novel’s controversial history – the censorship, and so on – and then continues:

Richard Shores [apostrophe?] initial venture into musical “no-man’s-land” may trip the same kind of alarm. Nature in the raw is seldom mild as can be seen when Shore utilizes his melodic pallet to characterize the spectrum of human emotions.

While music has always reflected the composer’s attempt to picture human emotions through the symmetry of naturals, sharps and flats, Shores flamboyantly exposes man’s innermost feelings relentlessly.

Gotta hear this one day!

Non-fiction November meme

Having seen some of my favourite bloggers – such as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) – take part in the Non-fiction November meme sponsored by julzreads, among others, I considered joining in, but this week got the better of me. Consequently, I’m just going to respond briefly here:

Week 1, Oct 30-Nov 3: Your year in non-fiction

Two of the questions for this week were:

  • What was your favourite non-fiction read of the year? Without doing the count, I seem to have read more non-fiction this year than in recent years, so it’s tricky to answer this. In fact it’s so tricky that I’m going to give three: Kim Mahood’s Position doubtful (my review); Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too afraid to cry (my review); and Stan Grant’s Talking to my country (my review). All three explore Australia, and what it means to be Australian, particularly in relation to indigenous people. (For more, see Week 3 below)
  • Bernadette Brennan, A writing life Helen Garner and her workWhat is one topic of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? This would have to be literary biographies and memoirs. Two, in particular, have come out this year that I’ve not managed to read (yet), Bernadette Brennan’s biography of Helen Garner, A writing life: Helen Garner and her work, and Georgia Blain’s memoir, The museum of words. I did though retrieve (and read) from my TBR pile, Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers (my review) so it hasn’t been completely hopeless.

Week 2, Nov 6-10: Book pairing

For Week 2 participants were asked to pair a non-fiction book with a fiction one, using your own criteria, but essentially meaning books that seem to go well together. Many bloggers have posted multiple pairings, but as I’m not devoting a whole post to this, I’m going with just one, the one that popped into my head the minute I realised the subject of my reading group’s August book, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (my review). It’s about Koreans in Japan, and their struggle to survive. My paired book is Richard Lloyd Parry’s People who eat darkness (my review). Parry’s analysis of the murder of a young English woman in Japan by a serial killer includes a discussion of the poor treatment of Koreans by the Japanese. It prepared me well for Min Jin Lee.

 

 

Week 3, Nov 13-17: Be the expert/Ask the export/Become the expert

From this group – which officially starts tomorrow, so I’m jumping the gun somewhat – I’m choosing the “be an expert option”. This asks me to share the title of three books on a single topic that I’ve read and recommend (thus making me an expert!). Well, I don’t claim to be an expert on this topic – it would be insensitive of me to do so in fact – but I would (and have) recommended these three memoirs on the experience of racism in Australia. Two of the books are by indigenous Australians, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too afraid to cry and Stan Grant’s Talking to my country, and one by an Australian-born writer of West Indian background, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (my review). These books paint a picture of Australia that is depressing and distressing. When I first became aware of racism in my teens in the late 1960s, I’d have been horrified to think that half a century later so little progress would have been made in how we treat each other. What is wrong with us?

 

 

And here I will end. It would be cheeky answering Weeks 4 and 5 this far in advance.

However, I’d love to know your answers to these non-fiction questions.

Hoa Pham, Lady of the realm (#BookReview)

November 10, 2017

Hoa Pham, Lady of the realmHoa Pham was one of the participants at the recent Boundless Festival (my post), so it’s rather apposite that her latest work, Lady of the realm, popped up as my next review copy. The very brief author bio on the Festival site describes the novel as “about a Buddhist clairvoyant in Vietnam”. Well, it is, but it’s about far more than that too.

Vietnamese-Australian Hoa Pham was born in Hobart after her Vietnamese parents went there to study in the 1970s. She has written several novels, children’s books, plays and short stories, but her novella, Lady of the Realm, is the first that I’ve read. It’s a slim book, a novella in fact, told first person in a chronological sequence that covers nearly five decades from 1962 to 2009. If you know your south-east Asian history, you’ll realise that this time-span starts during the Vietnam or American War (depending on your perspective.)

It’s quite a challenge to cover such a long and tumultuous period in less than 90 pages, but Pham achieves it by keeping her focus tight – to the experience of the Buddhist monk Liên. Before we meet her formally though, there is a short prologue, which is also in her voice, albeit unknown to us at that point. She prepares us for the vignette-style in which she tells her story:

Looking back over the years, it seems that time stretches and contracts, depending on my experience of each moment. Some moments are etched in my memory, like the sunlight patterning the water in the river, ethereal moments captured only by my mind. Other longer stretches of time are a blur ….

This makes perfect sense to me in terms of how we remember our lives, and hence works for telling a story that covers a long life in a turbulent place. However, if you are someone who likes to get lost in a character and the ongoing drama of life, this book may not work for you.

So, Liên. She is introduced in 1962 as a young girl who has a prescient dream that the Viet Minh will come and destroy her fishing village. This marks her as the one to succeed her grandmother Bà as keeper of the shrine and mouthpiece for the Lady of the Realm (as she calls the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Quan Ám). Unfortunately, the village head ignores the warning, and the village is attacked with most in the village killed. Liên, however, escapes, and lives to chronicle the aftermath.

The book then takes us through moments in Liên’s, and therefore Vietnam’s, life in 1968, 1980, 1991 and 2007, before finishing in 2009 when Liên is now an old woman living in a Buddhist monastery. She has experienced much violence and oppression – through the war and the “fall of Saigon”, through the Communist regime which she “naively believed” would bring peace but which brought “re-education” and more death, and through later “reforms” which were supposed to open up Vietnam but saw her beloved Prajna Monastery destroyed. Liên survives it all, sustained by hope:

Ever hidden away the Lady could still bring hope, I thought. I had found the Lady in many guises, but the strongest seemed to be the Lady I had inside. (1980)

This hope is sorely tested, however, and in the last section she says:

Sanctuaries are an illusion, only suffering is real. I know that this is not what Buddha taught, and my experience has made my own sayings out of his teachings. I believe that any safety I find is temporary, any refuge is not permanent. But my teacher would say, all things are impermanent and change. I hope that our situation will change. Some days I cannot bear another moment of being under siege. (2009)

The tone, here, is typical of the book as a whole – calm, somewhat resigned, and sometimes hopeful.

Now, how to describe the writing? There’s the tone, and there’s Pham’s simple, direct language (which is also evidenced in the above excerpt). There’s also her preponderant use of short paragraphs. And there’s the episodic form, with each episode/year heralded by an epigram, the last four by Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thích Nhất Hạnh. Together, these create a sort of prose-poem, and with that, dare I venture, a higher (or perhaps just universal) plane of truth!

In other words, Pham has contrived to tell a personal, human story through her character Liên, while also conveying a philosophical attitude to life based on endurance, compassion and most of all hope. A moving, inspiring read.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) captures the book beautifully in her review.

aww2017 badgeHoa Pham
Lady of the realm
Mission Beach: Spinifex Press, 1977
87pp.
ISBN: 9781925581133

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Ad hoc literary awards (1)

November 6, 2017

Wah! It’s Sunday night (as I write this), and I’ve suddenly realised that I’ll be out of town all Monday and Tuesday, so what to do about this week’s Monday Musings? Something quick, that’s what! So, I looked at my little list of ideas for something I could do fairly quickly, and noted one I’d titled “other literary prizes”. By this I meant literary prizes that I rarely cover here because they are not in the “literary” mainstream. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are not worth telling you about (though they can be tricky to track down). I’m numbering this post with (1) because, you never know, I might do another one, one day.

So, for this post, I am going to list some lesser-known (to me, anyhow) non-Australian awards that have been won by Australians. In other words, these are not of the Booker or IMPAC Dublin Prize variety.

Shaun Tan, Eric coverAstrid Lindgren Memorial Prize

An international children’s literary award established by the Swedish government in 2002 in the name of Sweden’s children’s author Astrid Lindgren (1907–2002). The award is made annually to people or organisations, recognising their contribution to children’s literature. Two Australians have one, Sonya Hartnett (whose adult novel Golden boys I’ve reviewed) and Shaun Tan (whose Eric I’ve reviewed.)

Betty Trask Prize and Awards

Established in 1984 for first novels (general fiction or romance) written by authors under the age of 35 who reside in a current or former Commonwealth nation. One author receives the main “Prize”, with runners-up receiving “Awards”. Australians who’ve won include Nick Earls (Award, 1998), Elliot Perlman (Prize, 1999, for Three dollars), Julia Leigh (Award, 2000), Chloe Hooper (Award, 2002) Evie Wyld (whose Miles Franklin Award winning All the birds, singing I’ve reviewed here, Award, 2010).

German Crime Fiction Prize (Deutscher Krimi Preis)

Peter Temple, TruthApparently Germany’s “oldest and most prestigious” literary prize for crime fiction. It has been awarded since 1985, and every year awards 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in two categories, National and International. Australian writer Gary Disher (whose book Wyatt Son Gums reviewed here) won 1st Prize in 2000 (with Kickback), in 2002 (with Dragon Man) and in 2016 (with Bitter Wash Road, on my TBR), and Peter Temple won 1st prize in 2012 with Truth (my review).

Montreal International Poetry Prize

A new biennial international poetry competition established in 2011. Poems are submitted online, and can come from anywhere in the world, but must apparently be in English (which is interesting given Montreal is in Quebec. Interesting too is the fact that the prize is “adjudicated by a board of 10 international editors, which changes every competition, but the winner is selected by a single judge”.  Anyhow, to date there have only been three awards, 2011, 2013 and 2015, with the first being Australian poet, Mark Tredinnick.

PEN Translates Award (English)

Established in 2012 “to encourage UK publishers to acquire more books from other languages.” It helps UK publishers to meet the costs of translating new works into English and ensures translators are “acknowledged and paid properly for their work”. So, it’s for something published (or to be published) in the UK, and in 2016 a winner was Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali. It was translated from the French by Australian translator (and Text Publishing staffer) Penny Hueston.

We don’t know much in Australia about how well our local writers “travel”, and awards like these aren’t always well-reported at home, so I’ve enjoyed discovering just who has been feted overseas. As with learning of Helen Garner and Ali Cobby-Eckermann winning the Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes, it’s been eye-opening.

There! I’ve written a post, and I found it interesting to research. Hope it’s interesting enough for you too!