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Ali Cobby Eckermann, Too afraid to cry (#BookReview)

July 27, 2017

ANZ Lit Lovers Indigenous Literature Week bannerHaving reviewed Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha woman Ali Cobby Eckermann’s poetry collection, Inside my mother (my review) for Lisa’s ANZlitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 2017, I decided to also read her 2012 memoir, Too afraid to cry. It filled in a lot of gaps, which is not necessary to appreciate or comprehend the poetry but which does deepen the understanding.

The memoir’s dedication starts with the lines:

this is a poetic memoir
a story of healing
not burdened by blame

And that is pretty well what it is. It’s not an angry book, so much as a sorrowful one. Sorrow about the abuses and losses that affected her childhood and early adulthood, in particular. The sorrow starts early, when she’s young, and abused. She writes of her uncle rubbing her leg inappropriately, and progressing to assault, though she doesn’t say that because she’s only 7 years old. However, while she may not have the language to analyse what was happening to her, she does have the language to describe the feelings:

I felt the icy wind inside my head begin to blow. I could not move. The icy wind is very dangerous.

This “icy wind” becomes a metaphor throughout the book for the abuse, for her memory of it, and for its impact on her psyche until she can no longer cry – “the ice block had turned to stone, and now there was no moisture left inside me”. Hence the title of the memoir.

So, to summarise the book before I delve any further, Too afraid to cry is the story of a young indigenous baby adopted by a non-indigenous family. It’s a good loving family, with parents who, unable to have children, adopted four – two from the mission – and fostered another. But this family, as loving as it is, is a deeply religious one which does not understand the pain experienced by children from a different culture to its own. The result is that Eckermann is left to contend with racism and abuse that she, too, does not initially understand. Here, for example, is a schoolyard experience:

[I] didn’t notice that they had begun to form a circle around me, but I did notice that the icy wind was blowing inside my head and was starting to freeze my guts. Someone held me while other hands pulled my underpants down. There was a strange noise in my ears, like a faraway scream, but I could still hear the sounds of those doing the laughing and teasing. They said they wanted to know if I was the same as other girls. Someone laughed, saying they didn’t know if ‘boongs’ were different. I was frozen with the icy wind roaring through my body. I didn’t want to know what a ‘boong’ was.

Note the “icy wind” again. As childhood turns to adolescence, Eckermann, who had been an excellent student, begins to withdraw from her family and turns instead to alcohol and drugs to cope with the pain and sense of disconnect. It’s not a surprising story, but it’s a useful one for those who don’t understand what disconnection from one’s own culture can do, particularly in a society where difference is not tolerated. Eckermann learns much later, apparently, of the ridicule her adoptive mother had faced for having aboriginal children.

Anyhow, gradually, after many experiences, painful ones, risky ones and some more positive, Eckermann finds her way to her own culture, and healing begins:

Slowly the stone inside me turned to ice and then the ice began to melt. I felt real tears on my face for the first time in my adult life.

What’s remarkable about the memoir – something you may have guessed from what I’ve written – is her ability to get into her head at the time, to write from the point of view of the age and person she was when the things she describes happened, rather writing them as memory that she is now reflecting and commenting on. Of course the telling of the experience, the choosing of which experiences to tell, is a form of commentary, but I’m sure you get my point.

The memoir is remarkable for other reasons too. It’s told in 92 short anecdotal chapters, which are divided into four parts. The style is spare, with short, simple sentences. This is a book which shows rather than tells. Much of the commentary is conveyed through poems inserted between some of the chapters, such as “Heroin” between Chapters 45 and 46. It’s a short poem, like most of hers, and uses repetition and powerful wordplay on the word “arms”, to invoke prostitution, loving and heroin. The last stanza reads:

in their arms
they survive
a modern world.

Some of the poems appear again – the same or sometimes changed* – in Inside my mother.

Another aspect of the memoir, which adds to its sense of almost mythic universality, though is probably also done to protect individuals, is her minimal use of actual names. Her siblings, for example, include Big brother, Foster brother, and some relations are Aunty and Uncle. She does though name her mothers.

Too afraid to cry is an innovative and evocative memoir, which manages to convey hurt and pain, truthfully, but with a generosity that is humbling.

aww2017 badgeAli Cobby Eckermann
Too afraid to cry
Elsternwick: Ilura Press, 2012
ISSN: 978-1-921325-29-8 (eBook)

* Changed, I think, as I’m writing this in California, but my copy of Inside my mother is back in Australia.

Monday musings on Australian literature: ACT Litbloggers under way

July 24, 2017

A few weeks ago I posted on the ACT Litblogging program for which I am a mentor. But, I’ll just recap in case you missed that post. Titled ACT Lit-bloggers of the Future, this is a collaborative program between the ACT Writers Centre and the National Library of Australia (NLA). It provides for two emerging ACT-region writers to attend events at the National Library of Australia and post their experience on the Writers Centre’s Capital Letters blog, as well as for that mentorship from me.

The two bloggers, playwright and performance maker Emma Gibson, and blogger/podcaster and writer Angharad (Tinted Edges), are now well underway. They have posted on three events, and more posts, I know, are scheduled for the next month. The posts to date reveal the variety of programs offered by the National Library, an impressive variety really, when you know that the bloggers, due to their work and other life commitments, have not been able to attend every event available.

Here are the posts published to date:

  • Hugh Mackay, Selling the dreamAuthor talk with social commentator and prolific writer Hugh Mackay, held on 6 June, and posted by Angharad. The book was Selling the dream, on the advertising industry, and Angharad, who loves attending author talks – as most keen readers do – enjoyed both the overall experience and what she learnt about advertising, including its increasing role in political campaigns. As you usually do at author talks, she bought the book and had it signed!
  • Presentation on the life and death of botanical illustrator Dorothy English Paty by curator Nat Williams, on 28 June, and posted by Emma. Emma, who has always liked botanical illustration, was throughly engaged by this introduction to Paty (1805-1836), a little-known early Australian amateur artist. The Library has two of her Newcastle sketchbooks in its Nan Kivell Collection and this talk focused on presenter Williams’ research. As Emma says, although there are many gaps in our knowledge about her, the survival of these notebooks, together with research by people like Williams, will ensure that she (and the contributions she made) are not lost to us.
  • NAIDOC 2017 week collection talk titled Our voice, presented by librarian Ryan Stoker on 6 July, and posted by Emma. Described as a collection talk, this event involved Stoker highlighting “a variety of interviews, social histories and folklore recordings” that the Library has collected from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. As a playwright, Emma is attuned to things aural, and takes her own audio recordings when travelling. Not surprisingly then, she found the talk illuminating, particularly in relation to how this collection at the NLA might help keep indigenous languages alive.

More posts, as I said in my introduction, are coming, including one from Angharad on an author talk by the popular and successful Australian fantasy and historical fiction writer Kate Forsyth. Look for that, and others by our two bloggers, on the Capital Letters blog. You can subscribe to it via the box in the right sidebar.

Meanwhile, our two bloggers would love it if you read these current posts and left them a comment!

You are very likely to hear more about this program later in the year, but I did want to share what’s been done to date – and give a little heads up to the good work being done by the NLA, ACT Writers Centre, and our two bloggers.

A short post today, but I’m sure you won’t complain about that!

Australian Women Writers 2017 Challenge completed

July 22, 2017

Carmel Bird, Family skeletonI usually write my completion post for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge, around the middle of the year, even though I plan to take part until the year’s end. As in previous years, I signed up for the top-level, Franklin, which involves reading 10 books and reviewing at least 6, and as in previous years I’ve exceeded this. However, it’s good to get the completion post out of the way before the end of year madness begins!

I have, so far this year, contributed 16 reviews to the challenge, two more than for last year’s completion post.

Here’s my list in alphabetical order (by woman author), with the links on the titles being to my reviews:

Unlike last year’s half-way list, I did review one classic and a book by an indigenous woman author this year. There are other differences too. Last year I’d read just three memoirs (with two of those being hybrid biography-memoirs) while this year I’ve reviewed five memoirs to date. The fiction-nonfiction ratio, though, is still roughly the same.

aww2017 badgeLast year, I ended the post on plans for the rest of the year – and said that they would include reading at least one indigenous woman, Ali Cobby Eckermann, which indeed I did (her Ruby Moonlight). This year, however, I’m not setting out any plans. I do know I’ll be reading Heather Rose’s Stella Prize winner, The museum of modern love, as my reading group is doing that. (We will be reading a couple of other women writers, but they are not Australian.) As for the rest of my reading plans for the year, they are undefined – which means I could very well be as surprised as you by what turns up!

Vale Jane Austen: on the 200th anniversary of her death

July 18, 2017

Jane Austen by sister Cassandra

Today, July 18, marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Unfortunately, because I am travelling I am unable to join my local Jane Austen group’s wake to commemorate her, but I had to do something of course, so I’ve decided to write a post on Austen biographies. I’m partly drawing from my group’s recent discussion of Austen biographies.

Now, if you are not an Austen aficionado and you’ve looked at my list below, you would probably be surprised to hear that very little, really, is known about Austen, and that what is known is not very exciting. Amazon’s entry on Spence’s book includes a quote from a Booklist review which says that “Jane Austen’s quiet life is not very rewarding biographical material.” And Tomalin, writer of probably the most authoritative biography, concludes that Austen “is as elusive as a cloud in the night sky”.

Yet, the biographies keep coming – and if you look (again) at my list below you will see that the number has increased in recent decades. Has any writer had as many biographies written about them than Austen? When my Austen group discussed them, we decided there were different types of biographies: the straightforward (chronological, womb-to-tomb style); those taking a more thematic approach (like Paula Byrne’s The real Jane Austen: A life in small things); and those wishing to explore specific perspectives/angles (like Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The secret radical).

Claire Tomalin, Jane AustenStill, we wondered how many of these biographies really have something new to say, or are most simply jumping on the Jane Austen bandwagon – because the fact is that there are many gaps in what is known about her. That’s largely why she’s so “elusive” as Tomalin says. And it’s why most biographies fill out with a lot of context. They either spend a lot of time on her books (some of which you would naturally expect in a literary biography), or they spend a lot of time talking about her times and/or the lives of members of her family. (And there are some dramatic stories there.)

Of course, there’s always the possibility of new information coming to light. Midorikawa and Sweeney’s work on the literary friendship between Austen and Anne Sharp that I reviewed recently, drew heavily on the unpublished diaries and letters of Jane’s niece, Fanny Knight, which they said had not been seriously mined by scholars. They did admit though that they had to “read between the lines of Fanny’s childish scrawl to decipher the obscured truths”.

And if you expected all this life-of-Austen industry to be as meek and mild as many think Austen was, you’d better think again. Austenites (I’ll refrain from using the more loaded Janeite) can be fiery, as the recent contretemps over the new biography by Lucy Worsley and its alleged similarities to Paula Byrne’s 2013 one.

Who knows the real story here, but there is one truth we can universally acknowledge, and that’s that in this anniversary year of Austen’s death, more books will come out about her.

The not-quite-complete list

  • Amy, Helen. Jane Austen (2013)
  • Auerbach, Emily. Searching for Jane Austen (2004)
  • Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A memoir of Jane Austen (1869)
  • Byrne, Paula. The real Jane Austen: A life in small things (2013)
  • Cecil, David. A portrait of Jane Austen (1979)
  • Grosvenor Myer, Valerie. Jane Austen, obstinate heart: A Biography (1997)
  • Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life (1987)
  • Jenkins, Elizabeth. Jane Austen: A biography (1938)
  • Kelly, Helena. Jane Austen: The secret radical (2016)
  • Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen (British Library Writers’ Lives Series) (1998)
  • Lefroy, Helen. Jane Austen (1997)
  • Midorikawa, Emily and Emma Claire Sweeney. A secret sisterhood. Part 1: Jane Austen and Anne Sharp (2017)
  • Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A life (1998)
  • Shields, Carol. Jane Austen: A life (2001)
  • Spence, Jon. Becoming Jane Austen (2007)
  • Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A life (1997)
  • Worsley, Lucy. Jane Austen at home: A biography (2017)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Mid-year awards round-up

July 17, 2017

As is my wont, I have not been posting this year on all the awards that have been announced  – on their longlists, shortlists or even their winners – though I have done some. It can become a bit overwhelming. Instead, I’ve decided that a mid-year recap might be a useful way to go – so, since we have now passed the year’s halfway mark, that time has come. I’ll mention the awards I’ve chosen to do, in chronological order of their announcement.

Stella Prize

Heather Rose, The museum of modern loveThe Stella Prize is now one of the first awards to be announced in the year, and I did post on the longlist.  From this longlist, a shortlist of six books were chosen:

  • Between a wolf and a dog, by Georgia Blain
  • The hate race, by Maxine Beneba Clarke (my review)
  • Poum and Alexandre, by Catherine de Saint Phalle
  • An isolated incident, by Emily Maguire (my review)
  • The museum of modern love, by Heather Rose
  • Dying: A memoir, by Cory Taylor

And the winner, announced in early March, was Heather Rose’s The museum of modern love, which I will be reading with my reading group later this year.

Indie Book Awards

Helen Garner, Everywhere I lookThe winners of these awards, which are run by Australian independent booksellers, were announced in late March. Several awards are made, which you can check out on their site but those most relevant to my blog are:

  • FictionThe last painting of Sarah De Vos, by Dominic Smith
  • Non-fiction: Everywhere I look, by Helen Garner (my review)

The New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards

These awards are multipronged and far too complex for me to report on in detail here. You can see the full list of winners, which were announced in late May, on Wikipedia. However, those of most relevance to me were:

  • Christina Stead Prize for FictionThe museum of modern love, by Heather Rose
  • UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: Letter to Pessoa, by Michelle Cahill

ABIA, or the Australian Book Industry Awards

These awards, announced in late May, only a few days after the NSW Premier’s awards, are also multipronged. You can read the full list on the ABIA website, so again I’ll just share the most-reelvant-to-me award here, the  Literary fiction of the year award, which went to The last painting of Sarah De Vos, by Dominic Smith.

I should add that the hugely popular bestselling Australian author Di Morrissey was inducted into the ABIA Hall of Fame, and also that, for the first time this year, an award was made for Audiobook of the year, which nicely recognises the popularity and value of this form of “reading”.

Oh, and interestingly, the overall winner, Jane Harper’s The dry, was also the overall winner at the Indie Book Awards earlier in the year. So, the overall winner and the literary winner of both these awards were the same. The shortlists at both are judged by independent panels.

Miles Franklin Shortlist

While the Miles Franklin Award won’t be announced until later this year, it’s such a significant award in Australia that I’m going to share the shortlist here which was announced in June. The shortlist is:

  • Emily McGuire’s An isolated incident (Picador) (my review)
  • Mark O’Flynn’s The last Days of Ava Langdon (UQP)
  • Ryan O’Neill’s Their brilliant careers (Black Inc Books)
  • Philip Salom’s Waiting (Puncher and Wattman)
  • Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (UWAP)

Nice to see a gender mix, and good representation from smaller publishers, including two university presses!

Delicious descriptions: Kim Mahood’s desert

July 13, 2017

Kim Mahood, Position doubtfulI wanted to use this Descriptions series to share a couple of Mahood’s gorgeous descriptions from her memoir, Position doubtful, which I reviewed recently, but I’ve decided to share one about maps and relationships (and you’ll probably see why), and a description.

From a mapping expedition:

The shortcomings of my prototype map soon become evident. The first lesson in the overlapping of knowledge systems is that Aboriginal knowledge doesn’t confine itself to the square dimensions of the canvas. Traditional jurisdictions extend to Well 50 in the west and to Jalyuwarn in the south. The ancestral dingoes who created the lake came down from the north and Kiki, the falling star, fell from the sky in the east. All these places and events are off the map.

– Puttem, I am told. You can fixem up later.

I puttem, and the edges of the canvas became congested with names that belong to the country outside the square.

She goes on to describe the process of capturing stories and knowledge, how “each site has its attendant stories – dreaming stories and traditional ways of living, accounts of the station days and mission days and first-contact encounters.” So fascinating – but these maps can be fraught with risk too.

Samphire Shrubland

Samphire landscape, Central Australia (By Mark Marathon, using CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

From a trip to Lake Ruth, 2008:

… The anthills on the plain are small and crenelated, like urban skylines. Ahead of us the horizon feels unstable, as if we are approaching an edge of some kind. The sandy soil becomes littered with limestone pebbles, and the anthills morph into the massive conical forms of cathedral mounds. Abruptly, the salt lake is before us, a negative space boundaried to the south by another unstable horizon. …

Between the salt lake and the limestone ridge where we have halted is a low red dune, an arc of sand created by wind and waves when the ephemeral lakes were substantial bodies of water. Stunted ti-tree grows along the dune, and red and gold samphire spreads out onto the salt crust, which is buckled and crisp. The southern horizon ripples with dissolving light, like wind moving through invisible fields of grass.

These descriptions of the desert are so vivid, so true. They show that Mahood is not just a mapmaker and artist, but a writer too.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Bill of The Australian Legend

July 10, 2017

It’s been two years since I last published a Guest Post, for no any other reason than that the idea slipped off the radar as other busy-ness took over. However, during a recent email correspondence with (relatively new) blogger Bill, the idea re-popped into my head, and so I asked him, as he explains below.

First though, a quick intro. Bill appeared on the Australian lit-blog scene just over two years ago with quite a bang. Well, that’s a bit overly dramatic perhaps. What I mean is that he launched himself as a serious player in the lit-blogosphere, and one with a very particular agenda – to write about independent women, particularly independent women writers. Well, of course, I was interested in that and have enjoyed some good discussions here and on his blog ever since. If you’re likewise interested, I suggest you start with his About page and move on from there.  Meanwhile, let’s give the floor to Bill …


Apart from my friend Michelle at Adventures in Biography who got me started on Lit.Blogging, Sue here at Whispering Gums was the first blogger I followed and who followed me. So I owe her a great debt, and feel guilty each time I think of the imaginary detective story where the private eye’s principal informant is the toothless derelict … Whispering Gums. (The real, and much nicer, origin of her name is here.)

It is a matter of great pride to me to be invited to do a guest post, and I’m only sorry that it is under false pretences. I was discussing (by email) with Sue some reviews I had put up on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site and I asked her in passing what she thought of biographies of women writers by men. My intended question was did she think the AWWC site should list them. Sue however thought I was asking her opinion of the biographies themselves, and promptly put it back onto me!

Do you remember the old BBC Radio show Just A Minute which was often used as a filler on Radio National? Well I feel like (the late) Derek Nimmo leaning in to the microphone to speak for 60 seconds on the life cycle of newts. But here goes, 1000 words on Biographies of Women Writers by Men, starting now.

Colin Roderick, Miles FranklinI have reviewed two such biographies, Brian Mathews on Louisa Lawson and Colin Roderick on Miles Franklin. The former is a good example of a man being able to write sympathetically and insightfully about a woman, and the latter is not.

Walking up and down my own shelves I see I have numerous biographies by women. Three – Roe, Barnard and Coleman – on Miles Franklin, Barbara Baynton by Penne Hackforth Jones, Christina Stead by Chris Williams, two by Sylvia Martin – Aileen Palmer and Passionate Friends, ‘collected’ lives by Drusilla Modjeska, and by Dale Spender, Tomalin’s Jane Austen and Gaskell’s Charlotte Bronte; and I also have two more by men, Brian Dibble on Elizabeth Jolley (Doing Life which I really ought to have reviewed by now) and Ric Throssell on his mother, Katharine Susannah Prichard.

Of course, as you may know, I am an old white guy and so I am probably the very last person to be attempting to answer the implied question: does it matter? Well, in the case of Colin Roderick (1911-2000), one of the most influential figures in the Aust.Lit industry in the middle of the last century, his gender matters a great deal. He runs Franklin down both as a writer and as a woman:

[her] unshakeable conviction of physical inferiority and lack of physical attraction… converted her into a skittish coquette stringing two or three men along simultaneously and a synthetic man-hater… It forced her to become a defensively bellicose propagandist for feminist causes.

He routinely misstates her commitment to feminism, and writes that a determined suitor might have cured her flirtatiousness with a spanking. In the comments to my piece on Roderick, author Jess White, taking comfort from my description of him, describes Roderick’s biography of Rosa Praed, In Mortal Bondage, as “bizarre & bordering on fiction in places.”

The Roe biography of Franklin I would describe as asexual, but the earlier (in fact the first) biography, by Marjorie Barnard, which I haven’t read for a long time, does seem to me to reflect the fact that it is written by a woman. It starts (stereotypically!) by describing how Franklin dressed and how she looked: “her smile. Radiant, quick and gay, it transformed her. It was irresistible and in her old age still charming and youthful.” And ends with an analysis of love: “[Miles] held in her heart an impossible ideal of human relationships and when she found it unrealizable, not so much for herself as in the lives of others, she was bitterly hurt and disappointed”, which I have never been able to express half so well.

Unlike Roderick, Matthews takes Lawson’s feminism seriously and gives a good account of it. In fact, he takes Lawson seriously as poet, businesswoman, leading figure in the women’s movement at the turn of the century, and as a mother (with four difficult adult children!) Whether he adequately emphasizes with her, perhaps only a woman could tell. Unfortunately for Matthews there was very little evidence to say how Louisa spent her private life after leaving her husband – although we’re pretty sure she didn’t want to get pregnant again.

Marianne van Velzen in her account of Ernestine Hill turned to fiction to round out those areas where evidence was lacking, an approach which Matthews discusses and dismisses, and which I think detracts greatly from the usefulness of those autobiographies which resort to it.

At this point in my writing I went away for a couple of days, and by sitting, driving, with the radio off, was able to refine my ideas. We have seen that biographies may be ‘factual’ or ‘fictionalized’. Then, from a ‘gender studies’ point of view we may also categorise them as: Neutral, Masculinist, and Feminist. The problem of course with ‘Neutral’ is that old, conservative, white men regard their own point of view as neutral and all others as radical. But let us say for argument’s sake that ‘neutral’ is the gathering and presentation of historical material without (much) gender analysis, and that Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin is an example of this. Colin Roderick’s biographies of Franklin and Praed are clearly ‘masculinist’, in that he devalues the opinions of the women he is writing about and ascribes to them motives which he wouldn’t ascribe to men. An example of a ‘feminist’ biographer might be Sylvia Martin who is exploring the space between spinsterism and lesbianism by looking into the lives of single women writers like Mary Fullerton.

A further division is suggested by Nathan Hobby who is both a blogger and PhD student writing a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. At the end of 2015 he wrote, “The best biographies, in my opinion, are generally written by biographers who care about biography as a genre rather than biographers who are simply passionate about their subject.”  So then we also have ‘serious’ biographers and the ‘simply passionates’. The latter definition clearly captures rellos such as Ric Throssell and journalists like Marrianne van Velzen.

If you are thinking I have drifted a bit far from the topic, I guess the questions I am trying to get to are: How many Australian women writers have been the subject of biographies by ‘serious’ men? And, assuming only Roderick actually attacks his subjects, how many of those biographies were sympathetic, and how many missed the point?

Now, all you Whispering Gum-nuts out there, it’s down to you. I’ve listed the four that I have. How many have I missed?

Thanks Bill for taking up my invitation – and for presenting some different angles for us all to think about regarding biographers and their biographies.