Late last year I wrote a post about the inaugural Canberra Readers’ Festival. One of the speakers was indigenous Australian author, academic and activist, Anita Heiss. I wrote then that I bought one of her books. It was her fourth (I think) chick lit novel, Paris dreaming. This might surprise regular readers here, as chick lit is not really my sort of thing, however …
There are reasons why I was happy to read this book. First was that my reading group chose it as part of our focus on books featuring Canberra for our city’s centenary year. Yes, I know, it’s called Paris dreaming, but the heroine starts in Canberra and Canberra is mentioned (not always positively I must say) throughout the book. The other reason is the more significant one, though, and that is Heiss’s reason for writing the book. I said in the first paragraph that she is an activist and her chick lit books, surprising though it may sound, are part of her activism. In fact, I think pretty much everything Heiss does has an activist element. In her address at the Canberra Readers’ Festival she described herself, an educated indigenous Australian, as in the top 1% of the bottom 2.5% of Australia. She feels, she said, a responsibility to put her people on the “Australian identity radar”.
Does this book do it, and if so how? Well, one of her points is that 30% or more of indigenous Australians are urban and this book, as its genre suggests, is about young urban indigenous women. Anita Heiss manages I think (though I’m not the target demographic so can’t be sure) to present characters that both young indigenous and non-indigenous women can relate to. Our heroine Libby and her friends are upwardly mobile young professionals. They care about their work; they love fashion, drink and food (this is chick lit remember!); and they wonder how to marry (ha!) their career goals and romance.
So what’s the plot (besides the obvious chick lit formula which this book certainly follows)? At the start of the novel 30-year-old Libby, manager of the education program at the National Aboriginal Gallery, is on a man-fast. She’s been bitten one too many times and has sworn off men, much to the dismay of her tiddas (her “sisters”). She is, though, keen to develop her career and wants a new challenge – all part of the chick lit formula – and so pitches a proposal to her boss that she mount an exhibition of indigenous Australian art at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. Of course, her boss approves and off she goes to Paris where, following the formula, she falls for hunky, sexy Mr Wrong while Mr Right watches on, spurned (and spurned and spurned). But, of course, I don’t need to tell you how it comes out in the end do I? This is not subversive chick lit because that would not serve Heiss’s purpose …
Did I enjoy it? Yes, but not so much as a piece of literature because my reading interests lie elsewhere, but as a work written by a savvy writer with a political purpose. This purpose is not simply to show that young, urban, professional indigenous Australians exist but, as she also said in her address, to create the sort of world she’d like to live in, a world where indigenous Australians are an accepted and respected part of Australian society, not problems and not invisible. She is therefore unashamed about promoting indigenous Australian creators. She names many of them – artists, writers, filmmakers – and discusses some of their work, educating her readers as she goes. Most of the people, works and places she mentions are real but there’s an aspirational element too. The National Aboriginal Gallery does not exist but she presents it as a significant player in the Canberra cultural institution scene. Good for her!
I’ll probably not read another of Heiss’s choc lit (as she, tongue in cheek, calls it) books, but I’m glad to have read this one – and I’ll certainly look out for works by her in other genres (including her memoir Am I black enough for you?). Heiss is a woman to watch.
Sydney: Bantam, 2011