Alf Taylor, God, the devil and me (#BookReview)

It was a complete coincidence that, as I was writing last week’s Monday Musings post on diversity and memoir, I was also reading a First Nations memoir, but such is the reading life, eh? The memoir, Alf Taylor’s God, the devil and me, is, however, both very much a memoir but also its own thing, which I’ll explain as we continue.

For those who, like me, hadn’t heard of Alf Taylor, here is a brief bio. He grew up in the Benedictine-run New Norcia Mission, Western Australia, escaping when he was fifteen years old. He then worked around Perth and Geraldton as a seasonal farm worker, before joining the Australian Army. Eventually, he “found his voice as a writer and poet”, and has had three collections of poetry and short stories published, including one also published in Spanish. He has given readings at festivals and events in Australia, England, France, India and Spain. The memoir’s Foreword describes him as the leading “Elder Nyoongar writer in Western Australia, as Kim Scott [who has appeared on my blog] is the leading younger writer”.

God, the devil and me is typical memoir in that it focuses on a particular aspect of Taylor’s life, his time at New Norcia from around 7 years old to his escape as a 15-year-old. We are talking the 1950s and 60s, which is horrifying to this 50s-60s child! As he tells it, he asked his parents, on a visit to the mission, if he could stay because his brother was there. So the die was cast, but very soon he realised it had not been a good request. Although his father and brothers, and his father’s mother had all gone “through New Norcia Mission”, and had become “good Catholic[s]”, for him it was a terrible experience. His story is one of unremitting brutality – including regular use of straps and sticks to keep the children in line, a diet that consisted primarily of “sheep’s head broth”, and inappropriate clothing – and utter rejection of the children’s Indigenous language and culture.

But, God, the devil and me, is also quite different from your usual memoir. For a start, and most significantly, it’s not told chronologically. Instead, it constantly shifts around, telling various stories ranging over his time at New Norcia. On the surface, the book looks like a bunch of, often quite short, anecdotes but, these stories are connected, not so much chronologically, as thematically, with one occasion or story usually leading organically to another. The end result is an impressionistic – if Dickensian – picture of life at New Norcia, rather than a coherent life story.

Many themes run through the memoir, the brutality, the sadness and loneliness, and alcohol, to which he is introduced through helping the priests with the altar wine. He doesn’t shy from intimating his own later problems with alcohol and he makes clear that many of his Mission friends had died early due to it. Another major thread of course is religion, and his introduction to God and the Devil, who, he is told by the priests, will always be with him. Early in the memoir, alcohol and God are intrinsically linked in his mind:

‘Taylorrr, you’rrre neverrrr going to make it in life. When you get out of herrrre, you arrrre going to get a flagon, find a shady tree and drrrink yourrrrself to death. All of you.’

Being so young, I clasped my hands in prayer and whispered, ‘Yes, Brother, I am going to do all those things when I grow up.’ I agreed with Brother Augustine because I thought that God was passing those words to the brother, who in turn, spat them at me.

Here we see one iteration of the memoir’s underlying idea, the confusion in the young Alf’s mind about religion – what it meant, who God was, how Jesus fit in, not to mention the role of the Brothers in it all. Near the end of the memoir is a surreal scene in which the sleeping Alf leaves his body and ascends to Heaven where he meets (good) Judas and (drunk) Peter. In this scene, Alf finds/creates/discerns a more charitable Christianity than he has experienced at the Mission (which, he sees as being worse than Hell could ever be).

“turn sorrow into laughter”

Alf Taylor is clearly a storyteller. He convincingly embodies his young self when writing about his childhood. The memoir is fundamentally political, but you don’t hear words like “invasion” or “dispossession”. What you hear is a mish-mash of history as young Alf understood it. White Australians are generally referred to as Captain Cook’s Australians and the government, Captain Cook Government. He describes a visit to the Mission of the “Native Affairs men and women”. When asked who founded Australia,

of course, at the top of our lungs, we all shouted in unison ‘Captain James Cook’ with such pride that even old Jimmie Cook himself would’ve risen from the grave and saluted us little Native children.

Similar, usually self-deprecating, humour recurs throughout. Taylor is one of those writers who can use humour to inject a sting in the tail. Here is another moment. Injured by a rock, he is taken to hospital in Perth, where:

I was in for the shock of my life – there were little Captain Cooks lying everywhere; there seemed to be a million of them, and not one little blackfella around.

And, what’s more, he notices that “the gawking Watjella kids all looked the same”!

However, Taylor’s experience isn’t all bad. There are bright moments. Footy is one, but best is when they can get out into the bush. It is in these moments that young Alf is happiest:

running free through the bush, watching the birds fluttering through the leaves or sitting by a stream watching a babbling brook hiss its foam at you was magic … to me, the bush was Heaven. Only Watjellas went to Heaven; we Nyoongahs, when we died came back as a bird or an animal, even as a newly formed brook to quench the thirst of other weary Nyoongah kids … I mean, to me, the bush was everything, my mother, my father; to me, in the bush, I could do no wrong; the fire of Hell did not exist.

He recognises his Ancestors as being the source of his true spirituality – and yet, there is always the overlay of “God, the devil and me”. How DID that fit in with everything else?

Early in the memoir, Taylor shares that the “best thing” he got from New Norcia was learning to read and write. These, he said, were “my weapons” and he devoted much time to them. He also talks about the love of books, and “sneaking off to the library” when others were playing: “a book was like magnetism to me and the pencil was my friend”.

I will leave it here. With its strong content and seemingly disjointed structure, God, the devil and me is not an easy read, but it pays persistence with gold, because this voice, while different from other First Nations voices, complements them and adds depth to the truths we are hearing.

Contribution for Brona’s AusReadingMonth2021.

Alf Taylor
God, the devil and me
Broome: Magabala Book, 2021
289pp.
ISBN: 9781925936391

Review copy courtesy Magabala Books

Nonfiction November 2021: Book pairings

Week 2 of Nonfiction November and I’m still here, playing along.

Nonfiction November, as you know, is hosted by several bloggers, with Week 2: (November 8-12) – Book pairings, hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey. This week we need to “pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story”. 

The no-brainer

If I were just going to do one pairing, it would be a no-brainer, but it’s not really “if you loved this, read this”. Nor is it just two titles that I think would go together, and it’s definitely not pairing historical fiction with the history of the same topic. Nope, my pair comprises a book in which an author talks about her writing another one. If you’ve been reading my blog recently you’ll guess what I’m talking about, as I’m pairing volume 2 of Helen Garner’s diaries, One day I’ll remember this (my review), which I read this year, with one of the books she discusses in these diaries, Cosmo cosmolino. I have written two posts on this novel, a less than thorough review, years ago, and, recently, a consideration inspired by the diaries. I enjoyed the insights Garner provided into writing this, her most challenging novel (in terms of form) and most different (in terms of subject matter).

Helen Garner, Cosmo cosmolino

The unusual thing is that I could make several somewhat similar pairings from this year, as I’ve read other books discussing specific works. So, I could also pair Erik Jensen’s On Kate Jennings (my review) with the novel he talks about, Snake (my review), or Stan Grant’s On Thomas Keneally (my review) with the Keneally’s novel that he discusses, The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (read before blogging). I could also pair Chrystopher Spicer’s Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature (my review) with one of a few books he discusses that I’ve read. But I won’t!

Instead, in the spirit of this meme, I feel I should challenge myself at least a little before ending this post, so here is …

Another pairing

I read a couple of memoirs this year that could be paired with novels, but I’ll just choose one, Marie Younan’s A different kind of seeing (my review). This tells the story of her life as a blind, illiterate Assyrian migrant to Melbourne, Australia, and how, with the help of various migrant services, she met other people, learnt English, obtained satisfying and meaningful employment, and ended up writing her memoir with the help of her English teacher, Jill Sanguinetti.

Book cover

I’m pairing this with an English-set novel, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic stories for Punjabi widows (my review), which, on the surface, sounds very different from Younan’s story. It’s about a young English-born Punjabi woman who obtains a job teaching writing to immigrant Punjabi widows in Southall, the heart of London’s Punjabi community. It’s a romcom but it also confronts some very real, very dangerous, difficulties that migrant women face in that culture. While these Punjabi women’s challenges were very different to those faced by Younan, both books provide insight into how hard it can be for immigrants, particularly immigrant women, to find their place in a new country.

For those of you doing Nonfiction November, I’ll see your pairings I’m sure, but, if you’re not, I’d love to see what you would pair – if you’d like to play along.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Diversity and memoir

Anita Heiss, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia

Hands up if you’ve read memoirs by First Nations writers, Immigrant writers, Gay writers, Transgender writers, Writers with a disability, and so on? I sure have, and have reviewed several on this blog – including ones by Archie Roach, Marie Munkara, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Alice Pung, Maxine Beneba Clarke, and Jessica White. Black Inc has a whole series – the Growing Up anthologies – devoted to life stories from people of diverse backgrounds. These are excellent for explaining “otherness” to the rest of us.

However, while reading for my recent Monday Musings on the stories we need/want, I came across this comment in the article I used by Lin Li Ng:

BIPOC [Black, Indigenous or People Of Colour] writers are also so often confined to the realms of memoir where they must write about identity, experiences as the ‘other’. And while such texts are necessary and so often relatable for the BIPOC reader, it made me wonder: How much longer BIPOC writers can keep writing about otherness? How much longer must they explain otherness?

It made me stop and think … and decide it was worth highlighting in a separate post.

Lin Li Ng is not a lone voice in this. Last year, SBS ran a competition for writers aged 18 plus ‘to submit a memoir piece of 1000-2000 words on the topic of “Growing up in diverse Australia”‘. It was so successful, they are running it again this year, with the theme, “Between Two Worlds: stories from a diverse Australia”. Again, the request is for a “first-person memoir piece, between 1,000-2,000 words”.

Responding to the 2020 competition, Kelly Bartholomeusz wrote in Overland, “Stop asking ‘diverse writers’ to tell you about their lives”:

It is frustrating to see opportunities for ‘diverse writers’ linked to their willingness to write narrowly about their diversity. This approach disqualifies the many talented writers who have already processed or written about these experiences, and who have bigger visions or better imaginations than to endlessly revisit the same questions.

Bartholomeusz says there’s “nothing inherently wrong with memoir”, and she doesn’t want to “disrespect … writers of colour and First Nations writers who work predominantly in this space”, because this “work has value”. However, writing about one’s life “should not be a condition of entry to the industry, and if it is, it should not be disguised as ‘opportunity’”. Indeed, she says,

Diversity of background doesn’t automatically result in diversity of thought, and a system that requires these voices to answer the same questions ad nauseum is dangling a carrot just out of reach, effectively limiting that which it claims to encourage. 

She also fears that encouraging – if not requiring – writers of diverse background to focus on otherness

will condition aspiring writers to believe that their only value is in their marginalisation and otherness, to be consumed as palatable morsels by predominantly upper-middle-class white audiences who will talk about these stories in bars and over brunch, and who will form a subconscious belief that they understand these experiences because they have read about them.

This final point is one that bothers me when I write posts like these, and when I review works by “diverse” writers. Is it offensive or smug to think that privileged I can “help” by writing these? It niggles at me.

Bartholomeusz also talks about being asked, on a writing scheme application, to detail “ways in which the publishing industry was previously inaccessible” to her. She sees an inherent irony in the question, “as if these factors are easy to categorise and quantify. As if they can be cleanly extracted from the murky swirl of complexity that characterises most non-white Australians’ lives”.

Her arguments are cogent, but First Nations author, Ambelin Kwaymullina, has also talked about the publishing issue, back in 2015. She says:

I’ve had publishers express the sentiment to me that they’d love to publish more diverse voices if only they received more manuscripts. However, given that this approach hasn’t yet resulted in any great increase in diversity, I think it’s perhaps time to conclude that ‘business as usual’ won’t achieve the desired outcome. The existing inequity of opportunity being what it is (especially for Indigenous writers who are most disadvantaged) means that more is required.

She says there is a lack of “Indigenous editorial expertise” resulting in Indigenous writers not having people sensitive to their culture involved in the editing and publishing process. She praised the State Library of Queensland’s black&write! program because it offers “both Indigenous writing fellowships and Indigenous editorial internships”.

Five years later, Lin Li Ng makes a similar point when she says that “diverse” writers don’t have champions in the industry. In other words, people like them, who understand them, who can “advocate for and support” them “with sensitivity”, are not “the gatekeepers with great decision-making power”. There are exceptions, of course – some good publishers supporting more marginalised writers – but they are just that, exceptions.

To end, though, I’ll return to the content issue. Lin Li Ng says that

texts by diverse writers, as a result of systemic practices, are made to sit on the peripheries of the literary landscape – they are treated as niche, so very unattainable, un-relatable and of little commercial value.

Book cover

So, she is saying, when diverse writers are published they tend to be sidelined as “niche”. This can be partly because their subject matter is deemed to be of narrow or specific interest. It can also be because their style may not be that of the majority culture. Think Shokoofeh Azar’s The enlightenment of the greengage tree (my review), for one – though it did break through, a little. There are works coming from young First Nations and Asian writers, for example, that challenge the norms, but they are not reaching the big markets, and only rarely appear on award long and shortlists. Even the Stella Prize, which aims to support marginalised women writers, will have some books from the more “diverse” end of the spectrum on longlists, but amongst the winners? Not so much.

Things are changing. We are seeing more diverse voices on the screen and stage, not to mention colour-blind casting and storytelling. However, my sense is, particularly when I look at awards lists, which are not the be-all I know, that we have a long way to go yet. And, I admit, I could lift my game – a lot!

Thoughts, anyone?

Six degrees of separation, FROM What are you going through TO …

Woo hoo! This last month, we in Canberra, New South Wales and Victoria came out of lockdown. Vaccination rates are high, and it is still spring (here down under) so things are looking good in our neck of the woods. I sure hope it is for all of you, too.

But now, with the weather and pandemic report out of the way, let’s get onto our Six Degrees of Separation meme, which, as most of you know, is run by Kate. Check her blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest – to see how it works.

We start with the book chosen by Kate, and it is Sigrid Nunez’s What are you going through? As happens more often than not, I haven’t read it, but, among other things, it is about two friends and assisted dying.

Spare Room

For my first link I’m breaking my personal “Six Degrees” rule which is to only link to books that I’ve read and reviewed on this blog. My link is Helen Garner’s The spare room. It’s about two friends, one terminally ill with cancer but so desperate to not die that she engages in expensive and ultimately useless alternative therapies – to the immense distress of the caring friend. Bill has reviewed it, so here’s his, because, like me, he likes the novel!

Margaret Rose Stringer, And then like my dreams

From here, I’m linking to a memoir, which is particularly appropriate given Garner’s work falls into the autofiction genre. The book is Margaret Rose Stringer’s (M-R to those of you who read comments on my blog) And then like my dreams (my review). M-R wrote this as a tribute to the love of her life, who died from cancer. Her journey with him through life, illness and death, is beautiful to read. This link is doubly apt because M-R is a keen Garner fan.

Book cover

Next, we return to fiction, but stay with the idea of grief, in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (my review). The trigger for this book is Agnes’ grief over the loss of her son Hamnet. Most of you will know that Hamnet was Shakespeare’s only son, and Agnes is a name used by Shakespeare for his wife Anne Hathaway. The novel ends on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

From here we are going to another book which riffs on the backstory behind a piece of literature, though in this case rather more is known about the story. The work is Steven Carroll’s The lost life (my review). It is the first in Carroll’s “Eliot Quartet” which explores, obviously, TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. The first quartet is “Burnt Norton”, and Carroll’s novel is framed by the story of Eliot and Emily Hale, who visit Burnt Norton manor in 1934. Like Hamnet in O’Farrell’s novel, Eliot, himself, is a fairly shadowy figure in the story.

I loved TS Eliot as a student and, while his life and views have become problematic, I’m still moved by his work. I was therefore thrilled when an app appeared for another of his major works, The Wasteland (my post). This app is an impressive application of modern technology to the enjoyment and study of literature and I’m sorry that it seems not to have taken off. (I don’t have a pic of the app, so you get a print edition instead!)

Title page for Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi
Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi (Used under fair dealing provisions for purposes of review)

However, people are exploring the use of modern online and interactive technologies for literature, and one organisation doing this is/was If:Book. (It may now be defunct, or it has transformed into something else.) Produced under its auspices was Writing black (my review), edited by Ellen van Neerven. She saw a digital-only production being “moulded by possibility”, saying that the enhancements available in such an approach “lifts the imagination”. I haven’t seen a lot of work going down this path, perhaps because most readers still love books, but I love that creators experiment with the new. It keeps the arts fresh.

So, this month we have strayed far from the beginning. I can’t see any link, as we’ve gone from death and grief to exploring the new. I think that’s a good way to be!

Now, the usual: Have you read “What are you going through”? And, regardless, what would you link to it?

Nonfiction November 2021: Your year in nonfiction

While I’ve taken part in Nonfiction November before, I’ve never done it week by week right through the month. I may not this year, either, but I am starting off as if I mean to!

Nonfiction November is hosted by several bloggers, with Week 1: (November 1-5) – Your Year in Nonfiction, hosted by Rennie at What’s Nonfiction. To make it easy for us, Rennie has posed a number of questions, so here goes, starting with a quick overview.

I’ve read the same number of nonfiction works this year as last. However, four of this year’s were individual essays rather than whole books, which means I’ve spent less time reading nonfiction. The biggest difference, though, is that last year over 60% of my nonfiction reading was life-writing of some sort, while this year only a third has been.

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

Favourites are always hard to identify, because I like most of what I read. However, if pushed, I’d say volume 2 of Helen Garner’s diaries, One day I’ll remember this (my review), and not because it’s a recent, and therefore fresh, read. I like Helen Garner’s writing, and her her often self-deprecating openness. She engages us in her life’s journey, through her relationships and their ups and downs, her writing life, and her ideas about what she reads and sees. I particularly like that she shares her search for a form that suits what she wants to write, that is, what she wants to explore and express in her writing.

Honourable mentions are many, but I’ll just name Gene Stratton-Porter’s essay “The last Passenger Pigeon” (my review). It’s an early(ish) example of nature/conservation writing, and I loved meeting the author of a childhood favourite, A girl of the Limberlost, again!

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

When it comes to non-fiction, my main interests are literary biographies, nature writing, and works about social justice/social history. I read in all these areas this year, but literature-related topics have predominated. Besides the Helen Garner diaries, I’ve read two books in the Writers on writers series, Erik Jensen’s On Kate Jennings (my review) and Stan Grant’s On Thomas Keneally (my review), and George Orwell’s essay on the freedom of expression, “The prevention of literature” (my review). Rather different to all these, but definitely literature related, is Chrystopher Spicer’s Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature (my review).

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

This is hard, because with nonfiction, even more than fiction, what you recommend is highly dependent on people’s interests. However, the book I’ve read this year that has the most general appeal is Best Australian science writing 2020 (my review). Its focus is science, but most of the essays explore the implications and applications of science, particularly regarding issues like climate and the environment, and health, with some also raising the role often played by politics.

Besides this, I do recommend Helen Garner’s diaries to those who like Garner and are interested in a writer’s life. Finally, Marie Younan’s memoir, A different kind of seeing (my review), about being blind and a migrant, is both inspirational and eye-opening, as is Wendy and Allan Scarfe’s story of aid work in an Indian village in the 1960s, A mouthful of petals (my review).

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?  

Preferably not more recommendations, but it will happen! Seriously, I’d like to see some interesting discussions about nonfiction and nonfiction reading. Of course, our specific interests vary, but: Why do we read nonfiction? What do we look for? What makes a good nonfiction read?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian campus novels

Two recent articles in The Conversation inspired today’s post, Lucas Thompson’s “Liked Netflix’s The Chair? Here are 4 moving, funny novels set in English departments” (published 26 October) and Catharine Coleborne’s “Beyond Oxbridge and Yale: popular stories bring universities to life — we need more of them in Australia” (published 5 October).

Defining the term

Wikipedia describes campus or academic novels as those “whose main action is set in and around the campus of a university”, which sounds pretty obvious! They say that the genre in its current form dates back to the early 1950s, with Mary McCarthy’s The groves of academe (1952) being an early example. I’ve not read it, but I have read a much earlier novel, Willa Cather’s The professor’s house (1925), which some argue fits the genre. I’ve also read JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to safety (my review), and one of the Kate Fansler mysteries from the “campus murder mystery” sub-genre. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead revisited, which I’ve also read, is regarded bu some as a separate genre, “varsity novels”, because its focus is students. Who knew?

Wikipedia continues that many well-known campus novels, like those by David Lodge, are “comic or satirical, often counterpointing intellectual pretensions and human weaknesses” but there are serious ones, like the aforementioned Disgrace, and Philip Roth’s The human stain. Sally Rooney’s Normal people, which I’ve still not read, is a recent example of the genre.

Thompson’s above-linked article in The Conversation suggests, a bit tongue-in-cheek, another sub-genre, The English Department Novel. He recommends four titles to get readers started, but as none are Australian, my focus here, I’ll move on.

The Australian campus novel

When pondering Australian versions of the genre, I was hard-pressed. The first that came to mind was Dymphna Cusack’s 1936 novel Jungfrau (my review), but only a couple of the main characters are students or lecturers. I was consequently relieved then to read Coleborne who reassured me that I wasn’t alone. She says that, compared to North America and Britain, “Australian readers and audiences have had meagre opportunities to examine the world of the university in novels, television or film” and she goes on to name some of their examples, including the recent TV series The Chair, which inspired Thompson’s article. She does, however, offer some Australian examples, none known to me: Laurie Clancy’s The wildlife reserve (1994), Mary-Rose MacColl’s No safe place (1997) and Michael Wilding’s Academia nuts (2002). She doesn’t mention David Williamson’s play (adapted also to film), The Department.

Wilding wrote about his campus novel in Griffith Review’s edition 11, Getting smart (2007). It’s worth reading because I can’t do it justice here. He says he’s not sure there are any clear conventions for the campus novel, and discusses some examples. There’s such variety that he felt “it was more a case of having to define your own different vision. Most of these writers were too uniquely themselves to serve as a model”. In the end, he felt the two main options were farce or a murder story. And what did he decide?

Despite all the provocations and irritations of academic life, I felt uneasy about murder. So farce it had to be. For a while, anyway.

Then it was a case of finding a model, and he turned for this to Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister :

Here the comedy was classically designed to instruct with delight, radically demystifying the manipulations of the political establishment. This was didactic comedy, comedy that told the truth about revered institutions. It was an extraordinarily subversive and educative show, and I acknowledge its influence gratefully. Who after watching it could ever again believe that a commission of inquiry was designed to do other than provide a whitewash? Who could ever expect ministers and prime ministers to do other than lie? Who could ever again believe principles and policies took anything but second place to political survival? When I came to write Academia Nuts, I consciously attempted to inform the humour with a similar didactic purpose.

He says more, including how he came to write a second revised edition. It’s eye-opening, particularly about the intersection between reality and fiction – do read it. Meanwhile, Coleborne is surprised that the genre here is so thin, given universities have a “rich history as a catalyst for social change”. She argues that with the opening up of universities to a wider range of students in the 1970s, “hopefulness about the value and purpose of tertiary education was palpable. Campuses were lively, and students sought debate, difference, dialogue”. She identifies a number of non-fiction works which confront university life, including some I’ve read, like Jill Ker Conway’s The road from Coorain and Helen Garner’s The first stone.

BUT, she believes that “the overwhelming lack of a collective memory of university education and the student experience in Australia now presents a serious problem in our social, cultural and political life”. She believe that US and British campus novels “highlight questions of personal journeys into education and beyond, and rites of passage. They touch, too, on issues of inclusion and exclusion and campus culture”. It’s time, she believes, for us to both celebrate and critique “these spaces in public debate”, to think about “the value, purpose and role of universities in public life”.

Diana Reid, Love and virtue book cover

Into this space has come a brand new Australian novel just published in September, Diana Reid’s Love and virtue. Neha Kale, reviewing it in The Sydney Morning Herald, says that “Reid is a long-time fan of the campus novel, books, such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Sally Rooney’s Normal People“. And she quotes Reid, recently graduated from university herself, on the campus novel:

As a form, when you have a cast of characters who are all young and vulnerable, trying on new ideas and identities and you put them in a confined space, it is inherently dramatically interesting. 

Good point. Typical of its genre, this campus novel addresses contemporary issues. Here, they include consent, class and privilege (which are not new issues, actually, in campus novels!) Coleborne quotes Reid, who said she wanted to grapple with

“how hard it is to make moral judgments … So often the way we judge other people is by asking ‘is what you did moral?’. I think the question we need to be asking [should be]: ‘is the course of action you took the most moral one given all the courses of action available to you?’… I accept that you can be paralysed by nuance and never do anything. We need people who think in black and white.” She smiles. “I just don’t think those people lean towards becoming novelists”.

Literature is, in fact, where ambivalence can be explored, she believes. Absolutely!

Theresa Smith reviewed and enjoyed this novel.

Do you like campus novels, and, if so, care to name any favourites?

Consider Helen Garner’s Cosmo cosmolino

Helen Garner, Cosmo cosmolino

Commenting on my post on Helen Garner’s One day I’ll remember this, Bill (The Australian Legend) wrote that he’d hoped I’d mention Cosmo cosmolino (1992). It’s one of the novels Garner was writing during the period covered by these diaries, and Bill had struggled with it. I don’t blame him because, while I loved reading the novel, my own review written early in this blog is less than wonderful. Cosmo is a very different novel and I didn’t grapple at all well with its tricky themes.

Bill has, in fact, written twice about Cosmo cosmolino, his second drawing from Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay in Reading like an Australian writer (edited by Belinda Castles). I have now read that essay too, so I am going to write a second post on Cosmo – too!

There are two main issues that are tricky with this novel, its form and its content. I’ll start with form, which derives from the fact that the book comprises three pieces/stories: “Recording angel”, “A vigil” and “Cosmo cosmolino”.

But, is it a novel?

I am forgiving (or, wishy-washy, if you prefer) when it comes to questions like this. I think form is and should be a loose thing, and that it should have room to move. Even Bill, who sometimes has strong views on things, said that “If an author, as Garner has done here, declares a collection of pieces to be a novel, then that is how I will read it. But these pieces don’t speak to each other at all. If this is a novel, then as far as I am concerned, it is a failed novel”.

So, Bill was happy, more or less, to accept it as a novel. I was certainly happy to do so because the first two pieces – “Recording angel” and “A vigil” – introduce two of the three main characters in the last story. They also introduce some of the ideas that she further develops, though I didn’t fully grasp them in my review. More on that later in this post. The point is that for me the pieces did speak to each other, albeit oddly, because, for example, the first piece is told first person in Janet’s voice, while the third is told third person with Janet as the protagonist.

Bennett Daylight discusses the form in her essay. She starts by suggesting that she would have broken down the last piece into smaller stories, and

seen the book as a whole as telling the central story through a kaleidoscope of scenes, points of view, small (and large) narratives. I’m thinking particularly of Alice Munro’s early short story collections … in which Munro builds a long narrative about her protagonists like you might a model train, adding stories like carriages until the narrative winds into the distance. The result, to my mind, can be more satisfying than the novel whose every scene is roped to a single central idea.

She then quotes Robert Dessaix who, while praising Garner as “one of our most gifted” writers, said that none of her fictional works were novels. They are “fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to nonfiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage”. He then gets to one of the nubs, the pedestal on which novels are put. Garner writes in her diaries that she needs to free herself “from the hierarchy with the novel on top”. She needs “to devise a form that is flexible and open enough”, wants to “blow out realism while at the same time sinking deeply into what is most real”.

She also writes of “pointless struggles to work my stuff into the shape of a novel, and my determination to write only what it’s personally urgent for me to write” (p. 181). The two urges, it seems, fight each other. She says more but this gives you the gist. I love her engagement with form, though in one sense, it shouldn’t really matter – should it?

Meanwhile, Bennett Daylight is convinced that Cosmo cosmolino is a novel because “what makes a novel a novel is metaphor”, meaning that in a novel it’s “as though life looked in the mirror and saw, not just its reflection, but something behind it”.

“My strange experience”

What is this something? It’s certainly deeper than I was prepared to go in my review, because, to be honest, I was uncertain – and here is why. Bennett Daylight quotes an interview Garner had about the book with, in Garner’s words, “that hard-nosed leftie rationalist Craig McGregor”. In this interview, she was stupid enough “to blurt out my strange experience with the shadowy presence”. Afterwards, she panicked and asked him not to include that part, and while he reassured her he’d hardly mentioned it, this “mysterious visitor” is the backbone of his piece. The responses weren’t positive – “Garner’s got religion, etc”. It taught her, she told Bennett Daylight,

that in Australia you can’t write about experiences of ‘the numinous’ without opening yourself to sneering and cynical laughter. Back then, anyway.

This is the challenge I had with the book. What was the spiritual aspect about? I’ll flip to Bernadette Brennan’s book on Helen Garner, A writing life (my review). She says that the three interlinked stories all concern transformation, and are connected through recurring characters and the presence in each of various forms of angels:

The book’s structure mirrors that of a Christian pilgrimage: “Recording angel” confronts the physicality of a suffering body, “A vigil” enters the underworld to witness death head on, and “Cosmo Cosmolino” offers a sense of possible redemption, perhaps even resurrection. The structure can also be read as a meditation on the past, the present and the future.

Garner writes in her diaries that her main experience of religion is the Holy Spirit:

I don’t understand ‘God’ or even ‘Jesus’, but the Holy Spirit [the “shadowy presence”] has stood behind me on many different days, even though for a long time I was too frightened to acknowledge it or ‘call out to it’. It has visited me and comforted me and become part of me. (p. 160/161)

Bennett Daylight concludes her essay by talking about “the metaphor of belief” that underpins this novel:

Religion or belief is the attempt to impose order where there is none – and surely fiction is the same thing. In fact, from where I’m standing it’s exactly the same thing. I don’t believe in a god or gods, but I do believe in the power of fiction, the power of narrative, the power of metaphor to restore order. A great novel unsettles, then settles – it causes disorder, and then order. Order is restored in Cosmo cosmolino; the metaphor that effects this restoration is a metaphor of belief.

Let’s discuss this definition of “a great novel” another time, but it works here.

As for Garner, what does she say in the diaries? There’s quite a lot, but I’ll just choose these:

I want to write things that push down deeper roots into the archetypal. Things whose separate parts have multiple conections with their own structure. (p.140)

I got to the end of Cosmo. Where is this stuff coming from? The weird state I’m in. I have to apply my intellect but at the same time keep my instincts wide open. I need to hover between these levels. (p. 206)

and

I’m scared that with Cosmo I’ll come a cropper. (p. 217)

It would be 16 years before she wrote another novel.

For me, Cosmo cosmolino, now read so long ago, remains memorable. Janet and “Recording angel”, in particular, are still vivid. I’d willingly read it again.

Sofie Laguna, Infinite splendours (#BookReview)

Those of you who know the subject matter of Sofie Laguna’s latest novel, Infinite splendours, will not be surprised to hear that it drew a mixed reaction from my reading group, particularly coming on the heels of recent reads like Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (my review) and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (my review). However, if we all agreed on one thing, it was that Laguna’s writing is splendid.

Some of you though, particularly non-Australians, will not know what it’s about, so let’s get that out of the way first. The back cover blurb starts this way:

Lawrence Loman is a bright, caring, curious boy with a gift for painting. He lives at home with his mother and younger brother, and the future is laid out before him, full of promise. But when he is ten, an experience of betrayal takes it all away, and Lawrence is left to deal with the devastating aftermath.

It’s not a spoiler to say that this betrayal involves sexual abuse.

Infinite splendours, like Laguna’s previous book, The choke (my review), is set in the rural past. In this case, we are in the Grampians, west of Melbourne, and the novel starts in 1953 when Lawrence is 10. As with The choke, my question is, why set the story in the past? And my answer – though I don’t know Laguna’s – is the same: it’s set at a time when awareness of abuse and the resultant trauma were essentially non-existent. This enables Laguna to explore her theme unencumbered.

The novel is told chronologically in three parts. The first ends with the abuse, and the second takes Lawrence through to another crisis in his late twenties, with the third picking him up, a couple of decades later, in 1994. By this time, Lawrence is living alone in the isolated family home. The novel is told first person, so we spend the whole time in Lawrence’s head, seeing only his perspective. It’s intense and introspective, but not unleavened. There are moments of calm and beauty.

One part engaged, another observing. Two selves. (p. 411)

Still, it’s a tough story, as we watch this lovely, sensitive boy, whom we’ve come to love, decline. He stutters. He gives up his interests, including the art in which he’d shown such talent, and he keeps to himself. His body is a source of mental and physical anguish. From the moment of the abuse, he’s a divided person:

I felt myself dividing; there were two selves to choose from. One inside, one outside. (p. 152/153)

There are moments when he may have been helped. Soon after the abuse, his younger brother Paul asks “what did he do to you Lawrence” – but Lawrence won’t confide. At the beginning of part 2, the family’s kind neighbour, Mrs Barry, tells his mother that he reminds her of the “men back from the war”, but of course PTSD was not properly recognised nor treated back then.

After his mother dies when he is 26 years old, his brother leaves home, and a crisis occurs at his workplace. At this point, Lawrence’s self-isolation is complete. He does, however, have points of solace. His beloved mountain Wallis, a fictional mountain in the Grampians which features in the story from the beginning, provides moments of peace, hope and transcendence; a bunker on the property, in which he hides in a game of hide-and-seek at the novel’s opening, is a place he goes to for safety; and his art, to which he returns after leaving his job, provides occupation and self-expression:

This was the world for me; there was Wallis above and the bunker below, and here was I, between them with my tray of colours. (p. 267)

Lawrence also has an art book, Letters from the masters, that his uncle had given him during his “grooming”. This book becomes his “bible” – for art and life – and he returns to it again and again. He studies the paintings, and he ponders the artists’ words. Indeed, the novel’s title comes from Master Millet who wrote “I see far more in the countryside than charm, I see infinite splendours”. And so does Lawrence, particularly in his beloved Wallis. It is while standing on Wallis, before the events unfold, that he has his first intimations of “something else, greater, that was infinite–the earth’s invisible self. Wallis whispered, See this“.

It is in this context that Lawrence’s art becomes his life’s work. He describes one of his landscapes as “like a living thing … a soul contained within an object”, and sees his paintings as his family. He is as settled as he can be. But, change is inevitable, and the time comes when Mrs Barry’s long-empty house across the yard is occupied again. It discombobulates Lawrence:

I painted into the sun, layers of yellow into yellow. Immersion in light. Sun across my knees, sun in the sky, sun on my canvas. Could I not keep going, contained forever within this one emerging world of light? Must I inhabit another?

It seemed I must … Everything changes.

The new occupants are a single-parent family like his own had been, this one, though, with a mother, teen daughter, and, yes, a 10-year-old boy. The tension builds as we readers watch and desperately hope that Lawrence will not repeat history, that he will get his two selves back in sync in the best way.

I said at the beginning that my reading group praised Laguna’s writing. Her descriptions of the landscape are exquisite and her delineation of character, even minor ones, is so very good. Her warmth and empathy are palpable. I also love her ability to change pace and rhythm to evoke different emotions. However, several of us did feel it became repetitive. Further, although I was fully engaged in Lawrence’s story, and was never going to give up on him or the book, there were times that I felt overwhelmed with the multitude of motifs. As well as those I’ve mentioned, like Wallis and the bunker, there’s Robinson Crusoe, Madame Butterfly, a strawman/scarecrow, birds and the bird clock, rocking and a rocking chair, colours, and more. While none of these were gratuitous, they did sometimes become distracting, as I tried to identify whether they were adding anything critical to what I already knew and felt.

As I read this novel, with a frequent sense of foreboding, I was buoyed by my memory of Laguna’s statement that hope is important. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that, here, the hope felt a bit thin, albeit there is a real transcendence in the ending. For that I was truly grateful.

As for my reading group? Well, there’s been a request for books with a lighter touch next year, which is fine by me, as long as they have meat too!

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Sofie Laguna
Infinite splendours
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020
435pp.
ISBN: 9781760876272

Winner of the 2021 Colin Roderick Award

Monday musings on Australian literature: The stories we want or, is it, need?

Back in 2019, I wrote a Monday Musings on the Stella judges’ call for more “narratives from outside Australia”. I teased out a little what that might mean, but, a couple of years down the track, I think it worth further exploring the questions it opens up.

Commenting on that post, Lisa (ANZLitLovers) wrote:

What I’d like more of (and I get it sometimes) is Australian literature with an *awareness* of the rest of the world and of the cultures that make up our society. You can see it in the fiction of Michelle de Kretser, Andrea Goldsmith, S K Karakaltsis, and Amanda Curtin, plus the writers you’ve mentioned in your post. It’s also there in the novels of Simon Cleary, A S Patric and Rodney Hall, among others.

You don’t see it in domestic novels with a monotone cast of characters.

We talk a lot in the blogosphere about some of the contemporary issues surrounding literature. In Australia, this particularly revolves around diversity and “own voices”. Enabling more people from our community to tell their stories makes for a richer community, but don’t take it from me … here is an interesting article by Julianne Schultz in The Guardian in 2017 (which is an edited version of Griffith Review 58 piece). Schultz quotes Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole on the importance of stories to nations:

Nations tells themselves stories … They are not fully true, they are often bitterly contested and they change over time. But they are powerful: they underlie the necessary fiction that is ‘us’. And at the moment, it is not quite clear what the Irish story is.”

She goes on to say that O’Toole’s description could apply equally well to Australia where

the old stories have also become threadbare, and increasingly fail to capture the contemporary reality or the complexity of the past.

She backs this up with facts which demonstrate that contemporary Australia is more diverse and complex, less isolated, more accessible, than before, and yet we struggle, she says, to define exactly who we are and what the values of this new Australia are. We pride ourselves on our “multiculturalism”, supported by old values like “egalitarianism”, but, in fact, we are not particularly unique in these regards. She says:

So when political leaders praise multiculturalism but make citizenship more difficult to attain, or when they talk about preventing desperate refugees from dying at sea but leave them to languish in offshore refugee camps, or when they promise to recognise Indigenous rights but call a measured discussion about first settlement “Stalinist”, the message is clear and hypocritical.

For cultures to flourish, rather than simply survive, she argues, “they need to be tended and nurtured”. Telling stories is one way of doing this, “stories about people and place, about belonging and being out of place, of changing and staying the same, of interrogating history and locating those who were once left out”. Do read the article; her thoughts are cogent, and she makes an important political point about the role our leaders should play. Meanwhile, let’s move on to what those stories could be …

Stories we need

Lisa has a point about “an *awareness* of the rest of the world and of the cultures that make up our society”, and we could add to this the big concerns of our time, including human rights (across the spectrum of gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, age), climate change, and increasing social and economic inequity. These aren’t mutually exclusive, and in fact they make most sense, tell a richer story, when they jostle against each other in the works we read.

Things are changing. We are seeing more fiction and poetry by First Nations Australians, Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, women and non-binary Australians, and so on. However, we are not there yet. During the 2020 pandemic, writer Lin Li Ng decided that she wanted “to only read books written by Black, Indigenous or People of Colour (BIPOC) writers or non-BIPOC female writers”, but when she looked at her TBR bookshelves, she was dismayed to find that only around 10% were by BIPOC writers and 25% by non-BIPOC female writers.

And yet, in her Master of Writing and Publishing studies, Lin Li had written “a thesis on the experiences of Asian-Australian women – writers and publishing professionals – in the Australian trade publishing industry” so she knew the issues. What surprised her, then, was her own choices, that although she “had recognised the systemic barriers and failings of the industry”, she hadn’t realised how much she had absorbed the message that English and Western literature and art are ‘quality’, and had been convinced that works by BIPOC authors weren’t as good as those by non-BIPOC authors. But, she wants to see herself, her experiences and her values in the literature and art she engages with, and concludes that as a POC female reader, she is “part of an audience that deserves diverse stories that appeal to it”.

Yes! So, I’ve highlighted “herself, her experiences and her values” because this is the crux, isn’t it. The question is what does she, and what do we, mean by these?

When I say “myself” and my “experiences”, do I just mean, in my case, a middle-class, older white woman? Or, do I mean an Australian moving around in a diverse, multicultural society? I probably mean both. I want to read about people just like me, who are grappling with the specific challenges people like me are confronting, but I also want to read about how we, as Australians, are living in our modern society. What are its challenges and how can we make it work better?

Alexis Wright, Carpentaria

When I say “values”, it gets more complex, and, I think, more interesting, but how to talk about them without getting bogged down. I’m going to be simplistic and suggest there are two types of values – the personal, which is the moral, ethical code by which we live, and the social, which encompasses the values that we believe in as a society or culture. By this latter meaning, liberal western democracies have a certain set of values to do with individualism, progress and freedom, accompanied by an uneasy nod to the common good. By contrast, First Nations people have very different values grounded in community and sharing, and, for want of a better word, an interdependent connection to country. I’m not going to elaborate all the cultures in Australia, but Muslim cultures have their own values, and so on.

This is all a bit simplistic, I realise, but it’s hopefully enough to make my main point, which is that some of these values work well together while others are in direct conflict, and yet, here we are all living together. Platitudes about our being egalitarian and a “successful multicultural society” don’t really cut it – any more, anyhow. This, I think, is where many of us are looking to Australian literature, if not for answers, at least for questions and reflections.

There is literature doing this, writing that tackles head on the challenge of clashing values, like Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my post), AS Patrić’s Black rock white city (my review) and Claire G Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review). These books are very different in style and form, but each forces us to look at who we are and to think about who we want to be.

There is so much more to say about this, so many angles to explore literature and storytelling from, so many broader and narrower questions to consider, but I’ll stop here for now, and just ask,

What do you think?

Helen Garner, One day I’ll remember this: Diaries, Volume 2, 1987-1995 (#BookReview)

Helen Garner, One day I'll remember this, book cover

I loved volume 1 of Helen Garner’s diaries, Yellow notebook (my review), last year, and equally enjoyed this second volume, One day I’ll remember this. As with my first volume post, I plan to focus on a couple of threads that particularly interested me.

First though, it’s worth situating these diaries in terms of Garner’s biography. The nine years encompass the writing of her screenplay The last days of chez nous (my review), her novel Cosmo cosmolino (my review), and her non-fiction work, The first stone (read before blogging). This time also covers the beginnings of her relationship with novelist Murray Bail (“V”) and the early years of their marriage. The trajectory of this fraught relationship gave the volume a strong narrative arc, though the volume concludes not on this relationship but her hysterectomy. Read into that what you will.

Like Yellow notebook, volume 2 offers much for Garner fans. It covers similar ground to the first: observations from life around her, snippets of conversations, occasional news items (like the fall of the Berlin Wall), thoughts about other writers, and of course reflections on her own writing. We watch the tortuous development of her relationship with Bail, and the ups and downs of some close friendships. Music and religion feature again. And, there’s a search for home, for a place of her own.

“the little scenes” and “she never invents anything” (1987)

In her preface to The last days of chez nous and Two friends, Garner characterised her writing as “the same old need to shape life’s mess into a seizable story.” Those who know Garner’s writing will know that she was, on the publication of her debut novel Monkey grip (1977), criticised for not writing fiction but just publishing her diaries. This issue of what sort of writer she is, and what sort of writer she wants to be, continues to occupy her in this volume. “My work is very minor”, she worries in 1990. She is not helped by Bail who clearly thinks that her subject matter is not worthy of her writing skills:

I asked V what he ‘really thought’ of my work. He said he thought it was very good but that I should get beyond the subject matter that limited me, ‘those households, what are they called? That you always write about?’ (1992)

So it seems did Z (who, I think, is David Malouf):

V reports Z’s ‘outburst’ against ‘women’s writing’ with its ‘domestic nuances’ which he dislikes and it not interested in. V tries to get me to pick up my upper lip but without success since he doesn’t hide the fact that he agrees with Z. (1989)

It’s not surprising that among the writers whom Garner admires is Canadian Nobel Prize for Literature Winner, Alice Munro, about whom Garner writes, immediately before the above outburst:

Alice Munro is deceptively naturalistic. All that present tense, detail of clothes, household matters, then two or three pages in there’s a gear change and everything gets deeper, more wildly resonant. She doesn’t answer the questions she makes you ask. She wants you to walk away anxious. (1989)

Bail and Malouf, like many, misread Garner if they think her writing is about unimportant stuff. Garner is interested in the sorts of things she admires in writers like Jolley and John McGahern, for example. She says of McGahern that “he goes in very deep, broaching a vast reservoir of sadness, passivity, hopelessness and despair” (1993). She is not at all interested in domesticity for domesticity’s sake but in understanding the darkness in human beings, and “what people do to each other”.

As well as content, Garner talks again about the process of writing, of the frustration when it feels “false and stiff”, “ugly, clumsy”, or exhibits “anxious perfectness”, and of the exhilaration when it all goes right:

Hours passed in big bursts and I ended up with seven pages of stuff I could never have foreseen or invented … This must be how it’s done–take your foot off the brake, unpurse the lips and see where it takes you. (1990)

These volumes offer wonderful insights into the insecurities, challenges, despair and triumphs of being a writer – and for Garner, specifically, of the struggle to find “her” mode:

I need to free myself from the hierarchy with the novel on top. I need to devise a from that is flexible and open enough to contain all my details, all my small things. If only I could blow out realism while at the same time sinking deeply into what is most real. (1989)

By the end of this volume Garner has moved from “those households” into The first stone – and from there, as we know, she took on narrative non-fiction, and produced books on her own terms in her own form. In these, she finally found a way to not only explore the “darkness” and the things “people do to each other”, but to do it with an openness that is not always pretty but that I admire immensely.

“This is what life is. It’s not for saying no” (1987)

So writes Garner about her newly developing relationship with “V”. This relationship provides the diary’s backbone. It drives, mostly, where she lives, who she sees, and how and where she works. As they move from place to place – in his Sydney and her Melbourne – Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own comes frequently to mind, because, wherever they are, he gets to work at home while she must find somewhere else. Even when she tries to put her foot down, she ultimately backs off and, yes, finds somewhere else. This, in many ways, epitomises their relationship – he confident in the rightness of his working where he wishes, and she uncertain about whether to compromise (again), he sure that he is “blameless”, and she, self-deprecatingly, wondering if she’s “a monster”. It’s a typical man-woman story in so many ways, and for women readers the gender issues are both illuminating and infuriating.

However, it’s not all bad. There are moments of generosity and tenderness, even of fun. There are conversations about books and reading, convivial times with friends, and trips away. But, it also seems clear from the beginning that they are the proverbial chalk and cheese. Garner is emotional – “hypersensitive, says friend R – and sociable. She loves nature, music and dancing. V, on the other hand, is reserved, austere, elitist, really. He is furious when someone criticises art that he believes (knows!) is good, while Garner is interested in the discussion.

It made for painful reading at times, but fortunately, there was always this sense, this thing she says early in the volume:

Nothing can touch me. The power of work. Art and the huge, quiet power it brings. (1987)

Amen to that, eh?

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Helen Garner
One day I’ll remember this: Diaries, Volume 2, 1997-1995
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2020
297pp.
ISBN: 9781922330277

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)