Monday musings on Australian literature: The Australian girl’s annual

Some time ago I posted on an old School friend annual that I found during my decluttering. Today, I bring you a much older annual for girls, The Australian girl’s annual. It came not from my childhood, but from my aunt’s house when I was working on her estate, and it is undated. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain the series was published annually from 1910, when editions were apparently dated, until around 1935, when they weren’t. 1935 is the last time I found it mentioned in Trove’s newspaper index.

Trove’s cataloging records for it are incomplete. As far as I can tell, it was first called The Australian girl’s annual. It was then published as The Australasian girl’s annual (and perhaps The Australiasian girl’s annual), before returning to its original name. It was originally published by Cassell in London and Melbourne, but one Trove record notes that volumes from [1929]* on have the imprint “[Sydney] : Gordon & Gotch (A’sia) Ltd. for the Amalgamated Press Ltd.” My edition says “Published in Australasia by Gordon & Gotch (Australasia) Ltd.” but it also credits “The Amalgamated Press Limited Fleetway House, London, E.C.4”

So, I have two challenges. First, what is the date of mine? From Trove’s records, and from the contemporary-story illustrations, I’m guessing it comes from the 1929 to 1935 period. Second, who did it belong to? My aunt was born in 1930, when my grandmother was 37, making the book not really age-suitable for either – given it was geared, says The Australasian (21 December 1912), to “those who have passed childhood”. However, my aunt had a big sister who was born in 1918. Perhaps the book was hers?

I was intrigued when I picked it up, because here’s this book called The Australian girl’s annual, but it was clearly generated from England. In my search of the Internet, I found reference to some research published in 2014. It was done by Kristine Moruzi, and her paper is titled “The British Empire and Australian Girls’ Annuals”. The abstract says:

This article explores two series of girls’ annuals: the Empire Annual for Australian Girls (1909–30), published by the Religious Tract Society, and the Australian Girl’s Annual (1910–3?), published by Cassell. Although both series were seemingly targeted at Australian girls, they were published in Britain before being given a new title and sent to the colonies. This article examines the implications of these British models of girlhood for their explicitly colonial girl readers. The British publishers of these annuals addressed an apparently homogenous readership comprised of girls from white settler colonies and Britain without attempting to customize the contents of their books for different audiences. In both fiction and illustrations, the annuals simultaneously employed and produced a British model of girlhood that was attractive to Australian girl readers.

“Before being given a new title and sent to the colonies”? This suggests that the very same content was published for English girls under a different title. Certainly, the volume I have contains 26 stories with not one written by an Australian, though one author, Violet M Methley (b. 1882 in Kent), might have had some Australian connection. She is listed in AustLit, because, as a blogger writes, “she may have spent time in Australia, as many of her books are set on that continent”. Then again, as this blogger’s blog is “Tellers of Weird Tales”, Methley may just have had a vivid imagination! She has two stories in this volume, one being “Mademoiselle Miss: a story of the French Revolution”. (As little aside, this story is illustrated by H.M. Brock whose brother was C.E. Brock, famous for his Jane Austen illustrations.) Her other story is “Celia: A thrilling story”, which is set in the Hebrides.

Anyhow, the 26 stories are written pretty much 50:50 by male and female writers. None are known to me, but many were prolific writers in their day. Pleasingly, the illustrators are identified along with the authors in the table of contents. Most of the stories are fiction, and they include traditional “girls’ stories” like school stories, but there are also historical and adventure stories, and non-fiction, such as editor H. Darkin Williams’ travel piece, “On top of the world: Sun and ice at mid-summer on the heights of Switzerland” and naturalist Mortimer Batten’s “The adventure land of wild nature: And how YOU can become a Member of a Famous Camp Circle”. Batten’s heart is in the right place but how relevant were his “stories about hedgehogs, and stoats, and hares, and wildcats, and eagles, and deer …” to his Australian readers?

Of course, my next step was to see if the annual was written about in Australian newspapers, and it was, most often in end-of-year lists as a gift suggestion. Here are some of the mentions:

For softer tastes quieter themes are chosen; but the stories by Mrs. G. Vaizey, Katherine Newlin, Bessie Marchant, Doris Pocock, and others, are well written, and have nothing of the vapidity which was once thought a proper characteristic of fiction intended for girls [my emph]. – The Australasian (21 December 1912.

a very attractive and beautifully printed volume, with illustrations in colour and in black and white. It contains many short stories by writers popular with girls, and one complete book-length story, ‘The Girl from Nowhere,’ by Nancy M. Hayes. An excellent present for a girl. – Sunday Times, 13 December 1925.

… It has four color-plates, a profusion of other pictures, and as for the stories and reading matter, generally—well, a very high standard is reached. – The World’s News, 19 December 1925.

The “Australian Girl’s Annual” is another publication that puts the girls quite level with the boys in diversity of reading matter and illustration. It has all those features which girls like, and a lot of others that boys will turn to—on the quiet, of course [my emph]. It is really a very fine compilation of first-class serial and short stories. – The World’s News, 18 December 1926.

fills that very much-needed requirement of the girl-child who has passed the ‘toys’ standard, and is yet too young to be interested in the sentimentality of the average best seller in the fiction field, or carried beyond her age by the classics. – Sunday Times, 15 December 1929.

But what did the girls themselves think? Well, thanks to the letters section in some newspapers’ Children’s Pages, we do know something:

Dear Uncle Jeff … I have been reading a very interesting book, ‘The Australian Girl’s Annual.’ It is just the thing. – The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 10 October 1913.

Dear Aunt Mary … I had a book called “The Australian Girl’s Annual” given to me for my birthday. There are some nice stories in it. – Western Mail, 22 September 1916.

Dear Aunt Georgina … We got book prizes, and the name of my book is ‘”The Australian Girls’ Annual.” It has nice stories in it. – Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs Gazette 25 January 1930.

You can see how these Children’s Pages worked. Some of the correspondents even signed off “your niece”! These writers aren’t exactly effusive about the annual, but these were spontaneous comments in letters to a newspaper, so may not mean much.

Meanwhile, I would love to read what Moruzi found.

* Square brackets donate the lack of date on the volume.

Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (#BookReview)

Back in February, I said I planned to “read” more audiobooks this year, and slowly I’m achieving that goal with Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay being my third for the year. In fact, it makes a particularly special contribution, because it is the first book I wanted to hear when we bought our new car with Apple CarPlay functionality back in 2019. That might sound strange for someone who claims to not read crime, but here’s the thing …

While I don’t, as a rule, read crime, I do like to keep up with new Australian works. Emma Viskic’s 2015-published debut crime novel featuring a deaf investigator captured my interest at a time when we were looking for more fiction featuring differently abled protagonists. I wanted to read it, but I thought my best bet would be in audiobook form, because crime is the sort of writing that can work well in the car. The problem was that every time I checked my library audiobook catalogue there was no Emma Viskic, until a couple of months ago. Consequently, Resurrection Bay was the novel of choice for our last road trip. And it was a good choice, except …

There are certain things you need in a car audiobook, we’ve found. One is that straightforward narratives work best. After all, one of the listeners is a driver who should be focusing mostly on the road. Drivers do not need to be trying to follow multiple strands or unpicking abstract language, for example. Viskic’s novel worked well in this regard. However, another is that the sound needs to be good, and easy to hear above road and car noise. Here is where we struck problems. The reader for this audiobook, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, was a great reader – and I am fussy about audiobook readers – but he used a wide dynamic range to convey emotion and meaning through his voice. This made hearing in the car very difficult at times. It would not be a problem, I expect, if you were listening to it through ear-pods while walking.

And now, I really should get to the book – but one more proviso. Because I experienced it in audio form, my comments will be general and briefer than usual.

Resurrection Bay is the first in Viskic’s Caleb Zelic series. He is a private investigator who has been profoundly deaf since early childhood – from meningitis (which was also behind author Jessica White’s deafness). Unlike Jessica, though, Caleb did learn to sign. GoodReads describes the plot as follows:

When a childhood friend is murdered, a sense of guilt and a determination to prove his own innocence sends Caleb on a hunt for the killer. But he can’t do it alone. Caleb and his troubled friend Frankie, an ex-cop, start with one clue: Scott, the last word the murder victim texted to Caleb. But Scott is always one step ahead.

“silence safer than words”

Fictional detectives, I have come to learn, are not usually easy people. They tend to be loners, or to have some personal problem/s which add to the challenge and interest of the narratives featuring them. Caleb, of course, has his deafness. He’s an outsider, not because deafness necessarily makes him so, but because he, as his Koori ex-wife Cat tells him, lets it make him so. He refuses to admit his hearing impairment to others when communication difficulties occur, and this desire to “appear normal” not only impacts his ability to do his job, but it impacts his relationship with her. He also, frustratingly, refuses to “hear” what she is saying, jumping to the wrong conclusion because he is not listening. His deafness, in other words, is more than physical. It is also mental and emotional. Communication is, then, an underlying theme or motif in the work.

However, I’ve gone off on a tangent, because of course the main story is the crime investigation, which Caleb undertakes with his business partner, the aforementioned Frankie. She has her own difficult past which includes having been an alcoholic. This Caleb knows. Their investigations take them from Melbourne to Caleb’s childhood home, the fictional Resurrection Bay, and in the process Caleb discovers things he didn’t know about his friend, the murder victim; jumps to conclusions about his brother Anton; and learns more about Frankie.

Resurrection Bay is a page-turner, as you would expect. It’s well-written, with good crime-characterisation, and vivid evocation of place. It’s emotionally moving because Viskic makes you invest in her characters, but it also has some very violent and bloody moments. I guessed what the twist might be, but I was never completely sure until the end – and how it all actually fell out contained surprises.

Now, though, I want to address the elephant in the room – the deaf protagonist, the Koori wife, and the whole whose-story-is-it-to-tell issue? Here’s the gen, from The Age. Viskic

says being half-Slav gave her an outsider status that honed her power of observation.
Her husband was raised in a Koori family and they have two grown daughters. One of her primary school classmates was deaf and the disability – and particularly the refusal to accept it as a disability by the deaf community – has always intrigued her. She learned Auslan for the novels.

Later in the article, she is quoted as saying that

writing from outside your own experience is dangerous … not just because people can shoot you down, but because you can do the wrong thing by people. But I wanted my nieces and nephews to have characters like them in a book. And also, it would have felt cowardly not to have done it.

I am not a hard-and-faster on this whose-story issue. I do think that where longterm disempowerment is involved, own-stories are the better and fairer way to go, but it’s grey. If writers have reasons for writing a particular story that is not their own, then they wear the consequences, as Viskic is clearly aware. Ultimately, it’s not for me to say, but I felt Resurrection Bay was written with sensitivity and respect. The rest is up to those who own these stories.

In 2016, Resurrection Bay won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction; and the Davitt Award for Best Adult Novel. An impressive debut.

Kimbofo enjoyed this novel too, and Bill has posted on Viskic’s fourth Caleb Zelic novel, Those who perish.

Emma Viskic
Resurrection Bay
(Read by Lewis Fitz Gerald)
Wavesound from WF Howes, 2017 (Orig. pub. 2015)
Duration: 7hrs 9mins
ISBN: 9781510064140

Anita Heiss, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (#BookReview)

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray/River of dreams is Anita Heiss’ second work of historical fiction, her first being Barbed wire and cherry blossoms about the 1944 Cowra breakout in which she imagines a relationship between a Japanese escapee and a young First Nations Australian woman. I have not read that novel, but I have read, over the last year or so, other First Nations Australia historical novels, including Julie Janson’s Benevolence (my review) and the collaborative novel by non-Indigenous Australian Craig Cormick and First Nations writer Harold Ludwick, On a barbarous coast (my review). Long before these, though, was Kim Scott’s unforgettable The deadman dance (my review).

The value of these, and like books, to offering a First Nations perspective on the one-sided history that most of us grew up with can not be under-estimated. Heiss, in fact, wrote in her Author’s Note and Acknowledgements, that through re-engaging with her Wiradyuri homelands in her early 50s,

I realised very quickly I had to honour those Ancestors who for millennia have lived, loved, and nurtured the land and each other. And I wanted to pay tribute to those who carry on culture, knowledge and language still today. I felt I had a responsibility as an author to write our Wiradyuri heroes – our men and women – into the Australian narrative where they had been ignored or forgotten too long.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is her response to that realisation. It is of particular interest to me because it is set around Gundagai and Wagga Wagga, which are within three hours’ drive from where I live. Although I have been visiting the Gundagai region since the mid-1970s, it was only in recent years that I became aware of the story which is central to Heiss’ novel. This story concerns Gundagai‘s flood of 1852. As Wikipedia describes, the Murrumbidya flooded, killing at least 78 of the town’s population of 250 people. Using bark canoes, four local Aboriginal men, including Yarri, Jacky Jacky, and Long Jimmy, saved somewhere between 40 and 68 people. They were minimally recognised at the time, but, finally, in 2017 (2017!), a bronze sculpture of Yarri and Jacky Jacky, with canoe, was unveiled in Gundagai. Heiss’ novel concerns the life of a young Wiradjuri woman, Wagadhaany, the imagined daughter of Yarri.

The novel is told, like many historical novels, chronologically, but it starts with a Prologue set in 1838, some 14 years before the main narrative starts. This prologue is important. It introduces Wagadhaany who, as a 4-year-old, is with her babiin, Yarri, as he tells a “White man” that the place they are standing on is “not a good place to live, Boss, too flat”, that it’s a “flood area”. Of course, the White man ignores this local knowledge and so the stage is set for 1852 when the devastating flood comes. By this time, Wagadhaany, now 18, is working as a servant for that very White man, Henry Bradley.

The flood and its immediate aftermath occupy the first five chapters of this 29-chapter novel. Only two sons of the Bradley family of six survive, along with Wagadhaany. The rest of the novel follows their lives over the next couple of decades, showing how little the White settlers learnt from the experience – practically, in terms of how to live on the land, and morally, in terms of their behaviour to the true owners of the country. Wagadhaany, who is bound, she is told, by the Master and Servants Act of 1840, has no agency in such a world.

“a witness without a voice”

Into this situation comes the young Quaker widow, Louisa, who, like the Bradley men, lost her family in the floods. I was surprised by the appearance of a Quaker, but Heiss also explains in her Note that there were Quakers in early colonial Australia, and they were interested in “the treatment of the convicts and the Aborigines”.

Louisa is an interesting character because she tries to treat Wagadhaany well. She calls her by her actual name, rather than Wilma, as James Bradley does; she works alongside her in the kitchen and garden; she gives her a bedroom in the house; and she converses with Wagadhaany as a friend. But, she has her blind-spots. She is oblivious to Wagadhaany’s lack of agency over her life, to the fact that, when the Bradleys (now including Louisa), move to Wagga Wagga, she thoughtlessly over-rides Wagadhaany’s wish to stay in the Gundagai area where her family is.

As the novel progresses, Wagadhaany’s homesickness for her family, and her country, increases. We are privy to Wagadhanny’s thoughts, to her awareness that there are limits – albeit unconscious ones – to Louisa’s concept of equality. Louisa is, after all, a product of her time and her culture – and Wagadhaany notices that, for all their “equality”, it is Wagadhaany who does the hardest, dirtiest, heaviest jobs, and that she is not paid a wage.

What the presence of Louisa does, though, is to add richness and nuance to the depiction of colonial society. She is a foil to the brutal, racist attitudes of James Bradley. She does not mitigate them but shows that his were not the only views around. Wagadhaany, on the other hand, tells it as it is from the First Nations’ perspective. In the early days after the flood, Heiss writes that Wagadhaany

feels like a witness without a voice. She was there, she lived through the horror of the flood, the fear, the physical exhaustion, the loss of those she knew. But no-one asks how she is, what she thinks or knows, or how she feels.

For all Louisa’s kindness, there is much Wagadhaany feels she can’t say, and so throughout the story she continues as a silent witness. Here she is reflecting on Louisa and work:

She wondered why Louisa had to be protected from hard work but the Wiradyuri women didn’t. And she wondered if that thought ever crossed Louisa’s mind, because that made them different, unequal …

Gradually, though, she starts to stand up for herself:

“I know I will have to work for you, I know about the masters and servants law, but you cannot keep me living here in the homestead against my will if you honestly believe I am your equal and that I should be as free as you”.

And Louisa, to her credit, “lets” her live with the river family.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray has strong characters, but it is also a genre novel with a strong plot, including of course, romance. I don’t want to spoil what is a good page-turning story, so I will leave the story here.

Heiss has several novels under her belt now. She knows how to tell a good story, and she is also very clear about her message. She uses her fiction to show what she wants the rest of us to know. In this novel, it’s the way First Nations people lived, the way they tried to work with the settlers, and the way they were gradually pushed off their land. She also, through Louisa, forces us to confront what really is being “a good White person”. So, not only does the novel tell some truths about Australia’s settler history but it is also immediately relevant to today.

In this novel, Heiss also, as First Nations writers are increasingly doing, incorporates language into the writing. There is a glossary at the back, but you rarely need it because most words are self-explanatory in context. Seeing “our” nation’s words in Australian literature is a truly exciting development.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray isn’t a perfect novel – and I struggled particularly with Louisa’s falling in love with the man she does. But this is a genre novel, and a bit of belief-stretching is allowed. The end result is a book that engages the reader with its strong protagonist in Wagadhaany, that wraps its vital messages in a compelling story, and, significantly, that ends authentically.

Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) has also recommends this book.

Anita Heiss is a Wiradyuri woman from NSW.

Anita Heiss
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray
London: Simon & Schuster, 2021
393pp.
ISBN: 9781760850449

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 7: Science fiction

Unlike my last two posts in this “supporting genres”series, today’s is a true-blue genre. The problem is, as many of you will realise, that it takes me way, way out of my comfort zone. However, with this week being National Science Week in Australia, I decided that it was a good time to tackle this oh so popular genre. I will just add that, this not being my area of expertise, today’s post will be even more introductory than usual for this series.

I hope to hear from aficionados, who will hopefully fill in gaps and correct any misconceptions. Meanwhile, I’ll start with Wikipedia’s statement that

Nevil Shute, On the beach

Australia, unlike Europe, does not have a long history in the genre of science fiction. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, published in 1957, and filmed in 1959, was perhaps the first notable international success.

Does international success define a genre’s history? This seems to be the implication of the opening paragraph, but I see it more as “a” measure of success rather than necessarily indicative of activity. Anyhow, the opening paragraph also suggests that the situation may have been worse in Australia had not importing American pulp magazines been restricted during World War II, “forcing local writers into the field”. “Forcing”?

Wikipedia then shares that pre-Second Word War Australian science fiction tended to be racist and xenophobic by today’s standards. This was due, it continues, to contemporary worries about invasion and foreigners. By the 1950s, as in other countries, the genre became influenced by technological progress and globalisation. I guess what all this is saying is that science fiction – perhaps more than most genres – is closely affected by contemporary issues and concerns. Even I know that current science fiction is drawn to issues like climate change and environmental degradation!

Definition

Must I? Science fiction, I suspect, though you can prove me wrong, is one of the most difficult genres to define. When we Australian Women Writers Challenge volunteers were establishing our genres, this area took some thinking. In the end, we called it Speculative Fiction, and incorporated “genres” like fantasy, horror, paranormal, into it.

Wikipedia calls Science Fiction a “genre of speculative fiction which typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts …”. It continues that SF “can trace its roots back to ancient mythology, and is related to fantasy, horror, and superhero fiction, and contains many subgenres” and then says that “its exact definition has long been disputed among authors, critics, scholars, and readers”. So, I’m not going to argue with that. The Awards below tend to encompass a broad church under the banner.

Conventions

Interestingly, Science Fiction followers seem to have conventions rather than festivals. Here are a few:

  • Australian National Science Fiction Convention (ANSFC) has been an annual event since 1952! That’s impressive, surely. Even more impressive is that, as Wikipedia explains, “each convention is run by a different committee unaffiliated with any national fannish body”. This speaks to the passion of its followers, I’d say. It even ran through the pandemic, as the Wikipedia article shows.
  • Conflux is an annual science fiction convention held in Canberra, since 2004, building on the CSFcons (Canberra Science Fiction Conventions), held in the early noughties. Its website says it encompasses “sci fi, fantasy, alternative history and horror”. It was not held during the pandemic, but, if I read its website correctly, it will host NatCon (ie the ANSFC) in 2022.
  • SwanCon is an annual science fiction convention held in Perth, since 1976. It has often hosted the Australian National Science Fiction Convention.

Awards

Australia has two main science fiction awards:

  • Aurealis Award for Excellence in Speculative Fiction was established in 1995 by the publishers of Aurealis Magazine. It’s an annual award for Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction, and its categories are different to the Ditmar, below, being based on subgenre (like fantasy, horror) and age (young adult, children’s, for example). It now also has categories for form – anthologies, short stories, novellas, etc. If you want a sense of this award, check out its website.
  • Ditmar Award has gone through a few permutations since its establishment in 1969 (which makes it our longest standing science fiction awards). It is announced at the ANSFC, and, says Wikipedia, aims to recognise “achievement in Australian science fiction (including fantasy and horror) and science fiction fandom”. The fandom aspect is interesting. It encompasses a number of awards which are defined by form rather than content, like novel, novella, short story, fan artist, fan writer.

The notable thing about some genre awards, and we see it here, is that they often recognise various forms, like short stories and novellas.

Publishers

There seems to be a plethora of science fiction publishers in Australia. Many of them pride themselves on supporting inventive works and forms. Here are just a few, which I think are currently active:

  • Brain Jar Press: “Brisbane’s scrappiest, weirdest, and most genre-friendly small press, publishing outstanding and unexpected works of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and crime”. Their authors include Angela Slatter and Kaaron Warren.
  • Clan Destine Press: publishes “genre fiction in its myriad and wondrous forms: crime, mystery, historical fiction, thrillers, adventure, speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction, horror, urban fantasy, paranormal, steampunk, and ah-ha! “
  • Sunburnt Fox Press: only publishes Australian science fiction and fantasy, mainly, it seems, through Etherea Magazine.
  • Twelfth Planet Press: aims “to elevate minority and underrepresented voices with books that interrogate, commentate, inspire. Challenging the status quo through provocative science fiction, fantasy, horror, and cosy crime”.

Of course, the general publishing houses also publish science fiction.

Science fiction and me

Bill recently responded to a comment of mine on his blog that “I think that if I ever got you started on reading women’s SF you would never stop”, because, he said, “the great majority are of the inner lives of women in unusual situations. The story is only rarely about the SF premise”. He’s right – to a degree. From my youth, I have read a smattering of science fiction – John Wyndham (and Nevil Shute) in my teens, and in my twenties and early thirties I read Huxley’s A brave new world, Orwell’s 1984 and Vonnegut’s Cat’s cradle. (All by men!)

Claire G Coleman, Terra nullius

I read no Australian science fiction through those years. However, in recent years I have read several Australian dystopian and cli-fi novels. Not all of these, though, are, technically, science fiction because not all are “futuristic”. However, some are, such as Jane Rawson’s A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review) and Claire G Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review). I loved both of these, and remain open to the genre – but I’m unlikely to ever become an aficionado.

Do you like science fiction and, if so, care to share why?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography; 4. Literary nonfiction; 5. Crime; 6. Novellas; 7. Poetry

Canberra Writers Festival 2022: (My) Session 3, Germaine Greer in conversation with Rick Morton

My third choice of sessions was also somewhat sentimental, because, with Germaine Greer now in her 80s, I wasn’t sure how many more opportunities I’d get to see her in the flesh. But, I was disappointed because, the night before the event, the following email was sent out:

Sadly, Ms Greer has had a fall though now released from hospital. She says she is fine but doctor’s orders are that she is not to travel. Ms Greer said “I am so sorry to let everyone down, I so wanted to be there with you and I would have, except my doctor and family would not allow. Since when have I been told what to do and agreed? Please accept my sincere apologies and I hope this Zoom thing will make it up to you.”

That sounds so Germaine (if I can be so bold as to presume to know her and to use her first name)! The good thing for her is that she is ok, and for us that she was well enough to still do the session. And, in a way, it was great because via Zoom Greer appeared to us in full larger-than-life glory – as you can see from the pic. Poor Rick Morton was quite dwarfed.

Anyhow, as I’ve done with the previous post, I’ll start with how the program described the session:

Almost 90% of the direct care workforce in residential aged care are women, as are 70% of people who live in residential aged care. Germaine Greer speaks frankly about why aged care remains one of the most pressing feminist issues today.

That’s what the program said! What we got was more amorphous than that, something that kept both Rick Morton and us on our toes. Anyone who has read or seen Germaine Greer will understand what I mean. It’s hard to describe exactly what we got, but I think I’d describe it as a charming almost-ditziness crossed with an acute intelligence overlaid with a deep sense of humanity.

So, here goes. Rick Morton was clearly chosen for the interviewer role because of his work in covering our recent Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, and Greer as interviewee because of her recent one-year experience in Aged Care in Murwillumbah. (I must say that I was a little stunned – and then sort of thrilled – when I read about this experience a few weeks ago. It makes her so real!)

Morton introduced Greer, who needed not introduction really, and then launched into the aged care issue. Here, the fun started because Greer rarely directly answered the question. She talked about how she has ended up living with her brother (in the suburbs), that she’s been diagnosed with PMR, and she shared that she’s “more trouble than she used to be”! Really?

She then talked about selling her rainforest property, on which she’d planted “zillions of trees” in a landscape regeneration project. (It’s the subject of her book, White beech.) Eventually, we got to her taking herself to that Aged Care place in Murwillumbah. Morton then referred to the story I had read about Greer blitzing word-bingo there, always putting her hand up first! (Funny that!) Greer said that she kept telling herself to shut up, but she also felt that she owed it to Dimity, who’d put such work into creating the puzzles, to kick it along. (Fair enough.)

At this point, there was discussion about her Huntsman (spider) phobia and loss of cooking skills, before we returned to Aged Care.

Morton suggested that a fundamental problem regarding Aged Care is our attitude to ageing and our attitude to the elderly, at which Greer quipped that ‘Yes, everyone calls you ‘love’ or ‘darling’ but  I’m ”Professor Greer”‘.

Morton then said that in her book, The change, she had suggested that there are positive things about being “a scary old woman”. Greer, who is not afraid to change her mind, responded that now being 83, she’s reconsidering that positiveness!

However, she’s not about reassessing what she’s said in the past, she said. Instead, she’s focussing on trees and insects! She may not like spiders, but she does like snakes, which are “so sagacious and beautiful”. Morton suggested that this new passion for learning about trees and insects suggests she’s an autodidact. Is this a new phase in her life, he asked. She thought so, she said, until she found some old childhood papers which revealed an early interest in nature. 

After this little interlude, Morton returned to Aged Care, this time asking for her impression of staffing. This gave Greer a platform for her feminist position on women’s role as carers: caring has always been woman’s job, and these jobs are gendered. She referred to the Renaissance Courts, describing them as structured like a family. There, too, serving jobs were gendered. Even where the worker is male, the treatment is feminised. Those who serve are spoken to/treated disparagingly, and are paid a “derisive amount of money”. We import “a bunch of people from elsewhere”, like Indonesia and Nepal, she said, and pay them at the bottom of the rung, with no chance of progression.

Morton said that we don’t regard the caring job as important, and we don’t regard the people being looked after as important.

Greer said that she thinks about these issues all the time, though at this point her response seemed a bit tangential, as she referenced Sir Thomas More’s belief that the best way of living was in a college – you have bed, food, and laundry. All this house-business is too labour-intensive!

Morton then asked whether we need an ageing revolution. After an entertaining description of ladies who, released from the daily grind, discover golf in their 6Os, she went on to say that when you are older, “the world becomes your oyster – only if you are well”, and, added Morton, “have money”.

And again, we returned to Aged Care. Are you getting a flavour of this, possibly-frustrating-to-Morton but nonetheless fascinating, conversation? There were so many asides and digressions – like a big baggy 19th century novel, where you realise at the end that those digressions meant something. You just have to go with it! So, here, she talked about the domestic staff in Aged Care. They tend to be older women and they are doing the heaviest work. (Then they become ill). The government is wasting the goodwill of these people.

Morton responded by asking how do we care for the people, many of them women in their 50s and 60s, who do the caring. Again, Greer’s response seemed tangential. It’s about how we live, she said, “there’s too much house”. Houses use up time and money. Think Thomas More, think more about communal dwelling – and she then shared some communal living experiments she knew of.

She also said, re “nursing homes”, that she doesn’t like the term “home”. There should be specialised housing for specific needs. And shared another example, this time a Welsh plan for single mums which involved women helping each other. They never last, she said, because a war or something happens and they are the first to go! That is, these social initiatives are always the lowest priority, even when they work. Can we think of ways where we don’t leave women struggling?

Morton noted that all this stems from our western individualist culture, but there are other more collectivist cultures. Greer agreed and returned to the Welsh example, where the men saw what was happening, and “felt left out” so they initiated a security group and patrolled the grounds. This, thought Greer, was rebuilding family in a different shape.

Then we turned to more a more traditional feminist stance – the need to get men away from the position where they can exert strength over weaker members of family because if they can they will.

Morton returned again to Aged Care asking her whether she’d go back to a residential aged care facility. Greer said she dreaded losing her mobility, and is enjoying the suburbs and getting to know her family, but knows it won’t last forever.

Morton asked her whether she thinks about death. She’s not afraid of death she said, she’s more afraid of living too long, and of not paying back! He asked her to assess how her life has unfolded. She said that she “spends a fair amount of time in a rage”. We are so mean to each other. But she doesn’t think in terms of mistakes. She’s a fatalist.

Q&A

The Q&A was a bit wild like the interview, but I’ll try to dot point:

  • On the younger generation re-discovering The female eunuch: She’s grateful, she said. She was lucky to be born at that time when all this was coming to the fore. She hopes we get better at looking after women’s health.

Then she threw in another idea, identity, which she says is a non-existent problem. Morton asked what it mattered to her if someone has an identity. She responded that there have been five biographies about her, and she’s never met any of those subjects in her life!

  • On the sex vs gender debate being so toxic. Again, Greer answered her version of the question: she doesn’t get why domestic violence is sexualised, have we forgotten elder abuse, why are people’s lives as difficult as they are, and we haven’t got far with women!

She then returned to identity. Identity is not the issue that is causing the problem, she said. At this point I wrote in my notes that Greer was the portrait of a woman aways thinking, connecting, and questioning – and that she also had a lot of ideas she wanted to share.

Meanwhile, our questioner clarified her question, which concerned our inability to debate sex vs gender without toxicity, and people shutting down the debate? Greer responded that sex runs the planet, and that gender is fun, because you can make it up! Oh dear … she knew exactly what she was doing here, because she then said that “part of my job is to get hate mail”.

  • On outliving one’s time, and being valued: she returned to the communal/village idea where old people have a place. People she said need places to get to know each other.

  • On getting the balance right (re “having it all”): “buy 57 hectares of forest” she said.

  • On where satisfaction comes from. She doesn’t know the answer, but suggested it’s when you find your work.

Then, she ended with:

Mistrust me if I present myself as having them [the answers, she meant].

As another attendee said, as we were leaving, “just when you think she’s a bit demented, she goes boom!” That’s Germaine!

Canberra Writers Festival, 2022
Germaine Greer in conversation with Rick Morton
Saturday 13 August 2022, 2-3pm

Canberra Writers Festival 2022: (My) Session 2, Her last words: The inspiring life and legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

My second choice of sessions was, partly, sentimental, because Ruth Bader Ginsburg is such an inspiration for feminists like me and I also wanted to see ABC journalist Fran Kelly strut her stuff in person. I wasn’t disappointed. The session was subtitled, Amanda Tyler In Conversation With Fran Kelly, and was framed as follows:

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing last year — just as her book, co-authored with her former law clerk Amanda Tyler — was heading into production, was met with a public outpouring of grief. Tyler shares RBG’s optimistic vision of a just society and a ‘more perfect union’.

This is slightly incorrect, and stems from the fact that the session had been scheduled for last year’s cancelled festival. Ginsburg, “the notorious RBG”, or just RBG as I will call from here on, didn’t die last year, 2021, but in 2020. As a result, Ginsburg and Tyler’s co-written book, Justice, justice: Thou shalt pursue: A life’s work fighting for a more perfect union, instead of being relatively new off the press has now been out for well over a year. That, I think, changed somewhat the session’s focus from the book (though it was still the cornerstone of the discussion) to something wider – to RBG’s legacy and America today, as much as the book itself.

This session, unlike my first, was in the largest space in Kambri, and it was packed. RBG has a huge following. I have written briefly about her before, in a Literary Week post where I mentioned seeing the documentary RBG. I wrote that RBG “is a fascinating woman with an inspiring capacity for clarifying the complex”.

This was another engaging session, in a different way.

Amanda Tyler and Fran Kelly, Manning Clark Hall, August 2022

Kelly leapt right in with a big question: given RBG’s “wonder-woman status”, did Tyler feel pressure working on this book with her! Well yes, admitted Tyler, even though she’s in her late 40s now! But working with RBG was “so special” and the work was so important.

Regarding RBG’s health, Tyler said, answering another question, that yes, they were aware that “her death was coming” but RBG had tried so hard “to stay alive through the election and to the inauguration” so that, hopefully, a Democrat would win and be responsible for her replacement. (Those of you who follow American politics will appreciate all this.)

Kelly asked what Tyler saw as RBG’s most important role or characteristic. She responded that RBG recognised that she was talented and she used her talent not to make money but to make the world a better place. This was a point she would make to young graduates whenever she spoke at graduations. This theme of improving the world, improving America, improving the lot of others, recurred throughout the session.

RBG had graduated at the top of her class but couldn’t get a job in a law firm – because she was a woman. This resulted in her ending up in the court system, which, Tyler said, turned out to be a good thing. (As it was for Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court. RBG was the second.)

Next up was discussion about RBG’s early court work. Her first gender law case was Moritz v. Commissioner in 1970, concerning a man who’d been refused a tax deduction for hiring a nurse to care for his elderly mother, a deduction he would have received had he been a woman. The important thing about this – besides that the law also discriminated against men – is that when the case was won the Government appealed, which got it to the Supreme Court.

RBG fought many sex discrimination cases during the 1970s – her favourite being the Stephen Wiesenfeld case. All this, said Tyler, would have made her significant even if she’d never been appointed to the Supreme Court.

The discussion identified many of RBG’s skills and strategies. She had a capacity for consensus; she chose multi-directional cases; and her superpower was taking cases as a litigator to the Supreme Court.

Kelly asked whether RBG was disappointed about being “the great dissenter”. Tyler, as she was wont to do, answered in a round-about way. (Is this lawyer style?) RBG, she said, wanted to be a judge, she wanted to be in public service. And, she did write some great majority decisions. But yes, she was disappointed to be in the minority at the end of her Supreme Court career. She wanted to leave a “road map”.

Kelly then asked what she thought of her celebrity status, “the notorious RBG”. No one would have predicted it, Tyler said, but it was the result of her dissent in a Voting Rights case – Shelby County vs Holder. Tyler quoted RBG from this case:

Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.

RBG loved, said Tyler, that she was inspiring a younger generation. She also saw the significance of an older woman becoming a superstar!

Then Kelly got to the sensitive question: should RBG have stepped down earlier to prevent what ended up happening – her replacement being chosen by Trump and the Republicans. Tyler replied that during Obama years, she was given clean bill of health, she was in her stride, and Republicans had hold of Senate so she felt they may not have supported the “right” replacement.

Tyler then turned to something that she mentioned many times during the rest of the session, the vote. She said that exit polls in the 2016 election (the Trump one, of course!) found that the no. 1 reason Republicans gave for voting was the Supreme Court, but this was barely mentioned by Democrat voters.

Tyler hadn’t answered Kelly’s question! So she pushed a little more! Tyler said she believes that RBG (like most people) anticipated Hillary Clinton would win.

Kelly turned to the Supreme court’s overturning of Roe V. Wade. Tyler said – meaninglessly, really – that if Hillary Clinton had won everything would be different! She said that she thinks RBG would be “apoplectic” at what was happening, because RBG believed that true gender quality depended on women having control of their reproduction.

There was more discussion about this, and then Kelly turned to the fear that other rights could fall, as hinted by Justice Clarence Thomas. Tyler does fear that rights like contraception and same-sex conduct, for example, are at risk. It is, she said, a difficult time for this county that sees itself as “a country of opportunity”.

Kelly asked whether this can be stopped, to which Tyler returned to her mantra: the vote. People must vote “as if we care about these issues”. The issue is the Senate and the filibuster rules, and she’s not seeing enough impetus for changing Federal law. The problem is that the US is becoming less unified – life is becoming increasingly different from state to state. So, for example, the abortion law changes are causing young women to seriously think which state they choose to go to college in. All this risks entrenching the spilt in American society.

The current Supreme Court is young, so will have its current make-up for decades. Biden has considered a commission to look at expanding the number of justices. Congress could do it but there are obvious ramifications to this. Another idea is that of staggered terms, but this requires changing the Constitution.

Kelly asked about RBG’s “striving for a more perfect union”. This, said Tyler, comes from the Constitution. It invites ongoing struggle and effort to improve American life. RBG saw there was so much to be done. The Constitution, said Tyler, is based on people being able to live their lives “based on individual capacities”, but the equality implicit in this is not enshrined.

Kelly asked Tyler for her favourite RBG quote – there are many out there – but Tyler responded with a personal experience. When, as a nervous new mother she was planning to return to work, she asked RBG for advice. The email response was one line: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. Love it.

Finally, Tyler commented that RBG lived a balanced life, and loved opera.

Q&A

The Q&A covered a few issues which I’ll just dot point:

  • Compulsory voting: Tyler is interested in this idea, but said even just making election day a public holiday would help. Kelly, said, what about a Saturday (as we do)!
  • Conflict of interest issue in Supreme Court (eg re Clarence Thomas’ wife): the Supreme Court is not bound by same rules of ethics as the rest of court system. Thomas has not recused himself so far in conflict of interest situations.
  • RBG’s advice for new generation of law students: Tyler gave two: Don’t just think about the courts, also think about electoral and legislative arenas; and Play the long game.
  • ERA (Equal Rights Amendment): RBG wanted this in the Constitution.
  • Favourite moments with RBG: both related to opera!

Tyler said that in her last conversation with RBG – August 2020 – RBG expressed concern about how the pandemic would affect the world’s children. Even at the end of her life, Tyler said, RBG was thinking about others and the future.

Canberra Writers Festival, 2022
Her last words: The inspiring life and legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsberg: Amanda Tyler In Conversation With Fran Kelly.
Saturday 13 August 2022, 12-1pm

Canberra Writers Festival 2022: (My) Session 1, Writing the precipice

A preamble

After a long pandemic-caused hiatus during which it didn’t, like many others, “pivot” to an online format, the Canberra Writers Festival is back. Unfortunately, it clashed with a time we could visit our Melbourne family, so the best I could do was reduce that trip by a day so I could at least attend some Saturday sessions. Sunday, the festival’s last day, was long ago booked – an afternoon theatre booking to see the Sheku Kaneh-Mason Musicians. Life is just too busy.

So, with just one day, what to attend out of a plethora of choices, given they are held over several venues on either side of “the lake.”(Those who know Canberra know that “the lake” is a major mental divide in Canberra, as much as a physical one. We laugh about it, because it is ridiculous, but it’s there!) The point, though, is that I didn’t want to book sessions that would involve a lot of travel.

As I have written before, the Canberra Writers Festival’s tagline is “Power Passion Politics”, but I mostly seek the more literary focused ones. I found one on Saturday morning at ANU’s new-ish Kambri Centre, so decided that would be my venue. There were still choices to be made, and you can see what I decided in this and the following posts …. though in another twist of fate, a late important appointment saw me missing my last booked session of the day, Chloe Hooper with Richard Fidler. Darn it! The choices were hard, as there were many interesting people to see and hear, but that’s Festival life.

Writing the precipice: Panel discussion with Kathryn Heyman, Chris Hammer and Diana Reid

The moderator was Nicole Abadee, a writer and podcaster about books, a literary judge, and a literary event moderator. She ran the panel more as a interview-each-author style rather than a free-flow discussion between the panelists. Both styles have their advantages, and in this case we did hear some excellent ideas from each of the writers.

The panel was titled “Writing the precipice”, which the program described as:

Our best-selling authors reveal how they tackle their characters’ pivotal moments when they stand on the precipice of life-changing disclosures and discoveries, and how they navigate the decisions beyond.

After introducing the authors and their latest works – Kathryn Heyman’s memoir Fury, Diana Reid’s campus novel Love and virtue, and Chris Hammer’s crime novel Treasure and dirt – Abadee asked them to briefly set the scene of their books, and then got into the nitty gritty!

Heyman was a little uncertain about Abadee’s suggestion that she’d actually stood on the precipice from her childhood. Heyman didn’t really see it that way, though she had, she said, grown up in poverty in a single-parent family.

She was keen to focus on the idea of “precipice” which she defined as “an edge that you can fall or leap from”. It’s a moment where everything is lost, but, paradoxically there’s everything to gain. She felt that, despite growing up in the underclass, her cleverness opened doors. Class is an issue that she and others mentioned and to which we returned later in the panel.

Abadee was keen to follow the childhood precipice point, saying that she was referring to the fact that both Heyman’s father and step-father had been violent. While agreeing with this, Heyman returned to her precipice idea. She said Fury is about making decisions that from the outside look dangerous. It is set in the context of her having faced major and minor bombardments as a female. 

Fury is not about Heyman’s assault, but about what she did after the court case. However, Abadee briefly explained that Heyman had been assaulted by a taxi driver, had reported it to the police, but the taxi driver had been acquitted. Heyman said that her experience of the social justice system had been brutal, and that she’d realised that the places where she should be safe, she was not. She returned to the precipice idea. Basically, she said, it’s about what is there to lose. There is nothing to do but leap. This she did, into something that looked dangerous – taking a job on a boat as a cook, with four strange men.

Why put herself at harm, is the question she gets frequently, but she said that she was physically, psychologically, mentally on a threshold, and decided to look at it differently, at how would it be if she were “one of the boys”?

Abadee quoted back to her her reference to a Larkin poem from which she’d taken the idea that when you are removed from the familiar, you perceive things differently, and thus perceive yourself differently. In other words, when removed from what you know you can transform yourself. Like in a story, you can rewrite yourself. She wanted, she said, to build “physical and psychological muscle”.

While at sea she was frequently in danger, but not from the men – from the bad weather and the crew’s incompetence! She came back changed.

She ended on an interesting point. She’d come to realise, she said, the value of naming the mess, naming the trauma. Stay with me here … she said books had taught her to name seabirds by learning to see their differences. And so, she learnt “to put language to the precise trauma”. If you can name it, she said, you become bigger than it.

Reid was asked to start by talking about the friendship between the two women protagonists in her book. Michaela is from a single parent family in Canberra, and finds herself in a Sydney university residential college where most of the residents are well-to-do, with private school backgrounds. One of these is Eve, who is self-confident, articulate, and a model for Michaela.

There are, she said, some fundamental philosophical questions behind the novel, one being the idea expressed by Gore Vidal which is that is it not enough to succeed, that to succeed, others must fail. Michaela comes to see this. So the book is about a rivalry more than a friendship.

Reid said much contemporary literature is about women being supportive but there are toxic relationships too. She clarified, though, that this book has a very particular context – a competitive academic environment, in the male-dominated subject of philosophy. Unfortunately, Michaela equates success with male attention, and thinks getting an older man to love her would endorse her as a person.

Abadee asked her about the prologue which, Reid explained, is written in third person. It’s a sex scene in which the woman is so drunk she remembers nothing. That woman, it turns out, is Michaela, who is the first person narrator of the rest of the novel. This incident becomes a critical point between the two women. Here is a precipice. Eve tells her she should report it.

This situation said Reid, goes to the power of storytelling as process of invention: I don’t remember it so it’s not in my story. When Michaela is encouraged to report, she’s being asked to put it in her narrative. The tension exists in her being deprived of her autonomy, her ability to control her narrative. What is the impact for her versus for feminism of telling the story. Who has the right to tell the story?

Regarding Eve, the question is whether she’s a good person or just looks like one. Is it ok to betray a friend for social good? Reid saw Eve in terms os performative activism. She ultimately leaves the place better, but there is tension between being morally correct and feeling superior, about not using “morals as sticks to beat other people down”. Although Eve does good work, she does it for herself.

Another philosophical question Reid explores then concerns the definition of goodness. Does it reside in your impact on the world or your reasons for doing so. Is it less “good” if you do it for yourself?

Later, Reid commented that her book came partly out of self-criticism (with Eve being an exaggerated her) and out of observation.

When we got to Hammer, Abadee noted that each of his novels starts with a hook. His latest, Treasure & dirt, opens with a miner being found dead, crucified. All his protagonists, she suggested, are on a precipice.

Hammer said that his openings are typical of crime books: you need to capture people as quickly as you can. The discussion then focused on the detectives, Ivan and Nell, who are both flawed, both on a precipice.

They are not hands-off detectives. He said there are plenty of crime books where the detective mechanistically solve crime, with much violence and sex involved. And there are those cosy crime novels where you know nothing about detective. However, he is interested in how characters change. Both his detectives find their careers at risk, are unsure about their status in police force. Will they throw the other under bus to save themselves?

Hammer described the different issues confronting each of the detectives – creating the precipice each is on – and said that solving the crime is important to both their careers. Each is on a career precipice, but also important is how they see themselves. They have choices. Hammer said that as a reader he likes to immerse himself in the characters, to think what he’d do. He likes to write such characters.

Heyman then said that all the books deal with class and shame, and asked the writers to talk about class. Heyman simply said, class plays a huge role, and that in addition to “class” and “shame”, the three books are all about “characters in extremis”.

Reid made two points about class. One is that moral judgements depend on context. Eve finds it easy to judge but finds it hard to acknowledge her power over Michaela because of her class. The other is that universities are places of privileged people who go on into privileged roles. What they see as culturally normal thus becomes the norm affecting everyone. Great point. Heyman added that people from the underclass and billionaires have a freedom because they are outside the middle class which establishes the norms.

Hammer said that his novel is set in a hardscrabble place, but that there are two powerful, rich men in it. Will they get away with massive illegality? Will Ivan and Nell, who are there for a homicide, do anything about it?

Abadee, picking up the shame thread, referred to Heyman’s title, Fury, and her idea that the best antidote to shame is anger. Heyman said that shame breeds in silence, in buying into others’ stories of who you are. It doesn’t do well when out in the open. By contrast, fury has energy, so the idea is to convert shame to anger (and energy).

Reid said shame involves lack of control; it arises when others judge you by facets of yourself you can’t control.

Hammer said that Nell is found in a compromising situation. She feels she’s been duped, but as a young woman in male-dominate police force, she has to decide whether she will fold or stand up.

An insightful session, which found some fascinating coherence between three very different books.

Canberra Writers Festival, 2022
Writing the precipice
Saturday 13 August 2022, 10-11 am

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 6: Poetry

As with the last post in this series, which was on novellas, poetry isn’t so much a genre as a form. However, to repeat what I said then, when I started this sub-series, I couldn’t find one all-inclusive word to cover all the types of literary works I thought I’d cover, so settled on “genres”. With August being National Poetry Month, it seemed a good time to do the poetry post.

I’ll start by saying that over the years of this blog, I have written several posts that could be seen to cover ways in which poetry is supported in Australia … so I’m going to begin with some of those posts, all Monday Musings:

  • Australian Poetry Library: In 2011, I wrote on a wonderful initiative, the online Australian Poetry Library which was launched that May. Unfortunately, as those of you who have read last week’s Monday Musings comment trail will know, the site is off-line at the moment. It’s a fabulous site, and we believe the hiatus is technical rather than permanent. We urge that “fixing” it be given priority.
  • National Poetry Month: This has to be a major initiative for supporting Australian poets and poetry and I have written two Monday Musings posts on it, one in 2021 and one in 2022.
  • Poetry Awards: In 2014, I wrote a Monday Musings on Poetry Awards, in which I listed many of Australia’s best-known poetry awards.

Publishers

In my 2021 National Poetry Month post (linked above), I mentioned two publishers which focus specifically, or heavily, on poetry – Giramondo and Pitt Street Poetry – so you can read more about those there. Other more general publishers also support poetry. There are too many for me to include here, but I will exemplify with a few:

  • Black Inc: an independent Melbourne-based publisher which supports poetry, with a focus (I’d say) on established poets. They have published annual Best Australian poems anthologies (though not since 2017 it seems); they publish The best 100 poems of [poet, like Dorothy Porter] series, and they also publish poetry collections, including, most recently the posthumous Les Murray collection, Continuous creation.
  • Fremantle Press: an independent Western Australia-based publisher which publishes poetry regularly, both as single poet collections (including John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan) and anthologies.
  • UQP: a university-based publisher in Queensland, which is also a strong publisher of poetry. Not surprisingly, given their track record in publishing First Nations writing, they are a major publisher of First Nations poets, like Evelyn Araluen, Tony Birch, Jazz Money, and Ellen van Neerven, alongside many other new and established poets.

I have reviewed poetry from all of the above. For more publishers, check out this Poetry Sydney page which includes these, plus more, like Ginninderra Press, Magabala Books, and Wakefield Press.

Awards

I covered several of Australia’s significant poetry awards in my dedicated Monday Musings post linked above, and Wikipedia has a useful list too. I love that the majority of poetry awards are named for poets. Here I will share a few that I didn’t include in my 2014 post:

  • Anne Elder Award has gone through some changes since its establishment in 1976 by the Victorian Branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. It goes to the best first book of poetry published in Australia, and since 2018 has been managed by Australian Poetry.
  • Biennial Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award is a more recent poetry prize, with the inaugural award being made in 2013. The original prize was $7,000 but it’s now described as Australia’s richest poetry prize, with $40,000 going to the 2021 winner. It is “dedicated to celebrating women poets”, with, says AustLit, the award going to “an Australian woman poet for a collection of previously unpublished poems”. It is managed by the University of Sydney.
  • Mary Gilmore Award has gone through a number of permutations and slight name changes since it was established by the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) in 1956. Love this. It is currently an annual prize for a first book of poetry published in Australia, and is managed by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. The 2022 winner was Jelena Dinic’s In the Room with the She Wolf published by Wakefield Press.

Festivals

Many writers festivals include a poetry panel or two, and those of you who attend folk festivals will know that these festivals often include poetry sessions (mostly, in my experience, of the bush verse variety).

However, there are some specialist poetry festivals, like the following:

  • Perth Poetry Festival, is an annual festival with this year’s being its 18th. Its webpage is brief but you can read more about it there. It is run by WA Poets Inc.
  • Poetry on the Move is a festival that was established in Canberra in 2015 by the University of Canberra. Its website describes its aims as being “to promote poetry as a vibrant art form through the engagement with international, national and local poetry communities”.
  • Queensland Poetry has operated as an incorporated association, the Queensland Poetry Festival Inc, since 2007. Their aim, according to their home page, is “Supporting poets on page and stage across Queensland”. Check out their website for the range of their activities, but as far as I can tell, this year’s festival, Emerge, ran from June 3rd to 6th.
  • Red Dirt Poetry Festival has already appeared on this blog, through Glen Hunting who often comments here. As its website says, it is a “4-day International poetry and spoken word celebration in Mparntwe/Alice Springs”. It’s a hybrid festival offering both in-person and digital sessions, and involves national and international poets. The sessions include “presentations, workshops, showcases and exclusive commissioned works”.
  • Tasmanian Poetry Festival is a longstanding festival which started in 1985 ran its 37th event in 2021.

It goes without saying that many festivals, including these, have been significantly affected by COVID and so what were annual, in-person events, have in some cases missed a year or two, recently, and/or become hybrid events. Some are run by poetry associations which offer many more programs than “just” the festival. You can find out more by navigating the links I’ve provided.

Do you like poetry and, if so, how do you engage with it?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography; 4. Literary nonfiction; 5. Crime; 6. Novellas.

Six degrees of separation, FROM The book of form and emptiness TO …

Last month, as I wrote this post, I had just got back from Melbourne, and this month I am back in Melbourne. Next Six Degrees, I should be in Sydney, all being well. Life is busy at the moment, but we are enjoying catching up with family and friends after two years of limited opportunities. All that’s well and good, do I hear you say, but what about the main point of this post? It’s the Six Degrees meme, of course, and if you don’t know how it works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book, and for August it is another book I’ve not read, Ruth Ozeki’s The book of form and emptiness. GoodReads says it’s a “inventive new novel about loss, growing up, and our relationship with things”. Sounds interesting, but that doesn’t help me right now …

When I haven’t read the starting book, I prefer not to link on content because, you know, I might get it a bit wrong. So, for my first link I’m going with title, and another book that starts with “The book of”. My book is Australian author Leslie Cannold’s The book of Rachael (my review).

Book cover

Cannold’s book is about biblical characters, although the title character is a fictional one. Another book about biblical characters, though in this case the protagonist is real, is Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus (my review) about Saul who became Paul, in the New Testament.

My next link is weak – I know it – but I’m going there anyhow. Tsiolkas’ Saul became the Apostle Paul, though throughout the novel he remains known as Saul. Garry Disher’s detective in Bitter Wash Road (my review) is Paul Hirschhausen, but throughout the novel he is Hirsch. No-one would ever know he was a Paul!

And now it’s time, after three links, to leave Australia, and the best way I can think of is to go to a much beloved detective of recent decades, Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe from Botswana. I’m choosing one of the two novels I’ve reviewed from this long series, The Saturday big tent wedding party (my review). You’ll have to forgive this very loose link, because Precious is a female private detective whilst Hirsch is a male police detective.

Now, if there is someone who could have done with some of Precious Ramotswe’s common-sense and warmth, it’s Tambu in Tstitsi Dangarembga’s This mournable body (my review). Again my link is very loose, based as it is on the fact that the two novels are set in neighbouring African countries, Tambu living in Zimbabwe bordering Precious’ Botswana.

And now, having found myself here, I can’t resist returning to Australia, linking this time on authors who also make films. Tsitisi Dangarembga has an impressive resume, having won multiple literary awards while also being an active filmmaker of feature, short and documentary films. While she’s not as prolific, Australia’s Leah Purcell is also known as a novelist and filmmaker. I’m linking to her latest production, The drover’s wife (my review), which she’d also written as an award-winning play and a novel.

This month, then, we’ve managed to travel through history and place, from biblical times in the middle east to modern times in Africa and Australia. And we have a 50:50 split in authors, three male and three female.

Now, the usual: Have you read The book of form and emptiness? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Peter Wegner’s Centenarians

In 2021 Australian artist Peter Wegner won Australia’s prestigious portrait painting prize, the Archibald, with his painting of the Australian artist Guy Warren, who also happened to be a centenarian. That year also happened to be the prize’s centenary. Coincidence? Who knows! Regardless, the portrait was in fact part of a Centenarians project which Wegner has been working on since 2013.

As it so happens, on our drive down to Melbourne a few days ago we stopped, as we often do, at the lovely Benalla Art Gallery. It has a great cafe overlooking the Broken River (a tributary of the Goulburn); it has three exhibition spaces offering varied programs; and its little gift shop is also excellent. On this visit, the smallest space, the Simpson Gallery, was occupied by an exhibition titled Peter Wegner: The Centenarians. This exhibition comprises pencil and beeswax sketches of 20 centenarians made by Wegner between 2015 and 2019. (Given some of the subjects we saw were born in 2021, this means that “centenarians” includes those nearly 100 as well as those who were actually 100 when they were drawn).

The exhibition notes quote Wegner on the process and his aims:

Each drawing was completed from life in an afternoon or morning with little alteration to that first impression, they are moments captured within a time allowed.

The exploration of ageing and how well we age is central to this project. Maintaining human dignity and independent living are important issues as we age, alongside the question of what it means to have a productive and meaningful life. One’s good fortune in life was acknowledged by nearly all of my sitters—sometimes bewilderment about having reached such an age was expressed.

I loved them, partly for the art work which seemed to capture their subjects beautifully (though of course, I don’t know them), but also for the centenarians’ little commentaries which Wegner incorporated into the sketches.

Boz Parsons (b. 1918, sketched 2018)

Most of these commentaries reflected on how they’d lived to an old age – and here’s the probably-not-surprising thing, there was no consensus. For example, some never drank, some had a glass of wine with a meal, while one had beer before dinner and wine with dinner. A couple mentioned genes, though not many. A few mentioned work and/or attitude, like not worrying. As Boz Parsons said, “there is no secret to living a long life”!

So, for example, when sketched in 2019, Jack Bullen (born 1921) had two glasses of wine every night, and still had his driver’s licence but didn’t have many “close friends” because “they didn’t see the distance”. Sylvia Draeger (also born 1921) reckoned “the secret to a long life – take one day at a time”. Married twice, she says “I’m not looking for another husband”. Maisie Roadley, another born in 1921, says “I never worry. Hard work and a glass of wine every night”.

Erwin Fabian (b. 1915, sketched 2017)

But my favourite is Mim Edgar (born 1914, sketched 2018) who said “I don’ feel very old. When I’m sitting down I feel 16. When I then stand up I feel 100”. Haha, know the feeling!

Gallery Director, Eric Nash, introduces the exhibition in its catalogue. He comments that the portraits have both a “stillness, and a sense of energy and vitality”. He’s right. The life is there in the expressions, while the poses have a lovely stillness.

Nash also suggests that the portraits have lasting value for two reasons. One is that they preserve “the sitters’ accumulated knowledge and insights”. He notes that the artist has ensured this by dipping the drawings in beeswax “to protect the pencil markings”. This also gives the work an effective sepia tone. The other reason, Nash says, is that the works

could inform how we as a society support our older residents to continue enjoying enriching lives. Wegner has particularly sought sitters who “are still living lives with my mobility, curiosity and purpose … the exploration of ageing and how will we age is central to this project”.

Colin being congratulated on his 100th by two grandchildren.

To conclude, I thought I would include a photograph of my own centenarian, my Dad, who was born in 1920 and died in 2021. I’m not sure what he would have said to living a long life. He did have a whisky every night until his mid-90s; he was an optimist; and he valued good friends and family. He was alert until the end. Vale, again, dad.

Peter Wegner: The Centenarians
Benalla Art Gallery
1 July -28 August 2022

Note: For copyright reasons, I have not included images of complete portraits here, but you can see Wegner’s winning painted portrait of Guy Warren at Wikipedia.