Monday musings on Australian literature: Short Australian nonfiction

There’s been a little discussion going on during this Novella November month concerning nonfiction novellas. I contend – yes, I’m putting myself out there – that a “novella” is fiction, and that you can no more have a nonfiction novella than, well, fly. However, I am not going to get into this debate now, because, fundamentally, it doesn’t really matter, does it? What matters is that we read good writing, regardless of what it is, what we call it, or how we categorise it.

Instead, I’m going to do a quick post sharing some short Australian nonfiction. I have written Monday Musings posts about short books before – on little books and on small books. This post covers a bit of the same ground, but it also extends and so complements those two.

In some ways, nonfiction is ideal content for short or little books. Essays are a prime example. They can be commissioned and published in small form or can be extracted from previous publications (books, journals, websites) and published separately in short form. There are many examples of both, and some I have discussed before. Short Blacks, published by Black Inc, epitomises the latter, with some having originally been published in Black Inc’s journal, Quarterly Essays. And here I should say that the Quarterly Essays themselves are another example of short nonfiction, given each issue primarily comprises one essay of up to 25,000 words, plus correspondence relating to the previous essay.

However, Black Inc has also got into commissioning short nonfiction to publish in book form, with its recent Writers on Writers series. I have read two, and have more on my TBR. They are great reads for those of us interested in hearing what one writer has to say about another writer’s work. The next one I have up is Nam Le on David Malouf.

Dorothy Porter, On passion

Then there’s the On seriesLittle Books on Big Ideas. You can find them most easily at Booktopia online bookseller, because the publisher, Hachette, does not seem to list them separately as a series on their website, which is a shame. I have reviewed Dorothy Porter’s On passion and Stan Grant’s On identity. They were published by Melbourne University Press, but it seems that the series has been taken over by Hachette Australia. These are commissioned (I believe) essays by some of Australia’s best-known fiction and nonfiction writers on issues they wanted (or were happy to?) to explore.

All these little books make great reading, if you enjoy essays like I do. Most are under 100 pages.

FL Smalls 7: Carmel Bird's Fair Game

But are there other examples of short nonfiction published in Australia? Any histories, or memoirs, for example? Finlay Lloyd‘s FL Smalls, which I’ve discussed before, is an example. as this series includes memoirs (like Philip Stamatellis’ Growing up café: A short memoir) and creative nonfiction (like Carmel Bird’s Fair game). Great reads, but they are still little books. What about books that are a bit bigger, but still short, books between 100 and 200 pages?

There are, apparently, some short memoirs, but I don’t know many. Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s Stella Prize winning The erratics (my review) is close, at 217 pages.

But, what I’m really wondering about are the books we are looking for that will increase our understanding of contemporary issues. Some of these could benefit by being short. Many of us want to read something a bit more longform about the issues important to us, but not that long! Tim Flannery’s The climate cure, which I mentioned in my Ask the expert post, is described as 224 pages, but the actual text ends at around page 190.

First Nations rights is another area where brevity might attract more readers. It’s hard to find, but My tidda, my sister, which was published in 2020, comes in under 200 pages. It shares the experiences of Indigenous women and girls, and was compiled by podcaster Marlee Silva. Readings Bookshop describes this book as “a celebration of the Indigenous female experience through truth-telling”.

Bruce Pasco, Dark emu

A slightly older book raising awareness about First Nations cultures, but now surely a “classic”, is Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book, Dark emu (my review). It’s around 175 pages.

On another subject, Annabel Crabb’s 2020 book, Men at work: Australia’s parenthood trap, is 160 pages. It apparently argues that true gender equity “cannot be achieved until men are as free to leave the workplace (when their lives demand it) as women are to enter it”. Hmmm … This is not the only thing needed, I’d say, but it is part of the picture.

Finally, I thought I’d share something pandemic-related. It comes from prolific, award-winning journalist-author, Gideon Haigh. He has tackled the impact of the pandemic on the workplace, in The momentous, uneventful day: A requiem for the office. Published in December 2020, it’s just 144 pages. Readings says “Enlivened by copious citations from literature, film, memoir, and corporate history, and interspersed with relevant images, The momentous, uneventful day is the ideal companion for a lively current debate about the post-pandemic office”. The pandemic is surely going spawn books for decades to come!

I have no idea whether this post will interest anyone, whether any of you care about the idea of short nonfiction, but I’ve enjoyed thinking about it. That said it’s been a challenge to research because, well, there is no equivalent word to fiction’s novella for short nonfiction!

Now, over to you. Do you like short nonfiction? Or is length irrelevant to you? Why or why not? And do you have any favourites?

Omar Musa’s Killernova book launch, with Irma Gold

Local performance poet-novelist-artist Omar Musa’s latest book, Killernova, had two launches in Canberra this weekend, one with Polly Hemming and the other with Irma Gold. Being Gold fans, Mr Gums and I booked her session, and it was both engaging and illuminating, but I have it on good authority that Polly Hemming’s session, though different, was also well worth attending.

Omar Musa has three poetry collections, a Miles Franklin Award longlisted novel (Here come the dogs), and a play to his name. He has also released solo hip hop records. And now, he has turned his hand to woodcuts and woodcut printing. He is, you’d have to say, multi-talented – and it comes, I think, not only from a curiosity about the world, but a desire to find his place, to engage with it, and to explore ways of expressing the things that he feels strongly about.

Not surprisingly, then, this was not your usual “in conversation” launch. It started with Musa performing some of his poetry, and a song. There’s nothing better, really, than hearing a poet read or perform their own writing, and Musa is a polished performer. So there was that. Then there was a display of his woodcuts, most of which appear in his book, and home-made sambal for sale, along with the book, not to mention the conversation with Irma Gold.

The performance

It was such a treat to have Musa perform some poems. I’ve heard him before, and love his heart and his ability to convey it so expressively through words and voice. His poetry is personal but also political, carefully crafted yet fresh too. Here’s what he performed:

l am a homeland: Musa, who has Malaysian and Australian heritage, started with this poem that explores home and belonging, when you don’t have one place, and got some audience participation going, asking us to breathe in its meditation-inspired refrain, “inhale”, “exhale”:

Inhale – I am singular
Exhale – I appear in many places

UnAustralia: Musa explained that he is often criticised as being UnAustralian because he (dares to) criticise Australia. This poem is his answer to that, and perfectly examplifies his satirical way with words:

Come watch the parade!
In UnAustralia
Land of the fair-skinned.
Fairy Bread.
Fair Go.

Rose gold lover: this one was a song – part ballad, part rap, and beautiful for that. (You can hear it performed with Sarah Corry on LYRNOW)

Hello brother: Musa dedicated this poem to Haji-Daoud Nabi, who, with the words “Hello, brother”, warmly welcomed to Christchurch’s Al Noor mosque, the shooter who went on to kill him and 50 other people.

Flannel flowers: Musa introduced us to a rare pink flannel flower that grows in the Blue Mountains. It flowers only when “specific conditions … are met … fire and smoke, followed by rainfall”, making it bitter-sweet – and an opportunity to contemplate both the environment and our mortality.

The conversation

So, I’ve introduced Musa, and Irma Gold needs no introduction, as she has appeared many times on this blog, including for her debut novel, The breaking (my review). Click on my tag for her to see how active she is. Irma is also a professional editor, and co-produces the podcast Secrets from the Green Room.

Musa and Gold, National Portrait Gallery, 27 November 2021.

Gold commenced by introducing Musa as a multi-talented artist, poet, rapper. She also praised, as an editor, the book being launched, Killernova. It’s a collection of diverse poems and woodcuts, and yet flows seamlessly, she said.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable conversation that, with Gold’s warm and thoughtful questioning, covered a lot of relevant ground.

The woodcuts

Given woodcuts feature strongly in the book, and are a “new” art for Musa, Irma started with how he got into woodcutting. He explained how he’d been in a dark place – had started to hate what he was supposed to love, writing and performing – so was visiting his father in Borneo, when he came across Aerick LostControl running a woodcut workshop, and joined in.

He spoke of the leopard which appears – often playfully – in his woodcuts (including one on top of Canberra’s iconic bustop.) So much of his writing, he said, focused on the ugliness of humanity, on racism, depression, so he wanted to do something beautiful. His first woodcut depicted the local small leopard (Sunda clouded leopard, I think). Although he felt it was “childish”, his teacher saw talent – what a surprise! – and a new form of expression for Musa was born.

Gold also asked him about the practice of “stamping the spirit into the works”. This is, Musa said, the traditional Southeast Asian way of printing woodcuts, and is still used, I think he said, by Indonesian protest poster-makers.

Musa then talked about taking the craft of writing so seriously it can lead to paralysis. Language is so imprecise you can just keep going, tweaking, tweaking the words. In woodcutting, if you make a mistake, you have to move on, as what is done is done. To make art, you have to take risk. He’d been taking himself too seriously, he felt, so wanted (needed, too, I felt he was saying) to be playful.

At the end of the conversation, but I’m popping it in here, Gold asked about how woodcarving deepened his connection with heritage. Musa said that he “would like to say it felt like homecoming but it felt more like tourism”. Some of this tension is conveyed, he said, in the first poem he performed, “I am a homeland”. It explores how we can inhabit different identities. A box limits you, he said. He prefers fluid identities.

The writing process

Gold asked whether, given he’s a performance poet, he reads aloud when he is writing? Musa said he writes in a “trancelike state” then “sculpts” his work. “Write in passion, edit in cold blood” is his practice. He also shared the philosophy of his favourite poet, Elizabeth Bishop – write with “spontaneity, accuracy, mystery”.

On whether he ever edited a poem further after performing, I think he said yes! (Given I sometimes post-edit my blog posts – because I can – I say, why not?)

Art and creativity

Gold referred to the poem, “Poetry”, because she related to its ideas. In it, he plays with the traditional recommendation to “write what you know”, shifting it, first, to “write what you know about what you don’t know”, then rephrasing it to “write what you don’t know about what you know”, before finally getting to the crux – and I like this – “write a question”.

The best art, he said, makes us ask questions about the world around us, but he likes to start with a question about self, with something that tests one’s preconceptions. Art, he believes, does not have to provide answers, just ask questions. Yes.

Gold then asked him about the role of alcohol and drugs in creativity, something Musa has spoken about. Killernova, he responded, is partly about undercutting mythologies in the art scene. One is the singular genius writer or artist. It’s b***s***, he said. All artists are products of their environment, so, this book includes collaborative poems. Another concerns the “addict musician, drunk poet” which he had bought into, but this book was “written when clean”.

The environment

Gold noted that concern with desecration of the environment runs through book, and asked Musa about the role he saw for art. Art, Musa believes, both holds a mirror up to world as it is and as it can be.

There is a Utopia in Killernova, Leopard Beach. Are Utopias dangerous, childish ideas that distract us OR could they project the world as it could be? he asked. Good question. He described a successful turtle sanctuary in Borneo, which was the result of someone’s dream. Through art, we can reimagine the world, and make us feel less alone.

Can art change people’s minds?

Musa responded that Werner Herzog said no, but he thinks it can, through asking questions. However, this needs to go hand-in-hand with collective action.

The end

Musa gave us one more performance to end with. It was a collaborative poem (“after” Inua Elliams) about pandemic, F***/Batman. Loved it, with its wordplay on masks (“we could finally drop our masks”) and references to toilet paper, Zoom, jigsaws; its exploration of the positives, negatives, and potential contained in the pandemic; and the idea that we “grew madder yet clearer headed”. What will we do with this, though, is the question. A provocative end to a great launch.

Omar Musa’s Killernova book launch with Irma Gold
National Portrait Gallery
Saturday 27 November 2021, 3-4pm

Helen Meany, Every day is Gertie Day (#BookReview)

Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day is the third Viva La Novella winner that I’ve read and posted about on my blog, the other two being Julie Proudfoot’s The neighbour (my review) and Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review). All are memorable reads, and do this award proud – and no, I am not being paid to say this.

Announcing Meany’s win, Books and Publishing quoted the prize organisers who said that “at the intersections of art, politics, identity and representation, this darkly funny novella shows us a world that is weird, disturbing and all too familiar”. Previous Viva La Novella winner, Jane Rawson, calls it “a fresh, funny and delightfully weird take on authenticity and the people who manufacture it”.

Both use the word “weird”, but if you don’t normally do “weird” please don’t let that put you off because this novella is just weird enough to jolt us into thinking about its ideas, but it’s not that far-fetched – unfortunately.

Every day is Gertie Day concerns a new small house museum in Sydney commemorating a reclusive woman called Gertrude Thrift who had died and not been found until well decomposed. She had been the subject of a series of paintings by an artist called Hettie P. Clarke. This series, formally called the Girl with Greyhound series, is popularly known as the Elf Ears paintings because Gertie is depicted in them with pointy elf-like ears. This isn’t particularly weird, but what is weird is that there are people who have adopted Gertie as their inspiration, their role-model and have had their ears modified to emulate those in the paintings. The problem is that there is no evidence in the museum that Gertie herself had such ears.

The story is told in the first person voice of Nina, a guide (or Public Education and Engagement Officer) at the Museum. That this book was going to interrogate contemporary cultural and political trends and tensions is clear early on. As a retired librarian-archivist invested in the heritage sector, I was hooked when Nina notes that

getting people through the door of any museum anywhere was enough of a challenge, and the professional consensus, though no one would publicly admit it, was that it didn’t matter how you achieved it.

Nina continues that if anyone voiced “any sort of distaste, or ethical concerns, or accusing State Heritage of cashing in on a tragedy” they were to say that the museum endeavoured “to be as respectful as possible”. Thus the stage is set for conflict between the Gerties (mainly the Truthers but also the Regular Gerties), the museum staff, and State Heritage over the authenticity – the truth – of their displays. What follows is a story about a tussle for the “truth” in which the actual “truth” seems less important than what people want to believe and why, and what State Heritage and the Government think is best to do and say about it.

While Nina’s voice is the prime one, we are also given excerpts from the artist Hettie’s diaries, which may, or may not, be the “truth”, and, as the conflict escalates, we are see some transcripts of social media commentary from various Gerties and their opponents. It is all so real, and delicious to read in the wake of contemporary controversies about “truth” and our tendency, desire even, to make it suit our own purposes and world-views. Nina is as reliable a narrator as we could hope for in this environment, but she has her own needs and perspectives. Mainly, she wants a quiet life and a job to support her family.

There is an element of dystopia in all this. A parallel story concerns Nina’s husband Benj, his recyc-u-pay job and the plight of the unemployed Trolley People (Trollos). These Trollos earn a living sorting through other people’s rubbish to feed into recycling machines that may be poisoning the air. Has Benj been affected? Who is caring about the Trollos, while the Gertie business garners all the attention?

And then there’s the State Museum, where Nina had previously worked. It had closed because of the “controversial Hall of Extinction”. The truth, it appears, was unpalatable. People had stopped coming because no one wanted to be reminded of all the lost species that could now only be seen “stuffed and mounted or on large video screens”:

Dwelling on the past was no way to move forward, it only made people unnecessarily depressed and angry. At least they were the government’s main arguments for defunding the museum.

There are many angles from which to explore this book – cult, identity, and politics; who controls the narrative and what can get lost in the melee; not to mention, art, and its creation and meaning. How ever you look at it, in Every day is Gertie Day, Meany has astutely tapped into the zeitgeist in a way that extends where we are now just a little bit into “weird”, but not beyond our ability to accept its – hm – truth or, worse, its inevitability. Have we got to the point where people are simply “allowed to believe what they want” or, where authority is so distrusted that all we have is belief (with or without evidence)? The ending is perfect.

Read for Novellas in November, and AusReading Month.

Challenge logo

Helen Meany
Every day is Gertie Day
Lidcombe: Brio Books, 2021
213pp.
ISBN: 9781922267627

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

Yes, I know, novellas aren’t really a genre, but when I started this sub-series I couldn’t find one word to cover all the types of literary works I thought I might end up covering, so we are all going to have to live with “genres”. OK? Many of you will know why I’ve chosen novellas as my next in the series: it’s because one of the several blogger memes running this month is Novellas in November.

Regular readers here will know that I love a novella – and it’s not because they are short, per se, but what the shortness implies. You know that I love short stories, so you will probably know what it is that I love about novellas – it is the ability to condense a story to its essence, while still engaging my heart and mind. In an interview post on my blog, author Nigel Featherstone who has a few novellas under his belt said this:

If short stories are about brevity, novels are about complexity. So that’s what I might love about working with the novella: they offer the best of both worlds: succinctness and sophistication. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and George Orwell’s Animal Farm are cases in point.

Featherstone, Fall on me

Of course, as he goes on to say, definitions like this “are ultimately meaningless: some short stories are about complexity, while some novels use up 200,000 words by saying not much about anything. A story must find its natural length, that’s the beginning and end of it”. True, but I do like the idea that novellas offer “succinctness and sophistication”. Kate Jennings’ Snake, on which I posted last week, is a perfect example.

I should, I suppose, discuss definition. The problem is that novella definitions tend to be based on word count, but we readers have no idea of the number of words in the books we buy. Consequently, we tend to go by number of pages, which has to be rough because the number of words per page can vary significantly from book to book. However, my rule of thumb is the same as that offered by the Novellas in November crew, which is “150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages”.

However, I do want to make the point that for me – and for all serious definitions I’ve read – a novella must be fiction (despite Griffith Review’s including creative nonfiction in its criteria!)

Publishers

There is a sense that publishers are loath to publish novellas because they believe readers equate length with value and feel cheated paying a book price for something that’s 150 pages versus, say, 300 pages. However, some publishers do actively support novellas. They are often the smaller independent publishers. Most of the Australian-published novellas that I’ve reviewed on this blog have come from, in no particular order, Spinifex, Wakefield, Hybrid, Xoum, Scribe, Text, UQP, Blemish (no longer in existence), and Inkerman and Blunt (which published Nick Earls’ acclaimed Wisdom Tree series). Classic novellas, and novellas by “big” names are, of course, published by the big publishers like Penguin.

One publisher which has been actively promoting and supporting novellas is Griffith Review. Primarily a literary journal, Griffith Review has, since issue 38 in 2012, devoted one issue a year to novellas, which they call The Novella Project. Introducing the project, then editor Julianne Schultz discussed the changes that were happening in publishing, and said,

In this context we believe that the time is right for the revival of the novella – of those stories that are longer and more complex than a short story, shorter than a novel, with fewer plot twists, but strong characters. Condensed tales that are intense, detailed, often grounded in the times, and perfectly designed for busy people to read in one sitting.

They have a page on their website titled Notes on the novella. It comprises a collection of “notes” from contemporary Australian novella writers, including those published in the Novella Project editions. If you are interested in what writers think about the form, here is a good place to start. Holden Sheppard, for example, sees it as a “very pure form of storytelling”:

Novellas promise readers a direct flight to their destination – no layovers in Singapore or Dubai. 

Love it …

Competitions

Who would have thought there’d be a prize for novellas but, it seems, where there’s a form or genre, there’s likely to be a prize. Here are three for novellas:

Julie Proudfoot, The neighbour
  • Griffith Review Novella Project is a competition that commenced in 2012, and sees winning entries being published in an edition of the journal. Entries can be fiction or creative non-fiction, ranging between 15,000–25,000 words. Winners have included established writers like Nick Earls, Cate Kennedy, John Kinsella and Stephen Orr. Catherine McKinnon worked her Novella Project III winner, “Will Martin”, into a novel, Storyland (my review).
  • Viva La Novella Prize was also established in 2012 – by Seizure – with the first winner announced in 2013. It’s an annual prize awarded for works of 20,000-50,000 words. Seizure is “a social endeavour which runs under the auspices of Xoum Publishing“. Since the award’s inception, Brio/Xoum has published 20 short novels, meaning there’s been more than one winner per year. I’ve read two, and have a couple more on my TBR. It’s another wonderful initiative.
  • Storyfest National Novella Writing Competition is an annual competition for high school students, that seems to have been running since 2018. The entries have to be between 8,000 and 20,000 words. You can see and read the overall and state winners on the Somerset Storyfest website. Lovely to see such encouragement for student writers.

Lists

Just search “novellas” in your browser and you will find a multitude of lists, but for a useful list of Australian novellas, check out Brona’s blog.

Are you a novella fan? If so, would you care to share some favourites?

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

S-S-S Snake, Kate Jennings’ Snake, that is

I thoroughly enjoyed Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay on Helen Garner’s Cosmo cosmolino (1992) in Reading like an Australian writer. Consequently, I plan, over time, to read and share other essays in this book – at least those discussing books I’ve reviewed here. As it happens, there is an essay by Debra Adelaide on Kate Jennings’ Snake (my review), and it’s the perfect next cab off the rank. Not only have I already posted this year on Erik Jensen’s longer essay on the book in the Writers on writers series, but Snake is a novella, so I’m using this post as a contribution to Cathy’s (746books) Novellas in November. I hope that’s not too cheeky.

I’ll start, though, by introducing Debra Adelaide. A novelist with a few books under her belt, including The women’s pages which I’ve reviewed, she first became known to me through her work on early Australian women writers, her Bibliography of Australian women’s literature, 1795-1990 (1991) and A bright and fiery troop: Australian women writers of the nineteenth century (1988). Like many writers, she also teaches creative writing, and Snake is one of the texts she regularly sets.

So Snake – for those who don’t know – draws from Jennings’ life, and tells the story of a lively, imaginative woman, Irene, who marries a decent but boring man, Rex. It cannot work, and the consequences are dire.

Jensen’s and Adelaide’s essays are very different. This is partly because Jensen’s, being in the Writers on writers series, focuses on the writer, whilst Adelaide’s in Reading like an Australian writer focuses on the reading and writing. Not surprisingly, the approach Adelaide takes is closer to mine – except that her writerly perspective is more astute, centred and expository.

The elastic novella

Early in her essay, Adelaide specifically address its form as a novella, saying that Snake demonstrates “how wonderfully elastic the novella can be”. In Snake‘s case, it is “so elastic that it can almost be prose poetry”. It is also “audaciously” abbreviated. She’s right – this is one spare novel.

Adelaide identifies three main reasons that she sets this text for her students – “its poetic brevity, its ‘experimental’ form, and its intriguing, sometimes maddening, allusions to and quotes from numerous literary and cultural references”.

It is, she says, the perfect set text, because it can be easily read in one night and remembered, but,

Brevity does not mean simplicity: its complex themes ripple out and take their time before finally landing on the muddy shores of our imagination.

This is what makes Snake such a good and memorable read.

The three s’s

Adelaide divides her essay into three main sections, those three s’s in the title: Structure; Serpents; and Scenes, sex and Serena McGarry.

I love discussions of structure, because structure can so often help inform the meaning. When a short novel like Snake has a complex structure, it is worth taking note. Adelaide talks about her own method of writing and wonders about Jennings’ approach. She doesn’t know how Jennings works, but she does say that this novel

opened up my eyes to the possibilities of writing a novel that was straightforward yet clever in structure, that was stripped back to its narrative bones, and yet at the same time managed to be multilayered, dense, poetic and unforgettable.

She discusses the novel’s four-part structure, and explains how, although the book is primarily about the mother Irene, it manages to convey the POVs of all four characters, thus “deftly” delivering a portrait of the whole family. Simultaneoulsy, with its use of second person at the beginning and end, “it offers a powerful sense of everyperson”. I love this analysis. I also enjoyed her further discussion of second person, which accords with some of my assumptions about this voice. One of the points she makes is how second person makes (can make) the reader complicit, which is one of the reasons Madeleine Dickie used it in Red can origami (my post).

Adelaide also briefly discusses an issue that fascinates her, as it does me – “the unlikable character in fiction”. Irene is “remote, ruthless and selfish”, and yet, despite Snake‘s “staccato delivery and disparate parts”, Jennings manages to maintain the focus on Irene “without alienating us from her”.

However, the section I most enjoyed is Adelaide’s discussion of Serpents. She references DH Lawrence’s poem “Snake”, which Jennings quotes from in the novella, and Henry Lawson’s short story “The drover’s wife”. She also references Jensen’s discussion of snakes, because, of course, he discussed them too. The point is that snakes are both metaphorical (the cause of the original fall of humankind, and so on) and actual (a real threat to vulnerable children, dogs and women.)

And so, the heart of Jennings’ Snake lies in, says Adelaide, “the universal fear of the serpent, that potent post-lapsarian symbol of all evil and danger”. All associations with snakes race through our minds, she says, as we read this novel. This is one of the ways a spare novel can lay down meaning on top of meaning.

In the third section, Adelaide discusses Jennings’ “scrupulous clarity”, using a few examples from the novel. One is the murder-suicide of Serena McGarry and her husband. Adelaide explores how much, in less than 100 words, Jennings conveys about Serena, and its implications for Irene. Adelaide makes the point that these “marvellously condensed” scenes “contain entire longer stories within them”. She sometimes uses them as springboards for students to develop their own stories. I would add that this sort of writing can make a book a great reading group book because it encourages readers to think about characters – who they are, why they are who they are, and why the writer has written them this way. Endless discussion can ensue!

Adelaide concludes by saying that Snake is “a novel that replays re-readings well out of proportion to its size”. I second that.

Debra Adelaide
“Structure, serpents and Serena McGarry: Kate Jennings’ Snake
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 219-232
ISBN: 9781742236704

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 5: Crime

When I decided to write this sub-series, the genre that nearly stopped me before I started was crime, because I knew I’d have to do it! CRIME is so-o-o big that it’s hard to know where to start … so, I’m just going to dive in, share a select number of ideas, and let the rest of you, as you always do, fill in the gaps.

Crime, as you know, is not a key genre for me, but over the years, for one reason or another, I’ve read a number of crime books, ranging from cosy crime to police procedurals, from classic crime to true crime, from rural noir to literary crime, from – well, you get the picture. In other words, for someone not drawn to crime, I’ve read and, I admit, enjoyed more than I would have thought when I started this blog. I have also written separate posts about Sisters in Crime Australia and their Stiletto awards.

Festivals

Angela Savage, The dying beach

Crime, being the popular genre it is, features regularly at writers festivals around Australia. It would be rare, methinks, to attend a festival and not find at least one panel devoted to crime. I’ve written on a couple myself – a crime panel convened by Angela Savage at the 2020 Yarra Valley Writers Festival, and a true crime one at the 2019 Canberra Writers Festival.

But, there are also festivals devoted specifically to crime, including these three held or to be held in 2021:

BAD Sydney Crime Writers Festival

To be held from 2-5 December, 2021. As far as I can tell, this is an annual festival that started around 2017. It “explores what crime can tell us about human beings today and in the past”, or, what BAD describes as “”the dark side that is part of being human”. They suggest that Sydney is particularly appropriate “because it was founded by convicts and their guards” and “has been significantly affected by crime and corruption for much of its history”. On the 2017 festival page, they argue that “you cannot understand this city completely without its vital criminal subculture”. The 2021 festival will feature “some of the biggest names in crime fiction, true crime and social justice advocacy”, including Jane Harper, Michael Robotham, Garry Disher, Chris Hammer, Xanthé Mallett, as well as Melissa Lucashenko, Robert Drewe, Richard Glover, Tony Birch, Larissa Behrendt and Stan Grant. This is a face-to-face festival, but all sessions will also be Zoom-ed.

Rural Crime Writing Festival

Held as an online festival on 12 June 2021, by the New England Writers Centre. Calling it the “very first of its kind”, they hope to repeat it. Participants included Emma Viskic and Yumna Kassab. Carmel Shute of Sisters in Crime convened a panel which discussed “the rewards of literary awards”. Would love to have heard that.

Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival: CSI: Tasmania Digital Festival

To be held as an online festival on 27 & 28 November, 2021. Described as Tasmania’s International Crime and Mystery Literary Festival. Like BAD, TARWF, which is located in the Huon Valley, offers a range of live, live-streamed and virtual events throughout the year. CSI Tasmania is their second festival, following their successful Murder She Wrote festival in 2019. It features Australian writers like Gary Disher, Sulari Gentil, Candice Fox and Anita Heiss, and international writers like Val McDiarmid and Ann Cleeves. TARWF’s founder and current director is crime writer L.J.M. Owen, and the organisation is volunteer-run.

Prizes

Crime is also a genre that seems well served by awards and prizes.

  • Danger Award, offered by BAD. An annual award, established about 2018, I think, for “the best book, TV series, podcast or film about Sydney crime” (so not “just” books).
  • Davitt Awards, offered by Sisters in Crime Australia, since 2001. Prizes are offered in several categories for writing by women.
  • Ned Kelly Awards, run by the Australian Crime Writers Association and established in 1996. They offer prizes in several categories, including true crime, debut crime and YA crime.
  • Scarlet Stiletto Awards, also run by Sisters in Crime Australia, since 1994. This award is limited (devoted) to crime and mystery short stories “written by Australian women and featuring a strong female protagonist”. Clan Destine Press has now published eleven collections of winning stories.

AWW Challenge

Many of you know that I’ve been involved in the Australian Women Writers Challenge pretty much from its inception. It collects on-line reviews, mostly by bloggers and GoodReads readers, of books in all forms and genres written by Australian women. And crime, of course, is a big genre. An important aspect of the challenge is our Book Review database, which you can search via the Books Reviewed search page. Clicking this link, however, will take you immediately to a list of the reviews posted for over 950 crime books by Australian women writers. It’s quite a database now.

Finally …

If you’ve been paying attention, and I’m sure you have, you will have realised that there are many organisations in Australia devoted to supporting crime, including the Australian Crime Writers Association, Sisters in Crime Australia, BAD, and publishers like Clan Destine Press.

And, just to round it all off, this article in The Conversation provides a neat history of Australian crime – in case you are interested.

Do you read Crime? If so, would you care to share some favourites?

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

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

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?

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.