Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Michelle on our Brave New (online) World

Book coverToday, I present another Monday Musings guest post coordinated for me by Bill (The Australian Legend), this one from Michelle Scott Tucker, author of the wonderful Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world (my review).
Thanks so much again to Bill and to Michelle for helping me out with my Monday Musings. Read on … and of course we’d love your comments  … Do you think your online activity will change significantly post-COVID-19?

Michelle’s post

Hands up if you’re quite the expert at videoconferencing now. Got your lighting all sorted? Your headphone hair? De rigueur Indigenous artwork behind you?

With the onset of the COVID-19 shutdowns, the Australian literary community has moved its events online with commendable alacrity. A few organisations, like the Wheeler Centre, were ahead of the curve. They’ve regularly livestreamed some of their events for a while now. But for the rest of us, the haste with which the move to online ‘events’ had to happen resulted in a few bumps along the way, but overall, the experiment has been a success, I think.

I’ve no insider data for you, no formal evaluation, but in the last three months I’ve been involved in quite a few literary events via Zoom, or similar – so let’s take a closer look at how the experiment is going.

The Stella Prize usually hosts a glamorous, invitation-only gala event at which the annual winner is announced. Egalitarianism be damned! The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards have an equally glamorous event which, in the past, was at least ticketed. This year, though, the events were cancelled, and the announcements were livestreamed. Well, I say livestreamed but what they really meant was pre-recorded clips of the relevant hosts and authors were livestreamed to the web at an agreed announcement time. That was a little disappointing, to be honest, although understandable logistically. It wasn’t that the winners weren’t fabulous, or the speeches less interesting but what was missing was the buzz. The excitement. The little jokes and patter that are part of a live event. Frankly, though, even big-budget events like the Logies (Australia’s version of the Emmy Awards) or the Academy Awards are pretty tedious. It’s only the fashion that gets them over line and let’s face it, fashion isn’t going to rescue a literary award – everyone wears black, or Gorman. Apparently that’s the law.

The organisers of the Yarra Valley Writers Festival managed to pivot from face-to-face to a live-streamed extravaganza with swan-like grace. I can only imagine how hard the organisers had to paddle beneath the surface. The livestreamed festival was a very professionally run event, and it showed. And it was actually ‘live’, which was nice. The organisers clearly had access to excellent video and tech support. Whispering Gums blog-host Sue wrote about the sessions she watched here, here, here and here. I “attended” the festival too, largely because I found their pricing to be irresistible. For $15 I could watch a whole day of sessions live, and for an additional $20 I could continue to have access to the recordings for the next two months. Bargain. To compare, attendance in-person would have cost me $75 for the day, plus food and petrol.

In the pre-COVID world there’s little chance I’d have attended the Yarra Valley Writers Festival. It was at least two hours’ drive from my place, and family commitments usually fill my weekends. So in terms of accessibility, the revised format was a winner. But I found it difficult to stay watching and engaged for more than a couple of sessions, and eventually spent the afternoon doing something else. I kept meaning to go back and watch those later sessions but somehow never got around to it. I would rather, I belatedly realised, have listened to them in podcast format while I was doing that ‘something else’. And my insider sources tell me I was not alone – the online version of the Yarra Valley Writers Festival could best be described as a qualified success.

Other writers festivals were not so confident about executing the pivot from face-to-face to live-stream and so sensibly aimed for a much less ambitious offering. The volunteer organisers of the excellent Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, for example, ended up cancelling the festival although they managed to salvage the Poetry Slam, which they ran live via Facebook, as well as some other book launches and workshops. I genuinely feel for the organisers, and for the would-be audiences, the local businesses and the speakers (of which I was going to be one. I was lined up for a couple of sessions at Bellingen, but the one I was looking forward to the most was facilitating a discussion between three Stella Prize winners: Heather Rose, Vicki Laveau-Harvie and Carrie Tiffany. How good would that have been?). On this last point, I should flag that I accept speaking gigs because I enjoy them. The fact that I occasionally also get paid for them is a happy bonus. But many writers rely on their speaking gigs as an important source of income. Some earn more from speaking than they ever will from sales of the book itself, especially those who speak at schools. This is yet another example of the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown on artists’ incomes.

During the shutdown period, I also “attended” an online book launch and, separately, a bookshop event where a panel of three writers were interviewed about their work. Both these events were held via Zoom on weekday evenings. The book launch was a free event, and the bookshop panel discussion was sensibly priced at $5. I thoroughly enjoyed both of them, and would have been unlikely to physically attend either in a pre-COVID world (not least because the bookshop in question was quite literally a thousand miles from my place). But, again, I had some reservations.

These days I usually attend bookish events because I know the author and want to support them. For authors I don’t know personally, but whose work I admire, I simply seek out their interviews in podcast format. ABC Radio is a great source of interviews with Australian writers, via The Book Shelf, The Book Show and Conversations, as are the excellent podcasts The Garret and The First Time. So all this Zooming has made me think about WHY I attend literary events.

I think that it’s less because of the formal proceedings, and more because of the interesting conversations that follow – with the author when I buy their book, and with the other book-loving attendees. At the last book launch I attended in person I ended up having a good chat with Helen Garner! At writer’s festivals, the same applies. I enjoy listening to the sessions, but I REALLY enjoy meeting new people or bumping into acquaintances in the crush of the coffee queue. To continue my blatant name-dropping, at Bellingen Writers Festival last year I had an impromptu pub dinner with Dr Marcia Langton AO and Dr Jane McCredie, CEO of Writers NSW. Halfway through we were joined by actor and director Rachel Ward AM. Yes, I managed to play it cool – sort of!  And, to be clear, while I know that Jane remembers this dinner very fondly, I very much doubt that Marcia or Rachel do!

So the online book launch I attended, and the online literary event were interesting, but they lacked buzz. I missed the face-to-face interactions of real life, and in this I’m not alone. A friend started up a Zoom book club as we moved into the COVID-19 shutdown. She reports that they were very popular early on, but enthusiasm was waning by the three-month-mark. Many reported that after spending much of the day using Zoom for the day job, the thought of logging-in again in the evening was less than appealing. I can vouch for that, too.

But what of the core purpose of literary launches and events – to sell more books? It appears that Zoom and its ilk have only been a qualified success. Writer and bookseller Krissy Kneen had some super interesting things to say on the topic recently, during a podcast interview. She was pleasantly surprised by the number of sales that livestream events generated but didn’t pretend that those sales were as high as they would have been for a face-to-face event.

So, in essence, livestreamed literary events have been a useful stop-gap but may play a decreasing role as physical distancing restrictions are eased. There is, however and of course, an exception to that rule.

Writers Victoria, in a usual year, hosts large numbers of face-to-face workshops, seminars and events. They adroitly managed to move most of these online and my sources tell me that the number of participants has been pretty much the same as usual. This is impressive, given that fees for a full-day online workshop remain at $155 for members (concessions are available, and non-members pay more) but the sweetener is that most online courses include, afterwards, personalised feedback by the presenter on a piece of writing up to 500 words. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that delivering online sessions often costs much the same as delivering face-to-face sessions. Fee-paying participants can also subsequently access a recording of the session, so they can go back and review what they learned.

The delightful part, though, is that the online workshops have provided access to people who otherwise could not have participated. Attendees have included people from overseas, from interstate, or who for various reasons would have been housebound even without the COVID-19 threat. Apparently there’s a mum with a newborn who has happily attended several! I delivered one of these full-day online workshops and was pleasantly surprised by how interactive it was, and how much we were able to engage with one another. The word is that Writers Victoria will return to face-to-face workshops when they can, but – beyond the shutdown – will continue to provide online workshops too.

And there, for me, lies the answer. As we move beyond a strict shutdown, I hope that we’ll be able to enjoy a blended approach to accessing literary events. By all means hold a live, face-to-face event but livestream or podcast it too. Include separate webinars as an integral part of your festival offerings, alongside face-to-face activities. By doing so, the literary community might become a little more open to the wider community and might become a little more accessible to readers – whoever, or wherever they are.

What do you think?

Michelle Scott Tucker is the author of Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World (Text Publishing, 2018) – a compelling biography of the woman who established the Australian wool industry, even though her husband received all the credit.

Elizabeth Macarthur was shortlisted for both the 2019 State Library of NSW’s Ashurst Prize for Business Literature, and the 2019 CHASS Australia Prize (from the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences).

Michelle is a freelance writer and consultant, with a successful career in government, business and the arts – including a recent stint as Executive Director of the Stella Prize, Australia’s top prize for women writers. She has served as Vice Chair of the Writers Victoria board and is currently one of the organisers behind the inaugural ‘Mountain Writers Festival’. The festival’s focus on the environment, story and place not just as a theme, but as the festival’s entire purpose now and into the future, is unique in Australia. Passionate about Australian literature, history and storytelling, Michelle lives in regional Victoria with her family.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Kate on anxiety, COVID and Aussie lit

Today, I present another Monday Musings guest post coordinated for me by Bill (The Australian Legend), this one from Kate (booksaremyfavouriteand best), she of Six Degrees of Separation fame. Bill suggested a topic to Kate – one applicable to her professional interests and to what we are currently experiencing – and it seems she ran with it!
Thanks so much again to Bill and also to Kate for helping me out and for offering some fresh content for Monday Musings. Read on … and of course we’d love your comments  … How are you coping with COVID-19?

Kate’s post

Had you told me last year that 2020 would bring months of ‘stay at home and bunker down’ time, I would have thought that it sounded like heaven. No more taxiing children around? No more daily commute and peak-hour traffic? Oodles of ‘free’ time to read? Great, sign me up. And true, at the beginning of lockdown, I thought that I would get so much reading done, and therefore so much blogging done…. But that hasn’t happened. Like many bloggers (and people in general), COVID-19 brought with it a level of anxiety that I have not previously experienced.

At the same time as this feeling of anxiety was creeping in, posts on social media popped up about how ‘industrious’ people were being – “I cleaned out my wardrobe!” and “I painted the fence!” and “I’ve finally knitted that jumper I bought wool for three years ago!” and “I’ve learnt Spanish!” and “I’m making my own sourdough #delicious #nomnom!” Huh.

Then came round two of the ‘maximising time’ posts – “My kids are really getting ahead in maths” and “Look at these macarons Master 6 whipped up for afternoon snack”.

Through the noise of painting, craft, calculus and baking, one thing became very clear to me – I can’t possibly write blog posts and worry about a pandemic at the same time. Great for those that can, although I think that’s a very small percentage of people. For most, the industriousness that they’re putting on social media is their anxiety talking. Specifically, when overwhelmed by uncertainty, some people focus on what they can control (such as their sourdough starter, or memorising conjunctions for Spanish verbs), and others (like me), do nothing. Both are defence responses – our reptilian brain relies on fight/ flight/ freeze for survival.

To understand what was happening with blogging, social media, and my lack of reading, I turned to Maslow’s hierarchy. Essentially, we can’t do the ‘self-fulfilment’ stuff when the ‘basics’ are in doubt (and blogging sits in the self-fulfilment category) – with our ‘foundation’ threatened, no wonder we feel anxious.

This is a Monday Musings post, and therefore needs an Australian literature reference. There are plenty of memoirs by Australian authors dealing with anxiety – this year alone I’ve read such books by Clare Bowditch, Georgie Dent and Nicola Redhouse. Equally, there are plenty of memoirs and novels that deal with anxiety in relation to a particular trauma. But what of stories that speak to those bottom rungs on Maslow’s hierarchy? Certainly stories about ‘pioneering’ fit (I’ll defer to other bloggers, such as Bill of The Australian Legend, who have a thorough knowledge of these books). But my mind turned to a book I read thirty years ago (so my memory is sketchy, but significantly, small details have stayed with me) – Amy’s Children by Olga Masters.

Book coverIt’s the story of a young woman living in Sydney during WWII. The War is merely a backdrop – instead, the focus is on Amy and her decision to leave her children in the care of her parents in regional New South Wales, while she goes to Sydney to make a life for herself. Amy puts considerable effort into setting up a home. There’s a slow accrual of ‘things’ – a bed, a wardrobe, a kitchen table – and the coveting of the unobtainable (Amy’s fantasies include “…a little glass fronted cabinet containing a bottle of sherry and fine stemmed glasses and a barrel of wafer biscuits. She would put a match to the gas fire ‘to take the chill off the room’, without having to consider the cost…”). She digs a vegetable garden and meets the neighbours. She gets a job, and begins a relationship.

From memory, much was made of Amy’s ‘selfishness’ and lack of maternal feeling, but does the story read differently through a Maslow lens? Are Amy’s attempts to ‘set up house’ representative of her need to feel secure, both personally and in the context of a world at war? I’ll do a re-read and report back.

In my professional life, I spend a lot of time working with people suffering anxiety. Anxiety tends to be a very specific beast – different things trigger different people – however, the starting point for managing it doesn’t change (I call it ‘mental first-aid’). Basically, get some exercise (preferably with fresh air involved); eat well (I don’t mean lavish, I mean nutritious,  so redirect Master 6 from macarons to paella); sort out your sleep; maintain social connections; and talk with someone if you’re not feeling great. Hopefully, with those things in order, the space for becoming engrossed in a book will return.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Lisa on national library book culls

As I noted in last week’s Monday Musings, Bill (The Australian Legend) has organised a few Monday Musings guests posts for me. Of course, given we comment closely on each other’s posts, he turned to Lisa (ANZLitLovers) for the second one. Bill did suggest an idea to Lisa, in case she needed it, but she found another topic to inspire her. It is a highly relevant one to me as a retired national institution librarian/archivist, so I was more than happy with her suggestion.
Thanks so much again to Bill and Lisa for helping me out and for offering some wonderful new content for Monday Musings.  Read on … and do let us know what you think …

Lisa’s post

Last year, when in New Zealand for the Auckland Writers’ Festival, I visited the Auckland Art Gallery, and was disappointed to find its ’Historic European’ Gallery closed.  From the postcards on sale in the shop we could see that they had some very interesting pieces, so we were a bit disappointed. But at the time we just thought this meant they had stopped collecting European art.  However, from a recent visit to their website, it’s clear that European art has been sidelined.  If you want to see New Zealand and Pacific art, this gallery is the place to go.  But if on the other hand you are a Kiwi student of art history, or merely curious about New Zealand’s international collection as we were…

I thought of this when I came across a more radical policy underway in the New Zealand National Library. In October last year the library announced that they are going to ‘rehome’ 600,000 books to make room for New Zealand and Pacific material, in line with their 2015 Collections Policy.

Yes, that’s right, 600,000 books!

Behind the scenes, libraries have all kinds of policies that affect their acquisitions and deaccessions procedures.  These rarely attract much interest from the public, except for the issue of censorship, or ‘self-censorship’ of certain types of books. (As, for example, when a school library unofficially responds to complaints from religious minorities by not lending books featuring magic such as the Harry Potter series).

Acquisitions and deaccession policies reflect a variety of complex issues which change over time.  No collection is static, and space for underutilised materials is always a problem.

The New Zealand library’s Rachel Esson (Director of Content Services) explains their decision like this:

The overseas published collection is not one single collection but is made up of an assortment of books acquired from a range of sources, some were purchased and some donated to us having been weeded from other libraries. These books were collected to support the library system, to provide access to information that other libraries might not hold. However, around 80% of them have not been issued for 20-30 years which means most of these books are not being used and that means that the library system is telling us that it doesn’t need these books anymore.

To be clear, they are keeping some overseas published books and will continue to purchase more for their collections in focussed areas, which include: library and information science; music; reference works; children’s literature; family history, and print disabilities.

But the removal of 600,000 books is needed to make room for New Zealand and Pacific Materials:

The National Library acquires between 80,000 – 90,000 electronic and print publications a year that consist of New Zealand, Pacific and overseas material.

That makes sense to me, because New Zealand is a wealthy nation and is in a position to be a centre of excellence for the literature of Pacific Island nations which may not have the resources to do it themselves.

But as I know from my own experience as a teacher-librarian, undertaking a cull of underutilised books can be a fraught exercise, because there is always someone who, for sentimental or research reasons, needs that battered copy of a text that seems past its use-by date.  At the same time there will always be people who want to cut a swathe through the entire collection to rid it of books that offend them for one reason or another.  In the feminist Seventies, for instance, there was alarm about the preponderance of male central characters in library collections of children’s literature, and that’s still a problem today.  So is the paucity of characters reflecting Australia’s multiculturalism, its Indigenous past and present, and its LGBTIQ and disabled communities…

The philosophy of inclusion is comparatively new and it keeps changing.  Difficult decisions have to be made around those innocuous words ‘as well as’, ‘instead of’ and ‘proportion’ because these decisions have implication for space, storage, display and especially funding.

For most libraries, the decision to acquire or get rid of a book to make space for others is a decision for the local community and the users.  However, in the case of a national or state library, the rules are different.  They have a statutory obligation, i.e. enshrined in law as ‘deposit legislation’, to acquire and retain the books they have for the benefit of the nation.  According to New Zealand writer and reviewer David Larson, in a lively critique for The Spinoff the relevant Minister has to sign off on the disposal of these 600,000 books.  Amongst other concerns he is alarmed about the process for retention and selection.  There’s more to it than whether the books have been issued within a certain time frame…

The consultation process, Larson says, appears not to have adequate expertise to identify which books are needed for research purposes, and offering them to other New Zealand libraries which have no obligation to keep them is a concern.  Then there are books that are published overseas, but written by New Zealanders:

New Zealanders are, famously, a nation of part-time expats: any number of Kiwis have contributed to this field or that by publishing books while living overseas. So if the goal is to keep “anything that is New Zealand and Pacific related”, that will require identifying a huge corpus of often obscure books published offshore.

Likewise, there are many overseas-published books by non-New Zealanders which touch on New Zealand or Pacific interests, often in ways obvious only to specialists.

Larsen stresses that many of these books are destined not for rehoming, but for destruction, but his article met with a droll riposte from librarian Rebecca Hastie, in a piece also for The Spinoff, ‘Weed in the Dead of Night, a Librarian shares the secrets of book culling’.

To see why it might matter that New Zealand could lose its only copy of a text that’s being offered for ‘rehoming’, I took a look just in the ‘A’ section of the Fiction List (downloaded from here).  For a start, the library is also offloading everything that Jessica Anderson and Thea Astley wrote, so Australian Literature isn’t a priority area for retention.  Too bad if a Kiwi wants to do a PhD in the comparative literature of our two countries.  There were titles I’d love to read by Kingsley Amis, Joan Aiken, Louisa May Alcott, Isaac Asimov, and Margaret Atwood.  Even Jane Austen has to go.  Top of the Bs was a stack of titles by Isaac Babel, which, along with three by Leonid Andreyev, mean that someone in a previous era understood the important of dissident Soviet literature (which is surely still a subject for scholarly attention.)

Lest you think that this is only an issue for this particular library in New Zealand, this week Inside Story is carrying an article called ‘Asia Illiteracy’ about a new collection development policy at the National Library of Australia, which is about to sideline its collections of Southeast and Northeast Asian material:

For almost seven decades, the National Library of Australia has been building one of the world’s most extensive collections of Southeast and Northeast Asian material. The legacy of accumulated investment and collecting by specialist curators, its store of Asian newspapers and periodicals, books, government documents and other rare materials is among the great treasure troves of Asian studies, and the most extensive Asia collection in the Southern Hemisphere. Researchers visit from around the world, and the collection is a foundation stone of decades of effort to build sustained and deep knowledge of Asia at Australian universities.

Now, much of this is to be abandoned. In a new “collection development policy” — the document which lays out what and how the library will collect — the library has dramatically downgraded its emphasis on overseas collecting. It has removed key Asian countries from its list of priorities; it has closed its Asian Collections Room; it has cancelled subscriptions to hundreds of Asian periodicals.

[…]

The new collection development policy makes it clear that the library is turning inward, sharpening the focus on Australian materials. Thankfully, the Asia-Pacific will remain the priority in overseas collecting, but the scope of the reduction leaves only part of the previous Asia strategy intact. Countries that have been a major focus for decades — notably Japan and Korea, and also all the countries of mainland Southeast Asia — have been dropped altogether from the list of priority countries for collecting. 

The catalyst for the New Zealand decision seems to have been the need to deal with a collection in a flood-prone storage facility which is too expensive to replace, while the NLA’s decision, according to Inside Story is forced on them by relentless funding cuts.

It’s always a matter of money…

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Bill on Melbourne and Sydney, 1880-1939

Over the years, I’ve invited people to write guest posts on my blog, including Bill a couple of years ago. However, when Bill (The Australian Legend) became aware of my current family care situation and its impact on my reading and posting, he offered to organise some guest Monday Musings posts for me. It lifted my heart immensely to know that Bill, Lisa and others – as you will see – are willing to help keep this little series of mine going. Thanks so much Bill for taking this in hand. I love that Bill’s post is on a topic dear to my heart (and his). Read on … and do let us know what you think …

Bill’s post

Book coverIn the 1870s and 1880s Melbourne was both Australia’s largest and wealthiest city and its literary centre – around figures like Marcus Clarke, George McCrae (son of Georgianna), Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Kendall, Ada Cambridge, Tasma.

What I want to discuss here is the movement of the literary centre to Sydney and how that worked out, during the first half of the twentieth century. This is an opinion piece rather than the result of any great research so feel free to add to what I say and to correct my mistakes.

Sue has always been interested in the women of this period of Australian writing, and over the past few years we, the Australian Lit.Blogging community, have done a lot to establish in our own minds at least, who the women writers were and to review their work. On my blog, I broke Australian writing into ‘Generations’ more or less in line with HM Green’s ‘Periods’ in his History of Australian Literature, so: Gen 1 1788-1890, Gen 2 1890-1918, Gen 3 1919-1960.

Gen 2 and the first years of Gen 3 were characterized by being both Sydney-centred and seriously misogynist. Gen 2 covered the years of the Sydney Bulletin magazine’s greatest influence, Federation, rising nationalism, WWI.  The Bulletin‘s stable of writers: Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, Steele Rudd, Joseph Furphy and a host of bush poets, and the drawings of Lindsay Norman (who moved up from Melbourne after leaving art school) followed by the War reporting of Keith Murdoch and CEW Bean left us with an indelible image of ourselves as resourceful bushmen, and larrikin fighting men. An image which both excluded women and around which they had to work.

The Bulletin openly scorned home life and dismissed the popular women writers of the previous generation as ‘Melbourne-based romance writers’.

“The Sydney Bulletin liked to believe that in ‘virile cultures’ where ‘home-life [had] not become so all absorbing: ‘men live and struggle and fight out in the open most of the time. When they go to their homes they go to beat their wives…’{3 Nov. 1888} According to the Bulletin, home life trammelled a man’s spirit and sapped his masculinity. And it robbed him of his independence.” (Marilyn Lake, 1986

This bled into Gen 3 and the Lindsay-led Sydney Push of the 1920s, an antipodean Bohemia where women were only of use as models and for sex.

For those of us over, say, 50 our history, including such literary history as got past the anglophile gatekeepers, was written and taught by returned servicemen, and they very much bought into the myths of the lone bushman, mateship etc. So it is important to realise that there is another history, that of strong, independent women, which is not taught. In the 1890s both Melbourne and Sydney had vibrant women’s movements focussed on (white) female suffrage, yes, but also on domestic violence, temperance, and women’s welfare. The Melbourne movement coalesced around Annette Bear and Vida Goldstein, and Sydney around Rosa Scott and Louisa Lawson, and Lawson’s newspaper, Dawn.

Miles Franklin is the prime example of a woman writer who was influenced by the nationalism of the Bulletin but wrote with a definite pro-woman and anti-marriage slant. After the publication and instant success of My Brilliant Career in 1901, Franklin was taken up by Rosa Scott, and then subsequently fell in with Goldstein’s lot when she moved to Melbourne and became life-long friends with Melbourne suffragists Mary Fullerton and Mabel Singleton. Her fictionalised biographies My Career Goes Bung and Cockatoos describe her year in the Sydney literary set, living with Scott, flirting with AB Paterson, and meeting Lindsay and (Bulletin editor) Archibald.

Franklin lived overseas for many years, from 1906 to the 1930s and when she came back for good, to her mother’s house in Sydney, it was to a changed literary scene, one dominated by women. During the 20s women had been excluded from the Sydney Push’s literary magazine, Vision, and maybe only Zora Cross with her erotic poems fitted in with the times. Anne Brennan, daughter of drunken poet Christopher Brennan, who hung around the Lindsay push for grog and sex, and tried to write, tried to fit in and failed. Christina Stead was tempted to join the Push, but her compulsion to earn enough to flee overseas saved her.

The Melbourne scene gathered around Nettie and Vance Palmer. Vance, originally a Queenslander, tried hard to be a writer in the Bulletin tradition but hasn’t stood the test of time. They were friends with Louis and Hilda Esson and with the poet Maurice Furnley. But more importantly Nettie and Hilda had been at school together at Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies College, and subsequently at university. Hilda had been neighbours with Katherine Susannah Prichard’s family and introduced KSP to Nettie. Earlier alumni of PLC included Vida Goldstein and Henry Handel Richardson who, of course, wrote about the school in The Getting of Wisdom.

Nettie, a poet and scholar, maintained an enormous correspondence with a great many Australian writers and was important in maintaining links with expatriates like Richardson.

Sydney women wrote from their homes, isolated from each other until the formation of the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1928 by Mary Gilmore, Steele Rudd and John le Gay Brereton. Later in the 30s the FAW’s most prominent members were Miles Franklin, Marjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davidson.

So what can I say about that fixture of Australian life: Melbourne-Sydney rivalry. Melbourne ‘had’ Katherine Susannah Prichard, but she was living in Perth; Henry Handel Richardson, acknowledged for years as Australia’s best writer, but long since based in England; (the late) Joseph Furphy, writer of the Great Australian Novel, Such is Life; and Nettie Palmer.

Sydney, by the outbreak of WWII, had a blossoming of writers: Kylie Tennant, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, Dymphna Cusack, Eleanor Dark, Ernestine Hill, and Patrick White just setting out. You be the judge.

For a compilation of posts on Australian (mostly) women’s writing up to 1960 see:

  • theaustralianlegend, AWW Gen 1, 1788-1890 (here)
  • theaustralianlegend, AWW Gen 2, 1890-1918 (here)
  • theaustralianlegend, AWW Gen 3, 1919-1960 (here)

Bill Holloway, 25 May 2020

Ros Collins, Rosa: Memories with licence (Author’s response)

Book coverLast October, I reviewed a book by Ros Collins titled Rosa: Memories with licence. As the title suggests, this book is not quite memoir, but neither is it really fiction. My post generated quite some discussion from commenters, which resulted in my saying “Maybe Ros will comment here and answer the questions”. Unfortunately, just as her book was launched, Ros had a sudden hip fracture, resulting in hospitalisation. Now, getting back to normal, she has contacted me saying she’d love to respond to the comments, but that it was long. I suggested making it a separate post. I do hope those commenters see it, and read what she has to say.

First, though, for those interested, she writes that she is well into “a new book based on [her late husband] Alan’s 19th century ancestors. It will be creative non-fiction.” Love it! And now …

Author with her bookFrom Ros Collins …

Some background

My first book, Solly’s girl (2015) was as factually accurate as I was able to research. It was intended to complement my husband Alan’s memoir Alva’s boy (2008). Even before that, he had used his terrible childhood experiences in autobiographical fiction, namely The boys from Bondi which is now part 1 of his trilogy, A promised land? (2001). The eminent critic Fay Zwicky called that ‘a psalm to life’.  It seemed an essential task for me to complete the history of our two families.

Rosa developed out of a number of short stories which undoubtedly accounts for the third person-first person dichotomy. My publisher Louis de Vries and editor Anna Blay at Hybrid, dealt with the anomalies with enormous patience. Three chapters, “Jellied eels”, “Sheyn Meydl” and “Rimonim” were part of my work for an online course in short story writing that I undertook in 2017. By the time I’d read William Trevor, Raymond Carver, Hemingway and many other masters of the genre, I knew it was not for me.

However, ‘Creative non-fiction’ had great appeal. “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.” (Gutkind, Lee. The best creative nonfiction, Vol. 1). I embarked on Rosa with enthusiasm and a great desire to entertain. Like Alan, I also believe in the  power of humour and only wish I had greater skills.

Response to the comments

 ‘… worn out with fictionalised Australian Jewish memoirs…’  was one I could easily relate to. I was director of Makor Jewish Community Library (now the Lamm Jewish Library of Australia). One of my proudest achievements was to establish the ‘Write your Story’ program whereby I hoped the community ‘would be able to write its own history’. To date more than 150 memoirs have been published. I believe the comprise the largest such series in the world. Inevitably, as Melbourne has so many Holocaust survivor families, the tragedy of the Shoah features prominently. It is however a multicultural series: memoirs have been written about Jewish life in Egypt, Argentina, England – and Australia.

So as far as Australian Jewish literature is concerned, it seems to be overwhelmingly preoccupied with Holocaust memoir or peeks into the exotic world of heavy duty orthodoxy. Sephardi or Spanish-Jewish history has also afforded subjects for writers: People of the book comes to mind.  But Anglo-Australian-Jewish writing is very limited. One of your commentators mentioned Judah Waten. He mentored Alan and urged him to write his first book of short stories, Troubles (1983), which was highly commended in the Alan Marshall awards.  Waten, Morris Lurie, Serge Liberman, et al, born here or not, all write out of the European tradition; the migrant/survivor experience is very much to the fore. Alan’s ancestors arrived either on a convict transport or later as free settlers in the 1800s and Rosa (me of course) is British, a ‘ten-pound Pom’ who in the 1950s wore white gloves to visit the ‘city’. Anglos. And this difference makes for confusion. It’s unlikely that your readers are familiar with communal conflicts but I’ll just open the subject by pointing out that the Jewish Anglo community in Australia was ‘more British than the British’. For many of them the mother country was still considered ‘home’, and ‘the Empire’ really mattered! The ‘reffos’ – the migrants – were often disparaged, even despised. To get a picture, don’t bother with the history books, read Alan, much more digestible and he makes the reader laugh as well as cry.

Your readers mention the Americans and British including towering figures such as Roth and Jacobson, both of whom are favourites of mine. They would doubtless be puzzled by the fact that many local Jews couldn’t warm to Jacobson’s The Finkler question [see my review] which I greatly admire. I imagine it’s the British connection. I understand how difficult it is for the mythical ‘general reader’ to come to grips with Jewish lit in all its complex variety. It helps to remember the profoundly different histories. Australian, American and British Jews are far from being all of a piece. Howard Jacobson for example has been exasperated by critics who have called him ‘the British Phillip Roth’; he retorts that Jane Austen is a far greater influence. Australian reviewers have found shades of Dickens in Alan’s work.

I’d like to  mention some helpful titles which have impressed me, authors who have made me think about identity and heritage, my place ‘down here at the bottom of the world’ as I said in 1957.

On being Jewish by Rabbi Julia Neuberger is straightforward, accessible and sensible. Baroness Neuberger, a member of the House of Lords, is a Reform rabbi (the first woman to head her own congregation in Britain), a tireless worker for social justice and progressive values. She’s younger than me but we share some knowledge of Anglo-Jewish life in the 1950s. Her ancestry is German-Jewish; her ‘British-ness’ is rather like my own.

Jews and words by the eminent Israeli writer Amos Oz and his daughter, historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, is a wonderful ‘blend of storytelling and scholarship, conversation and argument’; it also includes some great jokes.  What I like so much about this book is the way the authors introduce themselves:  At this early stage we need to say loud and clear what kind of Jews we are.  Both of us are secular Jewish Israelis. And then this, As Jewish atheists, we take religion to be a great human invention. ‘Jewish atheists’ must be very confusing for some  readers!  

Closer to home is Australian genesis: Jewish convicts and settlers 1788-1850 (1974) by J. S.  Levi and G. Bergman. It is eminently readable and beautifully illustrated. It should never have been allowed to go out of print but most libraries will have a copy. Rabbi John Levi is of ‘Anglo’ heritage and is a most sensitive and compassionate scholar. His reference book, These are the names: Jewish lives in Australia 1788-1850 (2013) is an invaluable guide to the lives of the more than 1600 Jews who came to Australia in that early period. It has been fascinating for me to read the transcript of the trial at the Old Bailey of ‘our’ 17-year old convict. He became a respectable citizen in Goulburn and the local ‘Hebrew congregation’ would meet in his store for ‘champagne suppers’ to celebrate Royal Family events back in the mother country.

An essential guide to Australian-Jewish literature is Serge Liberman’s monumental Bibliography of Australian Judaica (2011).

Did I have a ‘plan’?  Was it all ‘true’?  Did I want to protect others?  No, yes and no. I wrote Rosa because I wanted to. Isn’t that how most writers operate? The events I’ve dramatized are true but obviously I am unable to replicate conversations that took place in the past. ‘Licence’ was a word suggested to me by my kind mentor Karenlee Thompson who has written so movingly about bush fires in Flame Tip [see my review].  For example, I know my maternal grandfather went AWOL from the army of Czar Alexander and I’m guessing he was forcibly conscripted like so many other little Jewish boys at the age of 12 and couldn’t contemplate another 25 years of army life. I know he received letters from his sister in Kiev until in 1941 they suddenly ceased, and I’m assuming my great-aunt perished with 34,000 others in the massacre at the ravine of Babi Yar. And, as I write in the book, I have no wish ever to set foot in Eastern Europe. Israel is another very different matter.

Sue, you conclude your review with a most perceptive paragraph:  Rosa, then, is a warm-hearted, open-minded “memoir” written by an Anglo-Australian Jewish woman for whom being Jewish, as for many I believe, is as much, if not more, about history and heritage as god and religion. In this book, Collins interrogates her family’s past, and her late husband’s story, in order to come to a better understanding of herself, and of what she would like to pass on to the next generation. This book is testament to that soul-searching, and makes good reading for anyone interested in the life-long business of forming identity, Jewish or otherwise.

I never set out to be an apologist for my heritage and it has been a surprise to learn that so many readers have found Rosa ‘enlightening’, an opportunity to see the variety in my community. The misconceptions are often funny but also appalling at a time when intolerance and racism are on the rise in this ‘lucky country’.  So I shall end here with two stories about electricians:

My electrician who is an intelligent much-travelled man asked me: Won’t you get into trouble with your rabbi for not wearing a wig? He was amazed that I laughed and even more surprised to learn that rabbis really have little authority – they’re teachers – and although I seldom attend a service I cannot be disenfranchised.

My son’s electrician had a much more sinister question. Pointing to the mezuzah on the doorpost of my son’s house he asked:  It’s full of blood, isn’t it?  My son, completely secular, Vietnam vet, non-kosher, a painter – and a proud Jew – replied:  Of  course it isn’t, there’s little piece of paper inside with a prayer and blessing written on it; I’ll take it down and show you. But the electrician was horrified:  Ooh no, don’t do that, we’d better not touch.

And that, Sue, is how it all starts with rubbish like that, words that lead to swastika flags in Beulah and book burning …

If in Rosa I can open some windows I think it’s a good thing.

And so do I. Thanks very much Ros for appearing out of the blue with this warm, open and informative response to the comments on my post. I look forward to seeing your next book!

Sharlene Teo, Ponti (Guest post by Rosalind Moran) (#BookReview)

Last year as in the two previous years of the ACT Litbloggers/New Territory program, I offered the participants the opportunity to write a guest post for my blog. As a result Emma Gibson wrote a post on Randolph Stow’s Tourmaline, while Amy Walters suggested we do a 2018 Year in Review posts on each other’s blogs. This year, Rosalind Moran (check out her website) offered a book review on Singaporean author, Sharlene Teo, which of course I accepted as I’m happy to increase the diversity of authors covered on my blog.

Here is Rosalind’s post …

Book coverI haven’t read many books by Singaporean authors. Nevertheless, I am always keen to read more writing from beyond the traditional confines of the Anglosphere. So when I stumbled across Ponti in a bookstore after payday, I thought: why not?

Ponti was already vaguely on my radar. The debut novel had its London-based Singaporean author win the 2016 Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award before even being published (the award serves to support authors as they finish their first book). Since being released, it has been shortlisted for multiple prizes. Even Ian McEwan called the book “remarkable”. Naturally, my interest was piqued.

Ponti explores the lives of three interconnected women. There’s the cold and beautiful Amisa, who evokes the archetype of an enchantress; her pinched and unhappy daughter, Szu, who struggles to connect with others, least of all her mother; and Szu’s schoolmate, the privileged and acerbic Circe. As Amisa wallows in bitterness and begins to waste away, Szu and Circe develop a claustrophobic friendship – one that leaves Circe reckoning with her memories of it long after it has ended.

The novels switches between the perspectives of the three characters as well as between different points in time in their shared and separate histories. One quickly realises this book is focused not so much on detailing elaborate plotlines, but rather on deepening its characters. That said, it remains an engaging read throughout, simply owing to the compelling nature of the three women telling the story. What’s really behind each of their unique states of unhappiness, and how do their futures unfurl?

As the story unfolds, Amisa’s history emerges as the strongest plotline, perhaps because her experiences sow the environment in which Szu and Circe’s own troubles flourish. Indeed, she is the novel’s pivotal character, with her flaws, frustrations and traumas colouring all those with whom she comes into contact – and she is intriguing from the start. An unearthly beauty, she is introduced to the reader as a reclusive former actress, one of waning fame, whose defining moment was that of playing the lead in a trilogy of cult horror movies: Ponti 1, 2 and 3. Her role as the Pontianak, a predatory monster disguised as a beautiful woman, also comes to mirror her ongoing experience of moving through the world. Amisa is simultaneously desired and despised, even by her own family, and is ultimately a restless figure. She also effectively comes to haunt Szu and Circe.

I enjoyed many aspects of Ponti. Teo’s writing is strong and evocative, with characters frequently seeing their surrounds through a tinge of disgust and criticism; while these emotions do not in themselves make the writing strong, they do render it visceral and memorable. It was a pleasure to read a book where the characters’ homes, from the Malaysian village where Amisa grows up to the cosmopolitan Singapore, were drawn so distinctly. Through these strong descriptions, the book also manages to voice a subtle critique of how quickly and irreversibly the south-east Asian metropolis has changed over a few short decades, bringing both pressures and opportunities. In this sense, Pontiis a treat.

Characterisation is also a highlight of the novel – indeed, one could argue the novel is essentially one large exercise in characterisation. Teo’s focus on her characters’ interiorities makes them lifelike and compelling. Their interpersonal relationships, which often blur the boundaries between love, hate, and co-dependency, are also striking, with Szu and Circe’s friendship in particular standing out. Teo is masterful in her depiction of teen angst and complex female friendships, to the degree that her writing brings to mind a grungier Elena Ferrante. I also greatly enjoyed the book’s exploration of Indonesian and Malay mythology through the figure of the Pontianak, and the way this is used as a springboard into an exploration of broader ideas around perceptions of women and how they relate to men.

In the end, the novel’s only real shortcoming was – regrettably – the plot. For most of the book, this didn’t matter: the writing and characters are deeply engaging and I enjoyed simply following the story as it unfolded. Towards the end, however, it became clear the book was not going to resolve several of the questions that had helped build tension and momentum throughout its pages, or at least not do so adequately. In this sense, Ponti feels somewhat like a missed opportunity – because while ambiguity and character-driven plot can be done well, in this case, the story ended up feeling rushed in its final pages and retrospectively underdeveloped as a whole. It’s a shame, considering the book’s characters, setting, and writing are all so strong.

Nevertheless, Ponti remains an intriguing and thought-provoking read, and one that will rightly earn Sharlene Teo many avid fans; while her debut novel may not be perfect, it’s still well worth reading and suggests a great deal of promise. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for whatever she writes next.

Sharlene Teo
Ponti
London: Simon & Schuster, 2019
304pp.
ISBN-13: 978-1501173127

Thanks to Rosalind for an engaging and interesting review. Novel endings are a challenge, we know. Just ask EM Forster who wrote about it in Aspects of the novel. How many authors have changed the endings – even Jane Austen did for Persuasion – and how many readers question endings? Rosalind and I would love your thoughts on her review and/or on endings in general.

Hobart Writers Festival 2019, Part 2: Guest post

And now for the second and final part of my brother Ian Terry’s 2019 Hobart Writers Festival experience. The eagle-eyed among you will notice that this report is much shorter than yesterday’s. This is because Ian went to four sessions on Saturday, and two on Sunday.

Part 2: Sunday 15 September

Book coverDay two dawned with a fascinating conversation between award winning novelist Amanda Lohrey and academic and writer, Jenna Mead. Mead has published an edited version of Caroline Leakey’s 1859 novel, The Broad Arrow: Being Passages from the History of Maida Gwynnham, a Lifer. Lohrey and Mead argue that the novel is one of the most significant works in Australian literature as one of the first novels to describe the convict experience and very rare in having a woman as its main protagonist.

Originally published in two volumes after Leakey’s four year stay in Hobart, it was edited and reissued in 1886 and remained in print until 2000. Mead has restored the original version and argues that while the 1886 edit was brilliant and made it a very saleable work, the original was a deeply political work which showed what it is to live in a convict society where cook’s, servants, nannies, gardeners and a large proportion of people encountered were convicts. It reveals what the daily life of a citizen in a convict society looks like and the role this had in forming a national life with multiple generations inheriting the legacy created. Leakey’s main character is a strong protagonist, a woman of spirit and integrity who is nonetheless worn away by years of refusing to surrender to the system.

While many of the passages excised in 1886 were religious in nature, Mead assures modern readers that these are important, an excoriating critique of Christianity as it was practised in contravention of the true spirit of the religion. The novel is about women and their essential role in forming culture and social life. Lohrey noted that unlike much historical fiction which she is on record as disliking this Leakey’s work written at the time has the feel of authenticity. Leakey kept her eyes and ears open during her visit to her sister in Van Diemen’s Land, eavesdropping on conversations and observing just how the society operated – the result being this newly re-published volume.

Rohan Wilson and Heather Rose

Wilson and Rose (Photo: Ian Terry)

My finale was an engaging conversation between award-winning novelists Heather Rose and Rohan Wilson discussing the latter’s recent book, Daughter of Bad Times. Wilson began by arguing that his novel, a love story (not, he emphasised, a romance) set in 2075 in which climate refugees live and work in a corporatized migration detention centre near Tasmania’s Port Arthur, is not dystopian. Dystopias, he told the audience, inhabit a world which is barely imaginable in its horror and disfunction. His 2075 can already be seen in the current trajectory of increasing global temperatures and sea level rise, and in corporate and government policy where citizenship is commodified, laws are crafted to service the demands of corporations, surveillance is unremitting and protest is outlawed.

Book coverWilson talked about the influence of Cormac McCarthy on his writing and the challenges of writing outside your culture and experience – his main protagonists are a Maldivian refugee and a Japanese-American woman. Both he and Rose underlined that while they can never fully comprehend the experience of being from another culture or ethnic group, artists have to be able to imagine themselves into other worlds and bodies, albeit following sufficient research and with sensitivity. Otherwise, Wilson suggested, he could only write about middle-class, middle-aged white guys and what does he and society learn from that. While he accepted that he could never wholly understand the world view of a young Islamic man from the Maldives, Wilson said that he thought it important that he bear witness to the catastrophe that climate change is for that low lying island nation with a 2500 year civilisation that faces annihilation within the next century. An interesting and vexed current conversation, of course, which will continue to exercise us all.

The conversation concluded with a discussion of the importance of Australia Council writing grants, which both authors have been recipients of. Wilson observed that Australian authors rely on such grants to write the books which provide an important window into our culture. For literature, indeed art, to thrive the grant system needs to be maintained without reduction.

________________________________

I don’t know about you, but I have enjoyed these posts. I’ve particularly enjoyed seeing references in both posts to that issue of writing outside of one’s own experience. I liked Rohan Wilson’s point that it’s important to bear witness to critical issues – in this case the impact of climate change on the Maldives – and, in yesterday’s post, Ian Broinowski’s mention of how he handled the indigenous Australian voice issue. Other points that interested me included poet Pete Hay’s provocative assertion that poetry can’t be put to political causes – really?! – and Rohan Wilson’s definition of dystopias, which is tighter than mine.

What do you think?

Meanwhile, thanks so much Ian for sharing your Festival with me (and us). I really appreciate the effort and have enjoyed experiencing the festival vicariously.

Hobart Writers Festival 2019, Part 1: Guest post

No, I didn’t go to this year’s Hobart Writers Festival, but I had the next best thing – a brother who did. Not only that, but he responded positively to my request for some notes. I’ll be posting what he so-called “cobbled” together today and tomorrow, which means no Monday Musings this week. I hope – and believe – that you’ll find his report a worthy replacement.

By way of introduction, my brother Ian Terry has lived in Tasmania for well over three decades now, and recently retired after around 10 years as a curator of history at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. We have been discussing our reading most of our adult lives. It’s a connection that means a lot to me,  because I respect his thoughts and interpretations (despite his not being a Jane Austen fan!)

Part 1: Saturday 14 September

Tasmanian readers and writers have had a mixed week. On the cusp of publishing its 40thanniversary edition of the state’s well-regarded literary magazine, Island learned that its funding from Arts Tasmania has not been renewed for 2020. Unless it can find new sources of funding this celebratory issue will be the magazine’s last.

On a happier note Hobart’s historic Hadley’s Orient Hotel, in recent years positioning itself as a significant cultural space in the city, hosted the Hobart Writers Festival this weekend. The festival has a had a chequered history, sometimes held annually, sometimes bi-annually at varying venues and with changing names. This record suggests that while Tasmania takes its art and culture seriously and has a vibrant and important scene, the state’s small population creates recurring financial difficulties.

This festival’s theme, My Tasmanian Landscape, promised a program all about ‘Tasmania’s amazing literary landscape’ to celebrate ‘our diverse writers and writing’. While it is too long since I ventured into the Hobart Writers Festival, this edition did not disappoint with several sessions a balm to my historian’s soul offering me tempting choices.

Book coverOn the first morning Henry Reynolds was in conversation with Ian Broinowski, author of a historical fiction entitled The Pakana Voice: Tales of a War Correspondent from Lutruwita (Tasmania) 1814-1856. Broinowski whose grandfather and father were both editors of the local newspaper, The Mercury, invents a colonial journalist, W.C., reporting on the frontier war that raged in Tasmania, but with sympathies lying on the Aboriginal side of the frontier. W.C. writes his despatches from an Aboriginal point of view, upending the usual way of reading history and forcing us to consider the colonial experience from the other side of the frontier. Acknowledging that as a non-indigenous person he could not truly represent an Aboriginal voice, Broinowski consulted the well-known Tasmanian Aboriginal writer puralia meenamatta Jim Everett and began the session by thanking him for his assistance and for changing the way he thought about Tasmania’s history.

The conversation touched on many issues, particularly on language, representation and the free press, matters as pertinent today as in the early 19thcentury. W.C. has a trusty canine companion Bent, a nod to early Tasmanian newspaper editor, Andrew Bent, who is regarded as the founder of Australia’s free press for his strident opposition to government control of newspapers. Words and language, Reynolds reminded us, configure the way we regard our history, drawing attention, as an example, to the procession of 26 weapon-carrying Aboriginal men and women through Hobart in early 1832. Although usually portrayed as having surrendered to colonial power Reynolds observed that captives do not commonly proceed to a Governor’s residence spears in hand. Words matter.

In a moving finale, Broinowski asked readers of his book to think about the people depicted on its cover – Aboriginal Tasmanians as drawn by John Glover – as the original owners of the soil and victims of the violence of the frontier.

History underpinned the next session which saw the launch of the inaugural Van Diemen History Prize, initiated by Forty South Publishing, at the suggestion of historian Dr Kristyn Harman. Judges Kristyn Harman, Imogen Wegman and Nick Brodie joined winner Paige Gleeson and highly commended authors Tony Fenton and Terry Mulhern on a panel discussing history writing in general and the authors’ essays in particular.

Brodie observed that much of Tasmanian history could be categorised as myth, and commended Gleeson for exploring and exploding the much-repeated myth of a bunch of rowdy female convicts (the so-called Flash Mob) mooning Governor Sir John Franklin and his wife, Jane Lady Franklin, at the Cascade Female Factory in 1844. In her thoughtful and entertaining response, Gleeson noted that, as an academic historian, writing popular history was alien to her, so she consulted the seer of all modern knowledge, Google, to get some tips. ‘Do not write about historiography,’ she was sternly advised, ‘nobody wants to read about writing about writing history’. ‘Rubbish,’ she thought and proceeded to do just that, exploring how myths come into being and how, while not wholly accurate, they can hold kernels of truth that point to a larger social reality.

In similarly entertaining mode, Tony Fenton informed the audience that writing about the minutiae of weather, the environment and times encountered by hapless scientists who journeyed to Bruny Island and remote Port Davey to view the eclipse of the sun in May 1910 was critical to his story, because otherwise it would be boring ‘as nothing happened’. Four weeks of drizzle, rain and grey skies did not abate and the eclipse was impossible to see. School children in Queenstown, on the other hand, despite the town’s soggy reputation, enjoyed rapidly clearing skies and a good view of the event.

Terry Mulhern’s essay is more sombre, telling us of the last days, even hours of early 19thcentury Henry Hellyer who took his own life 1832. Mulhern told us that he was able to draw on his own early experience of depression to empathise with the turmoil that led Hellyer down his fatal path.

Finally, in answering a question from the floor, Imogen Wegman reminded us that historical myth-breaking takes courage and could be controversial. For female historians, she suggested, this is even more difficult as women were not meant to rock the boat.

My third session took me on a journey from 1820s India and Tasmania’s Derwent Valley to the state’s Fingal Valley in the 1930s as Henry Reynolds discussed the lives, nature writing and linkages between Elizabeth Fenton and her great great grand-daughter, Anne Page with Margaretta Pos. Pos, a former Mercury journalist and ‘plain writer’ in her own words, has written about Elizabeth Fenton and published the teen-aged journal of own mother Anne Page.

Both women wrote lyrically about Tasmania’s natural world. Page called herself a ‘bush rat’ and lovingly described the valley in which she lived with its presiding presence, Tasmania’s second highest peak Ben Lomond. She listed animals sighted, including the thylacine, and like Fenton decried the destruction of old growth forest and the environment in general.

Reynolds noted that while many historians have argued that it took several generations for Australians to grow a deep sense of place and love for their new home, in Tasmania this happened very quickly as evidenced by the writing of women such as Fenton. He also suggested that Page’s love of nature was fostered by her being educated at home on the Fingal Valley farm rather than at school where education focussed away from Tasmania.

In conclusion, Pos reported that she asked her mother, who died aged 97, whether she had ever wanted to write books. ‘I was going to write eight books,’ Anne Page replied, ‘but had eight children instead’.

Dissident poets and story-tellers Sarah Day, Cameron Hindrum, Pete Hay, Ruth Langford and Gina Mercer, rounded out my day one sessions by discussing the role of poets as activists. Hindrum stated that Tasmanians have a genetic predisposition ‘not to take any crap’ and quoted Bertolt Brecht who, writing about dictatorship, asked, ‘Why were their poets silent?’

Unconvinced by Brecht’s question, Hay, a poet, academic and activist, provocatively opined that poets puff themselves up, that with their tiny and declining audience they cannot be activist by writing alone. Poetry, he said, is elusive and enigmatic and so cannot be put to political cause, although he did concede that writers have a role to bear witness and cut through political sloganeering. He finished by telling us that poetry rewires the brain by bending the rules of language, and read a moving poem about driving through clear-felled land near Laughing Jack Lagoon in central Tasmania – It’s no laughing matter, Jack – the poem concluded.

Day countered Hay’s thesis by remembering the writer/poet/activist Judith Wright and quoting Emily Dickinson’ lines, Tell all the truth/but tell it slant. Mercer drew on her own history of childhood trauma telling the audience that poetry became her solace and her voice, her way of speaking the unspeakable, of being activist in the cause of women’s and environmental rights by transforming silence into words and action. She spoke of poetry as providing reflective activism.

Langford, a Yorta Yorta woman who grew up in Tasmania, confessed that she was a dissident by birth and a story-teller rather than a poet, and that she had engaged in much activism in her life, chaining herself to machinery and scaling corporate buildings to hang protest banners. Life as an activist she said was one of hate and division, of us and them. Now eschewing direct activism, she argued that our current predicament required intelligence to heal the planet and society, with words and poetry providing powerful vehicles for this.

Jennifer Down, Pulse points (Guest post by Amanda) (#BookReview)

Amanda is on a roll, reading several Aussie women writers, so when she offered me a review of Jennifer Down’s collection of short stories, Pulse points, of course I said yes. I love her opening explanation of why she loves short stories – I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Amanda’s review

Jennifer Downs, Pulse pointsI love short stories. They can be an introduction to literature, restore your faith in fiction and inspire awe in a mere few pages.  The good ones shed light on the human condition – who we are, what we do and why we do it. The great ones perceive and portray human complexity in original and vivid colours.

Pulse Points is a collection of 14 short stories by Jennifer Down, pulse points being the metaphor for emotional life changing moments. The stories are of varying quality. At best Down has a keen ear for dialogue, well-rounded characterisation and with sensitive depiction of issues. The stories are not plot driven, they do not deal with large macro political issues, no biting satire, no morphing magical realism and no laugh out loud moments. That is not a bad thing. That is just not Down’s style.

Instead the stories are focused on brief periods, sometime even moments, of the characters’ lives which are used to explore universal themes: loss, mourning, the treatment of women, rural isolation, disfranchisement and childhood neglect appear several times. These are stories about humanity.

Down utilises a traditional treatment of the short story form, the timeframe is largely linear with some flashbacks. The voices are polyphonic, switching between first and third person.

For my tastes, there were too many discordant stories and the linkage between the main title and the stories was too loose. I have been influenced by the style of Elizabeth Strout where characters in her short stories (Olive Kitteridge and Anything is possible) not only appear consistently though the novel linking one story to another but also providing an alternate prospective. Similarly, Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of maladies) can write distinct, unconnected short stories but her ability to stick to an overarching theme is more disciplined.

As such Pulse points is best treated as a “pick and mix” rather than being read as a whole in one sitting.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Down is quoted as saying “If I’m trying to bring attention to a particular moment, a point of tension or an image, you need to let it have a bit of space, to let it breathe. So, for me, having a more economical approach to language is one way of trying to achieve that.” Pulse points is populated with pared-down prose, but that is different from narrative restraint.

To that end, I prefer the stories in the collection that do not rely on melodramatic plot devices, sudden improbable violence or tragedy to propel the narrative. In some cases, the violent event jars the pacing of the story and interrupts the crescendo, distracting the reader and making one question the focus of the story (the eponymous “Pulse points” and “Vaseline”). For deft pacing and the seamless use of fictional violence (or the threat of) – George Saunders (Victory lap) and Flannery O’Connor come to mind.

Down’s strongest pieces are gentle, subtle explorations of profound themes using quotidian details and sound so authentic, they could be autobiographical:  in “Convalescence” dealing with the imbalance in a relationship, the sifting power balance and the sacrifice both partners endure. In “Pressure okay, Down manages to convey the gently mourning of the loss of a spouse who served as the conduit for an endearing father to understand his feisty adult daughter. “Turncoat” similarly explores the slow burn of mid-life crisis. Like most readers, I love recognising myself in characters, creating empathy and the sense of being understood.

She is at her best when dealing with sensitive, analytical, educated characters; less so when she tries to portray the mindless rage and violence of teenage boys in “Dogs” (the weakest piece). The narrative is too brief and too horrific to allow any three-dimensional view of the characters or their motivation.

Similarly, those stories set in Australia or dealing with Australians aboard (“Convalescence” and “Aokigaraha“) resonate more than pieces set in the US (“Vaseline” and “Eternal father”) where Down does not have the vernacular or familiarity to make the characters sound genuine. As a reader I was grappling for place names or dialogue to try to identify which country the story was taking part in to give the mind a sense of location and what to expect of the characters.

Some of her writing is wholly original, comparing the contents of a women’s handbag to the movements at the bottom of the seabed and at other times – “she dyed her hair the colour of sunshine” – her writing is more prosaic. Frequently, her stories end too abruptly, another paragraph or two even in a vignette could provide direction and closure for the reader.

A reader can tell that a lot of work has gone into crafting and refining these stories and it shows. But Down is still a very young writer and compared to more assured short story collections this falls short. This is Down’s second publication. Her first, the Magic hour is a widely acclaimed novel. I look forward to her future works.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJennifer Downs
Pulse points
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017
240pp.
ISBN: 9781925355970

 

 

Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island (Guest post by Amanda) (#BookReview)

Late last year I hosted a review of Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic by Amanda who had responded to my call on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for reviews of it and Jamie Marina Lau’s Pink Mountain on Locust Island, which won the 2018 Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Readings Residency Award, and was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction.  Amanda offered to write reviews of both, and so, as with Axiomatic, I am hosting Amanda’s review, so that it can then be added to the AWW database. Thanks very much – again – Amanda!

Synopsis of Pink Mountain on Lotus Island

From publisher The Lifted Brow’s website:

“Monk lives in Chinatown with her washed-up painter father. When Santa Coy—possible boyfriend, potential accomplice—enters their lives, an intoxicating hunger consumes their home. So begins a heady descent into art, casino resorts, drugs, vacant swimming pools, religion, pixelated tutorial videos, and senseless violence.”

Amanda’s review

Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Lotus IslandTwenty-year-old Lau’s debut novel is simultaneously innovative, surreal, disjointed and funny. At her best she writes like a stand-up routine; at her worst, though, she veers into the bizarre and nonsensical: “cardigan metropolis and a hushed voice millennia”; “he was in a creme brulee mood”. I don’t get it either. The chapters are divided into numerous short vignettes and sequences, some only a sentence long and follow a linear timeline. It’s a book for the social media and internet age – perhaps written for those just getting used to reading serious prose after the word limits on Twitter.

Its protagonist Monk is 15, and living with her Xanax-addicted former Art lecturer Dad after the departure of her Mum. It could be set in any urban metropolis with a bustling Chinatown. Along comes the love interest Santa Coy (also a developing artist) and then things get complicated.

There is a narrative though that can be followed, and it is cinematic so you can visually follow her discussions around what makes Art and what people will sacrifice for it, the difficulties of human relationships, and cross cultural complexities.

Food is another obsession – its preparation, consumption, description of, e.g. Yum Cha – and some bizarre discussions. What is the difference physically and philosophically between turnips and yams? Turnips are lively and yams are brooding. Obviously, if you didn’t know this you have to visit the same supermarkets as Monk does. [Haha, love this Amanda.]

Some plot twists are unbelievable and her non-traditional use of metaphors and language often fall flat. Lau (who also makes music under the pseudonym ZK King, hence the musical references in the novel) stated in an interview that she often has several browsers open while writing – reading articles, listening to music etc – and this multimedia multi-tasking is what comes across in her writing and original use of language.

Lau described Monk as the most sincere female character she had created – and that is the strength of this novel, Lau’s authentic portrayal of her teenage Monk as a composite of angst, joy, confusion, curiosity and strength. You just need to get through some bizarre distractions to discover this.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJamie Marina Lau
Pink Mountain on Locust Island
Brow Books, 2018
244pp.
ISBN: 9780994606884