Julian Barnes, Elizabeth Finch (#BookReview)

Julian Barnes’ Elizabeth Finch is a curious book. It’s my fourth Julian Barnes, and the third I’ve read with my reading group. In 1995 we read A history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters, and in 2012 it was his Booker Prize winning The sense of an ending (my review). (I have also read his curious but enjoyable Pedant in the kitchen.) All have intrigued me, for different reasons.

Elizabeth Finch tells the story of a man’s fascination with an inspirational teacher, the eponymous Elizabeth Finch, who taught an adult education class on Culture and Civilisation. This man is Neil, our first person narrator, and he maintains a friendship with EF (as he refers to her), through semi-regular lunches, until her death some two decades later. Through Neil’s memories of the class and his reading of EF’s papers that she’d bequeathed him, Barnes explores various ideas, including how we live our lives (particularly in terms of friendship and love), and the impact and thrust of history (primarily through considering the so-called last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate). (Interestingly, the protagonist in The sense of an ending is also bequeathed personal writing.)

The novel, while told chronologically, is quirky in form. Part One comprises Neil’s introduction to EF, up to her death; Part Two contains Neil’s “essay” on Julian the Apostate (who was significant to EF’s ideas); and Part Three returns to Neil, now focusing on trying to understand EF with a view to possibly writing a memoir/biography. Here, he also catches up with old student friend, and ex-lover, Anna, who does enliven the book. In a sense, the novel reminded me a little of J.M. Coetzee’s tricksy books, like Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a bad year (my review), because they also tread this strange fiction/nonfiction, novel/philosophy ground.

At this point, I’m going to depart a little from my usual approach, and share some of my reading group’s discussion, because the book book engendered widely divergent reactions. They fell into three groups. One member loved it, describing it as a dense, compact novel which takes readers down interesting paths. She enjoyed thinking about Julian the Apostate, and what might have happened had he prevailed, and she enjoyed reading about the wide range of thinkers who have pondered Julian over time. A couple actively disliked it or were “very disappointed”. They felt the novel had some interesting threads but found it simplistic, repetitive, disjointed. They didn’t like the EF character, and one described the novel as “an ordinary study of a crush on an ordinary woman”. The rest of us, including me, had mixed feelings. Our reactions varied but we all found things to like (or be intrigued by) as well as dislike (or be mystified by). I won’t share all our ideas, but a couple of us felt that the book read like something that Barnes wanted to “get off his chest” at this stage in his life. (He’s 76). A couple of us particularly enjoyed the discussions of Epictetus and of history.

The book’s narrator, Neil, was problematic for some, but I rather liked his self-deprecatory tone, the sense of bumbling along as a middle-aged British male. Neil is not Barnes, but I wondered if reflects Barnes’ self-assessment or, at least, a recognition of how he and his peers are viewed in the current age. It is tempting, actually, to see an autobiographical element to the novel, because EF was apparently inspired by the late British novelist Anita Brookner. She had beaten Barnes in the 1984 Booker Prize, but they had subsequently become friends and had lunched semi-regularly after that. I have read (and enjoyed) several of Brookner’s novels and can imagine her being somewhat like EF, who was “high-minded, self-sufficient, European” and “whose vocabulary was drawn from the same word-box she used for both writing and general conversation”. (Brookner’s books aways send me to the dictionary!)

What might Barnes have wanted to get off his chest? This is where I came unstuck a little. As I started reading the book, it felt like the elder Barnes wanting to work through long-pondered ideas, but what exactly were they? As the novel progressed, I felt less certain. Is Barnes – ironically perhaps – emulating EF, and throwing out seemingly random ideas for us all to consider. However, there are, actually, recurrent threads. One concerns whether the world might have been better had “history” fallen out differently. This is where Julian the Apostate comes in, because early in the novel EF poses the idea that Julian’s defeat in 363 was “the moment when European history and civilisation took a calamitous wrong turn” (p. 31), it being the moment when Christianity defeated paganism/Hellenism. I wondered if the novel was going to be an anti-Christianity treatise, but it’s not exactly. EF raises many questions – but she also draws some long bows. I think Barnes challenges us to think about this.

Anyhow, history is one of the book’s central concerns, which is not surprising, given Barnes’ age and the ideas that have underpinned his writing to date. I have only read three of his novels but from those, I’ve gathered that he likes to interrogate, often playfully, the slipperiness of life and relationships, culture and history. So, in this novel, he explores what we believe and who we rely on, when it comes to history (and that related field, biography). In his Julian essay, which some in my group found lifeless, Neil describes how perspectives on Julian’s role and significance varied over time. He’s been either completely ignored, or seen as the cause of all ills, or held up as a model for good thinking.

History, in other words, is “fallible”. It’s “for the long haul … not inert and comatose … [but] active, effervescent, at times volcanic”. This is not new, but worth repeating all the same.

EF also shares with the class an idea she attributes to Ernest Renan, which is that “getting its history wrong is part of being a nation” (p. 33). Renan, she points out, does not say part of “becoming” a nation. This point was appreciated by my reading group, given where Australian “history” is right now. I’m guessing it may also reflect Barnes’ own reflections on British history.

Another recurrent thread in the novel is EF’s interest in the Greek Stoic Epictetus‘ statement that

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires aversions – in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our doing. (p. 21)

Epictetus’ point, as Anna clarifies with the often obtuse Neil in Part 3, is that learning to distinguish between the two, and understanding that we can’t do anything about what is not up to us, “leads to a proper philosophical understanding of life”. My reading group discussed this, with one member suggesting that “a proper philosophical understanding of life” means “not being neurotic”, that is, “not expending energy on the things you can’t influence”. Made sense to us!

    The novel does meander a bit, but that’s not all bad if you find the ideas you are meandering through interesting. Ultimately, I’d say that Elizabeth Finch is part homage to the people who inspire us, part a discussion of the business of living, and part an exploration of the fallibility of history and biography. It is not Barnes’ most exciting book, but I found it compelling enough all the same.

    Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book, which in fact she generously sent me. Thanks so much Lisa. Her post commences with an interesting discussion of its cover.

    Julian Barnes
    Elizabeth Finch
    London: Jonathan Cape, 2022
    181 pp.
    ISBN: 9781787333932

    Audrey Magee, The colony (#BookReview)

    Irish novelist Audrey Magee’s second novel, The colony, was my reading group’s August book, and it proved an excellent choice. Literary and highly readable, with vivid characters and a sophisticated exploration of its subject matter, The colony engaged us on all levels. It was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize (and may yet be shortlisted. We will know next week.)

    The novel’s overall subject is, as the title implies, colonisation – and Magee teases out its personal, cultural and political ramifications through a small island colony off the west coast of the Republic of Ireland. The word colony, like much in this book, is multi-layered. The novel is set over the summer of 1979, easily dated for readers by reporting of the assassination of Louis Mountbatten in August 1979.

    “the battle of the colonisers”

    The colony is carefully structured, with chapters about what’s happening on the island alternated with reports of sectarian killings from the Troubles in the north. These reports are brief, stark, and devastating, and serve as a constant reminder of what colonisation can do. But these reports are just one of the layers in the novel, which starts with the arrival of the ambitious British artist Lloyd (whose name is not random. He has plenty of money!)

    Lloyd is coming to the island to make his name. He is a modern colonialist in the way he assumes he can buy what he needs, and manipulate others, to achieve his goal. He promises, for example, to respect the islanders’ wishes that he not paint them, but this doesn’t last. The way Magee unfolds his role is clever and subtle, because the islanders, whose numbers have dwindled to twelve families, want and need his money to survive. His perspective is told through terse, poetic language.

    Arriving soon after Lloyd is the French linguist, JP Masson. He has been visiting this Gaelic-speaking island for years, undertaking a longitudinal study of the island’s linguistic patterns for his PhD. JP is fierce about the need for the islanders’ language to preserved as is. He resents the infiltration of any English into the island, so Lloyd’s appearance is the last straw. It will, he believes, force a “sudden and violent ” shift to English, instead of the slow “linguistic evolution” to bilingualism that was under way:

    The Irish here was almost pure, Lloyd, tainted only by the schoolchildren learning English, by the intermittent visits of emigrants returning from Boston and London with their sophisticated otherness, and by mercenaries in linguistic mediation, men like [islander] Micheál who want only to communicate, indifferent to the medium or its need for protection  …

    JP’s perspective is told through the carefully thought prose of a writer, though when he is writing his paper on colonisation and language, I found it a bit heavy-handed, a bit too much of the telling not showing.

    However, this issue of maintaining language – and its relationship to the colonial project – is intelligently explored. JP argues uncompromisingly for preserving the language, because it “carries their history, their thinking, their being”, and resists the fact that languages change. He rides roughshod over the islanders, insisting that they must use their language. Lloyd, on the other hand, wipes his hands of the issue, “not my concern” he says. Meanwhile, the islanders go about their business, continuing to speak their language with each other, while being willing to use English where it benefits them. They are no fools, for all JP’s exhortations:

    What do you think, Micheál? said Masson. Are you less Irish when you speak English?
    I don’t talk politics, Masson. You know that.
    We’re talking about language, Micheál.
    Same thing

    Just this topic alone, and how Magee uses it to expose colonialism’s short, medium and long tail, could take up a whole review.

    Throughout the novel, the islanders are caught in the middle, but maintain a healthy perspective:

    Imagine that, said Mairéad. A Frenchman and an Englishman squabbling over our turf. 
    They’ve been squabbling over our turf for centuries, said Francis. 

    There is a wonderful, dry humour in this novel. And much of it comes from the islanders, who have their own way of dealing with things. But they, too, are not united. The matriarch, 89-year-old Bean Uí Fhloinn supports the old ways, and is a perfect subject for JP’s research, while her granddaughter Mairéad tends to be the voice of humane or sometimes just resigned reason. Her son James sees Lloyd as his way out. He doesn’t want to be a fisherman, as all the men before him have been (including his drowned father, grandfather and uncle). He shows real talent as an artist, and believes Lloyd’s promise to take him back to England at the end of summer.

    And so, as summer progresses, tensions increase, between Lloyd and JP (who both come from colonising nations, for all JPs attempts to ignore his own complicated origins), but also between the islanders as they respond to what’s happening on the island and up north. They comment on the violence in the news reports. In one telling moment, Mairéad and her brother-in-law Francis discuss the Mountbatten assassination in which two teenage boys were also killed. For Mairéad this is wrong, whilst for Francis it’s “collateral damage”:

    Where does this end, Francis?
    In a united Ireland, Mairéad. One free of British rule.
    And you’ll blow up innocent children to get it. Mairéad swallowed the last of her whiskey. You’re pathetic, Francis Gillan.

    Violence is a constant presence in the book, from the relentless news reports to young James’ brutal killing of rabbits for food. Francis hangs over the novel ominously. What does he do on the mainland? What will he do to “get” Mairéad, for whom, she knows, he is “Waiting. In the long grass. Waiting for me to fall flat on my face so that he can pick me up and make me his.”

    I am interested in this issue of violence and how it permeates society. It’s what I think Tsiolkas was on about in The slap (my review). When people are confronted with violence on a regular basis, how do they respond? How should they respond?

    Another issue Magee explores is art. While Lloyd hides away, painting his magnum opus – which draws inspiration from Gauguin (another artist who worked in a colonial, exploitative environment) – the islanders discuss whether they should be worried. Is it “just” art, or something else?

    James clearly understands that art has meaning, and recognises the message in Lloyd’s final painting:

    It’s me as you want me to be seen, Mr Lloyd. As you want me to be interpreted.

    It’s certainly not James as he wants to be seen. It’s a cruel scene, particularly given Lloyd’s earlier lofty dreams of showing “that art is greater than politics. Art as peacemaker, as bridge builder.”

    Truly, The colony is, to use a favourite word of the islanders, a “grand” book. The writing is expressive, with various motifs running through it – like rabbits, apples, smells – and refrains, like “young widow island woman”. There are gorgeous descriptions of landscape and nature, and of daily life. There’s rhythmic variation, finely evoking different characters and tones. And there’s the shifting of perspectives, sometimes within paragraphs, which brought to mind Damon Galgut’s The promise (my review).

    The colony recognises some of the fundamental ironies in the situation the islanders find themselves in. Both JP and Lloyd, who look like they might (or, at least could) do good, are ultimately there for their own aggrandisement. The little island colony, to which they come, functions then as a perfect microcosm of the colonised. With dwindling numbers, those remaining need to do what they can to survive, but the odds are stacked against them. It’s an all too common story, and Magee tells it skilfully, giving her novel an ending which makes its point without going for the high drama I half expected. It’s all the more powerful for that.

    Coincidentally, Lisa and Jacqui (JacquiWine’sJournal) both reviewed this book last month, and both are worth reading.

    Audrey Magee
    The colony
    London: Faber & Faber, 2022
    376pp.
    ISBN: 9780571367627 (Kindle ed.)

    Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (#BookReview)

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “silence safer than words”

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

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

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

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

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

    Later in the article, she is quoted as saying that

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

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

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

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

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

    Anita Heiss, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (#BookReview)

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “a witness without a voice”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) has also recommends this book.

    Anita Heiss is a Wiradyuri woman from NSW.

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

    Larissa Behrendt, After story (#BookReview)

    Larissa Behrendt’s latest novel After story has been on my wishlist since it came out last year, so I was thrilled when my reading group chose it as our 2022 NAIDOC-Week read. What self-respecting reader, after all, doesn’t like a literary tour?

    After story, for those who haven’t caught up with it yet, is framed around a ten-day literary tour of England that is undertaken by a First Nations Australian mother and daughter, Della and Jasmine, whose relationship is fraught. Through this plot device, Behrendt marries her two storytelling loves – English literature and Indigenous Australian storytelling. In doing so, she draws comparisons between them, and explores ways in which both can reflect on and enhance our lives. She also shows how travel can be an engine of change for people.

    Although it contains some very dark matter concerning grief and abuse, After story is a gentle and generous read – for two reasons. First, there’s the characters. Della and Jasmine, are strong, thoughtful and, importantly, real. Both have made mistakes in managing the challenges in their lives, but both genuinely want to have better relationships with those they love. Della, the less educated and more naive of the two, is particularly engaging for her honesty and lack of pretension, for her open-mindedness, and for the rawness of her pain. The other reason is the novel’s tone. It is clear and passionate about the wrongs done to Australia’s First Nations peoples but it is not angry. This is not to say that anger doesn’t have its place – it certainly does – but it’s not the only approach to telling the story of dispossession and dislocation.

    What is particularly striking about this book is its structure and voice. After a prologue in Della’s voice telling of the disappearance twenty-five years ago of her 7-year-old daughter Brittany, the novel is structured by the tour, with each day being told, in first person, by Della and then Jasmine, until Day 8, when Della’s built-up grief overcomes her. After that, the order changes and Jasmine goes first. This change marks a turning point in their relationship – albeit not an immediate, epiphanic one. It also jolts the narrative out of a pattern that had risked becoming a little too rigorous. Like a coda, it makes the reader sit up and wonder what will happen next?

    What does happen, however, as I’ve already implied, is not particularly dramatic. Rather, this book emulates something Virginia Woolf said, as Jasmine shares:

    The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.

    Like life.

    But, back to the structure. After story is one of those books in which the structure mirrors or supports its intention – and Jasmine, again, explains it well. Talking about Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ response to it in Wide Sargasso Sea, she says, “it’s compelling, the uncovering of the other side of the story”. “Uncovering the other side of the story” is the nub of this novel – personally, in terms of Della, Jasmine, and their relationship with each other and the rest of their family, and politically, in terms of the conflicting views and experiences of the colonisers and colonised. What Behrendt aims for in this novel, I believe, is to bring people together through improved mutual understanding.

    Lest this sound too earnest, though, let me reiterate my earlier comment that this novel has a light touch. To balance the heavy material, which includes a number of losses including those related to abandoned and lost children, Behrendt creates a cast of typical tour participants. There’s the white male know-it-all professor and his seemingly mouse-like wife; the feminist young lesbian couple willing to take him on at every turn; the recently retired, educated middle-class couple; the bossy woman and her down-trodden sister; Della and Jasmine; and of course Lionel, the long-suffering tour guide, and bus-driver Brett. Behrendt handles these almost-stereotypical characters well, so that, by the end, even the arrogant Professor Finn is softened for us.

    There is much humour in the telling, such as this, for example, from Della as she enters the British Museum, which, she has just discovered, still holds Aboriginal remains:

    As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
    “We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

    Comments and asides like this are used throughout the novel to draw our attention to the truths we may not otherwise see. Truth, in fact, is a recurring idea in the novel – the withholding and the sharing. Della, reflecting on Thomas Hardy’s first wife being written out of history, remembers stories of erasure told by her community’s elder Aunty Elaine, and thinks “Sometimes the truth matters and you shouldn’t try to hide the facts”. A little later, Jasmine is also reminded of Aunty Elaine’s wisdom:

    Aunty Elaine would remind me that there is more than one way to tell a story; there can sometimes be more than one truth. ‘The silences are as important as the words,’ she’d often say. There is what’s not in the archive, not in the history books – those things that have been excluded hidden overlooked.

    Throughout the novel, Aunty Elaine’s stories and wisdom, shared through the memories of Della and Jasmine, provide the First Nations’ foil to the literary tour, sometimes enhancing, sometimes counteracting the messages and lessons of English literature.

    I did, however, have one issue with the novel, one shared by a few in my reading group. This concerned its occasional didactic tone. Frequently, for example, the characters tell us what they’d learnt at various sites, such as about Jane Austen’s life or Virginia Woolf’s death. While we could see the point, the way the information was imparted did feel teachy at times. Fortunately, this tone did not extend to the novel’s underpinning ideas which are conveyed through the narrative rather than “told”.

    In a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel, Behrendt said something that appeals to me, which is that the goal of being a great writer is to say something important. In After story, she has written an engaging, accessible novel, that also says important things – some subtle, some more overt, but all stemming, ultimately, from the traumas First Nations people have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of the settlers.

    Jasmine comes to a significant realisation near the end:

    Suddenly I found the museum stuffy. When Aunty Elaine would talk about it, our culture felt alive – the sewing of possum cloaks … the gift of telling stories. They were living and breathing, not relics of the past, frozen in time. Looking at the artefacts surrounding me, I couldn’t help but feel I missed an opportunity with Aunty Elaine to capture her knowledge.

    She had, she continues, “rightly valued education” but she had also “taken Aunty Elaine and her knowledge for granted”.

    This is the call Behrendt makes in her novel. She wants both cultures given equal respect for what they can offer us. She knows the value of stories in bringing people together. Wouldn’t it be great if her story here achieved just that?

    Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman

    This book has been reviewed by several bloggers including Lisa, Brona and Kimbofo.

    Larissa Behrendt
    After story
    St Lucia: UQP, 2021
    307pp.
    ISBN: 9780702263316

    Jeanne Griggs, Postcard poems (#BookReview)

    If you love travel, you would enjoy Jeanne Griggs’ poetry collection, Postcard poems, which comprises postcard-sized poems ostensibly sent from locations around the USA, and further afield. Like all good travel writing, though, these poems offer more than just simple travel.

    However, before I discuss them, I should introduce the poet. Some of you will already know her, because Jeanne Griggs is the blogger behind the wonderfully titled Necromancy Never Pays … and other truths we learn from literature. How could a reader not love this? You can read about her and her blog’s name on the blog, so I’ll just add that at the back of the collection we are told that besides writing her blog she directs the Writing Centre at Kenyon College, and plays violin in the Knox County Symphony.

    So, the collection. It’s divided into three parts, and each poem occupies a page – on the left of the page is the poem and on the right is the addressee (like “To Allen/Crystal Lake, IL”) plus that little rectangular box you get on postcards for the stamp. It’s a clear, simple layout, which maintains our focus on the poems’ context. The titles of the individual poems ground us further, with each referencing its subject, such as “Note on a postcard of Cypress Gardens” or “A postcard of Antelope Canyon” or “A postcard with ornamental pear tree”. There is also an epigraph, and I’ll share it because it’s perfect. It’s from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “I am a part of all that I have met; / Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.”

    Regarding the trigger for this collection, besides the obvious travel that is, Griggs wrote on GoodReads that “I was writing poems and fitting them onto the back of actual postcards and then sometimes I would send them to my friends and family. Very soon it became clear that this was a collection, that together the poems told a kind of story”.

    Now, all this might sound a little cute, but the idea has not resulted in something formulaic or overly structured. Indeed, the poems roam through place and time, and encompass a variety of holidays and trips, some overseas to, say, the Alhambra in Spain (“Note on a postcard of the Alhambra”), and others closer to home, like visiting a child at college (“Note on a postcard of Wellington, Ohio”).

    What captures the attention, however, is that alongside the expected description of a place, most poems contain more. There are reflections, some delightfully wry and some pointedly ironic, on the experience of travel – the joys and challenges, the misses and triumphs, the surprises and the ordinary – and their impact on the traveller. I enjoyed, for example, poems about attending festivals, like:

    We’ve come to hear about books,
    drink bourbon, and eat crawfish,
    casting aside our inhibitions
    like layers of clothing, extraneous
    in the bloodworm Louisianna night.

    (from “Note on a postcard of the St Francisville Inn”)

    There are also the personal stories that made these trips worth writing about, such as memories of family holidays followed later by cards to children now grown up. There’s the mother remembering her own mother, only to recognise the pattern is repeating:

    and thinking about my mother
    how she would take me
    to fancyhotels and
    sit, saying she was content
    with the view, watching me
    disappearing over the horizon,
    like my daughter, now.

    (from “Note on a postcard from the El Tovar hotel”)

    Letting go isn’t as easy when it’s you doing the letting go!

    … so it was the first trip
    we took without you. I missed you,
    loosing my regret out of earshot,
    drowned out by water roaring,
    wishing I could watch you
    see this …

    (from “Notes on a postcard of Niagara Falls”)

    The Contents list, in which a poem on Santa Monica Pier, for example, is followed by one containing a piece of the Berlin Wall followed by one from Waikiki, might suggest, on the surface, something quite random. However, reading the poems reveals subtle segues in nearby poems, from simple things like mentions of cereals (Froot Loops and Cheerios anyone?) to concepts like growing older. Books feature too. Few are named, but keen readers will spy the likes of Tolkien and Shakespeare within these pages.

    There’s also some politics. One, “Note on a postcard of the Mount Vernon public square”, documents weeks of protesting, of wanting neighbours to realise that their congressman “is voting against / their health benefits, our water supply”, while another, “Note on a postcard of the Marie Laveau Voodoo Museum”, shares how a human skeleton brings to mind “desperate people feeling / no control over their lives, / the deck stacked against them”.

    A couple of the poems particularly resonated with me – in addition to those dealing with family, ageing and children growing up. “Notes on a postcard of Mesa Verde”, for example, captured my own wonder about that amazing place and the people who lived there, while the opening poem, “A postcard of a mirrored room”, makes that poignant (there’s no other word for it) point about

    … all the places
    we’ve been, until
    we get to the last one
    and who will know
    where that is until after
    we reach a final destination.

    The last poem, “A postcard from the Getty Museum”, offers a different sort of finality – the arrival of the pandemic. It’s not named, but when Griggs writes of not thinking about the crowds until “After, when the press of all / those people became unimaginable” followed by “all future plans suspended”, we know what she means.

    Postcard poems is an engaging and accessible collection that uses something as relatable as writing postcards to explore things that matter. It’s nicely crafted, but also accessible. Well worth reading.

    Jeanne Griggs
    Postcard poems
    Frankfort, KY: Broadstone, 2021
    56pp.
    ISBN: 9781937968885

    (Review copy courtesy the author)

    Miles Franklin Award 2022 winner announced

    While once again I haven’t read (yet, anyhow) any of the Miles Franklin shortlist, I do try each year to announce the winner of this significant Australian literary award.

    You may remember that this year’s shortlist was:

    • Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The other half of you
    • Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters (Lisa’s review)
    • Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light 
    • Alice Pung’s One hundred days (kimbofo’s review)
    • Michael Winkler’s Grimmish

    And the winner is: Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light

    Each of the shortlisted writers received $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize. This year’s judges comprise, as always, continuing judges and new ones: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), critics Bernadette Brennan and James Ley (both also on last year’s panel), and new members, scholar Mridula Nath Chakraborty, and writer and editor Elfie Shiosaki. 

    So, more on the winner …

    The book was published by Text Publishing, and in their email announcing the winner they shared the thoughts of Michael Heyward, Text’s publisher:

    Bodies of Light  is a transformative novel that gives epic scope to the life of a single soul. To read it is to be immersed in it. All of us at Text are thrilled at the news of Jennifer Down’s Miles Franklin win, and offer her our heartfelt congratulations.’

    And of senior editor Alaina Gougoulis:

    ‘What an incredible recognition of Jennifer Down and all she has achieved with Bodies of Light. The abundant talent on display in her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, has been fully realised in this book, an intimate story of one life told on an epic scale: heartbreaking, and yet brimming with hope and beauty. That she is still so early in her career should fill us with optimism about the future of Australian writing. I am beyond thrilled for her, as her editor and as her friend. Warmest congratulations to Jenn, from all at Text.’

    The announcement has already been reported by the usual sources, like the ABC, The Guardian, The Conversation, and so on. Canberra’s Jen Webb wrote The Conversation’s article. As she says, Down already has some runs on the board: she won the Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year award for her debut novel, Our magic hour in 2017, and again in 2018 for her short story collection Pulse points.

    Webb shares that the judges commended the book as “a novel of affirmation, resilience and survival, told through an astonishing voice that reinvents itself from six to 60”, and she describes it herself as follows:

    Under interrogation-level lighting, it confronts the institutional “care” offered to the most vulnerable of people: little children, labile adolescents, and traumatised youth. Any society that routinely fails to provide children with the care they need to grow into secure adulthood is a society that needs a critical light shone on it. In the most lyrical, gentle language, this is precisely what Bodies of light does.

    It’s a book that interests me. Indeed, Down has interested me since Pulse points appeared (and for which there is a guest post on my blog).

    (BTW: In last year’s winner post, I provided a link to an article by Pallavi Singhal in The Sydney Morning Herald published an article on How to win the Miles Franklin: Analysing 64 years of data. You might like to revisit that in the light of today’s win!)

    Do you have any thoughts on this year’s winner?

    Nigel Featherstone, My heart is a little wild thing (#BookReview)

    In late May, I reported on the Canberra launch of Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, My heart is a little wild thing – and now I bring you my thoughts on this finely-observed book about a man’s reaching for his own life.

    I’m going to start with a reflection on a question authors of books like this commonly get, which is, is the book autobiographical? In his launch, Nigel said that the book is not about him, but that things in his life – particularly the death of his mother – did inspire him. The book’s protagonist Patrick is clearly not Nigel, as those who have followed Nigel through his various social media accounts will know. Nigel, unlike the semi-closeted Patrick, has been in a committed relationship for over two decades, and Nigel, unlike Patrick, broke away from home and did forge his own life. At the launch, Nigel said that this book explores what his life might have looked like had he “obeyed his mother”, who didn’t want him to be a writer or to love men.

    This novel then, is not his life, but it nonetheless draws on much from his life. For example, like Patrick, Nigel grew up in upper North Shore Sydney and frequented that city’s northern beaches. I enjoyed this because I spent my teen years in the same area, albeit a decade or so ahead of Nigel. I am also familiar with the other two main settings in the novel, the Southern Highlands and the Monaro, and am drawn to both, as I know Nigel is. Like Nigel’s Patrick, I do not really know why I so love the Monaro except, perhaps, because the favourite landscapes of my childhood were those wide open plains of outback Queensland. There is something captivating about them, even though, as Patrick, somewhat prophetically, writes of the Monaro,

    It was all wide-screen barrenness, the only embellishment the fence lines, which cut across the tussocky landscape like tripwires.

    Patrick shares other interests with Nigel, particularly music. Again, if you follow Nigel, you will know how important it is to him. He has, in fact, composed his own song-cycle. So, when he describes the music created by Lewis, the man Patrick meets, these descriptions, too, feel authentic.

    But, despite all these similarities which ground the book so well in lived experience, Patrick is clearly not Nigel. As I listened to Nigel speak at the launch, and as I read the book, I was reminded of a favourite quote from Marion Halligan’s wise novel, Fog garden. The narrator writes about her character Clare:

    She isn’t me. She’s a character in fiction. And like all such characters she makes her way through the real world which her author invents for her. She tells the truth as she sees it, but may not always be right.

    And this, too, is Patrick.

    “a fence I had crossed”

    My heart is a little wild thing starts dramatically with Patrick heading off from Bundanoon to the Monaro in a distressed state the day after he’d “tried to kill his mother”. The actuality isn’t quite as bad as it sounds but Patrick, in his mid-40s, had been pushed to the limit by his demanding mother for whom, of her three children, he had pretty much sole responsibility. He needed out, a break, and so after the incident referred to in the opening paragraph, he drives to a steading (or barn) on a place called Jimenbuen, where he had spent many happy family holidays as a child.

    Nigel explained at the launch that Jimenbuen is based on a little heritage-listed barn in Bobundra, on the Monaro near the foothills of the Snowy Mountains. It was when staying there that Nigel’s book finally took shape, and it is at Jimenbuen that Patrick finally takes a step towards a new life, when he decides to offer to help a man he has spied planting trees on the other side of the fence. That man is Lewis, and the rest, as they say, is history – except, of course, it’s not quite as simple as all that, because the course of true love rarely runs smooth, in fiction or in life.

    However, we follow Patrick as he experiences real love for the first time in his life, and we continue to watch as Lewis returns to his life in Ireland while Patrick returns to his mother. How will it all resolve? That is not for me to share here.

    The novel is about many things, but an overriding idea is that of freedom. It is signalled on the third page of the novel when, en route to Jimenbuen, Patrick describes the “odd choices” he’d made of CDs for the trip. “Perhaps”, he wonders, “they reminded me of a time when I felt free”. Three pages further on, Patrick explains that, prior to the incident, he had been planning a short getaway to Sydney, because it was a place where he “could be free”. The idea of freedom recurs throughout the novel. Nearly two-thirds through, he remembers a past conversation with his father, who had told him, “We must live our own lives”. Patrick, at the time, doesn’t fully understand this, fearing it’s “selfish”. And yet, intriguingly, near the end of the novel, Lewis tells Patrick about having seen him, when they were still boys, at a waterhole. Given how Patrick’s life had proceeded, it’s ironic, but Lewis says:

    I saw you as neither male nor female, just someone who looked free. I can’t think of anyone more attractive than a person who knows how to be free, and who’s taken risks to be free.

    Related to this idea of freedom are those of happiness and living life fully, all of which are encompassed in the novel’s epigraph, Verlaine’s “To live again, undying”. Through Patrick, Nigel explores just what this means – the balances, compromises, and the lines we need to draw every day to live good but true lives.

    The novel explores other ideas too, including ageing, and the responsibility of children for caring for ageing parents. Nigel makes clear that this is not a one-way street. Parents need to meet their children half-way. They need to recognise that no matter how loving or dutiful their child is, that child also deserves respect and to be able live their lives. A balance must be struck. Patrick, we see, gives and gives and gives to his mother, and receives little in return.

    Ultimately though, the book is about the power of love and friendship, something that is subtly underpinned by references to a favourite novel that Patrick rediscovers at Jimenbuen. The novel is – and some of you will also surely know and love it – Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, about a damaged man and the love he finds and expresses.

    During the book’s launch, Nigel talked about the value of fearless writing, which he also wrote about in his essay on Christos Tsiolkas (my post). It’s about being audacious and true – to yourself, your characters and your writing. Nigel has achieved that here, particularly in the way he explores, explicitly but sensitively, the complicated relationship between sensuality and sexuality, love and desire as Patrick reaches for the life that will sustain him.

    My heart is a little wild thing is another of Nigel’s warm-hearted, character-focused books that deal with the complexity of family and relationships, and how we live our lives. The heart might be a little wild thing, but this book is a little beautiful thing – and not so little at that.

    Nigel Featherstone
    My heart is a little wild thing
    Gadigal Country/Ultimo: Ultimo Press, 2022
    282pp.
    ISBN: 9781761150135

    Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (#BookReview)

    The final line of “Gather”, the opening poem in Evelyn Araluen’s collection Dropbear, announces her intention – “got something for you to swallow”. Well, I can tell you now, if you haven’t already read the book, she sure has.

    Dropbear, self-described by Araluen as a “strange little book”, won this year’s Stella Prize, the first year, in fact, that poetry was included as an eligible form for the prize. It has also been highly commended or shortlisted for several other significant Australian literary awards. I can see why. It is a fiercely intelligent, confronting and discomforting read that tells truths we all need to hear – and feel. It is also, however, a literary feast, replete with allusions to Australian literature from May Gibbs to Kate Grenville, from Banjo Paterson to Peter Carey, and more. There is a reason for this as Araluen explains in her Notes at the end. Dropbear should, she writes,

    be read with the understanding that the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.

    In other words, you fight fire with fire! What this means is that in this collection, Araluen, from her Notes again, “riff[s] off and respond[s] to popular tropes, icons and texts of Australian national culture”. In doing so, she upends prevailing attitudes, challenging the colonial project and making it very clear that it’s still in play. This all starts with the title which comprehends the myths and dishonesties at the core of Australia’s settler culture.

    In the collection’s second piece, “The ghost gum sequence”, she revisits Australia’s early colonial history, concluding with

    Tench’s gaze is still there – but so is ours staring back.

    Simply said, powerful in impact. Araluen, and her peers, are no shrinking violets.

    However, she also recognises (as does Larissa Behrendt in After story), that she too was brought up on these same texts she uses in her resistance. Hence

    the entanglement: none of this is innocent and while I seek to rupture I usually just rearrange. I arrange the colonial complexes and impulses which structure these texts but it doesn’t change the fact that I was raised on these books too. (“To the parents”)

    “To the parents” is one of the more autobiographical pieces in the collection. In it she reconciles her younger self’s frustration. She had seen her “parents as easy victims of the colonial condition, and not agential selves who had sacrificed everything” for their children, whereas in fact:

    While my siblings and I consumed those stories, we were never taught to settle for them. My parents never pretended these books could truly know country or culture or me – but they had both come from circumstances in which literacy and the access it affords was never a given. They just wanted me to be able to read.

    The resourcefulness of First Nations people is palpable in experiences like this. For Araluen, there is challenge in teasing out the “entanglement” of her own “black and convict ancestors” (“The Ghost Gum Sequence”). This includes that hard “yakker” of connecting with black heritage lost through generations of dispossession: “It is hard to unlearn a language / to unspeak the empire” (“Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal”).

    Another autobiographical piece is “Breath” in which she writes of being overseas with J when the 2019-2020 bushfires hit and the pandemic starts. She is confronted by her personal dreams in dystopian times:

    We came to talk about temporality, about literature, about the necessity of art in the time of crisis … We spent our youths imagining this kind of life, dreaming of ourselves as writers and thinkers who travel the world to tell stories. Being here tastes sour and hollow – it feels like relic-making. What use is a poem in a museum of extinct things, where the Anthopocene display is half-finished? … What use is witness at the end of worlds.

    And yet, she doesn’t give up. In poem after poem she witnesses and shares what she sees. It’s exhilarating to read, if that’s not too positive a spin on tough content. “The trope speaks” addresses the many ways in which settler literature has usurped place, ignorantly and arrogantly:

    The trope feels a ghostly spectre haunting the land, but smothers it with fence and field and church

    The trope thinks every tree is a ghost gum

    Later, in “Appendix Australia”, which comprises bitingly funny footnotes, this latter point is referenced again in “37. sic: not a fucking ghost gum, ibid”, reminding us yet again how little we settlers really do know country, as we muddle, if not stomp, our way around it.

    The collection is divided into three parts – Gather, Spectre and Debris – which reflect a thematic and narrative trajectory that takes us from historical imperatives in Gather, through more personal reflections in Spectre, to marrying present and past in Debris, though I am making this sound more clear-cut than it really is, because the connections are more organic than formal.

    The pieces vary significantly in form and style, and include prose poems, upper-case poems, a redacted poem, and memoir, but there is a coherence that transcends this difference. This coherence lies in the book’s overall unrelenting exposé of the workings of a colonial-settler society that still avoids the truth, and it is supported by recurring ideas and multilayered images, like banksia men and gumnut babies, ghosts/spectres, smoke/ash, and haunting/hunting. Each of these contain opposing ideas that jolt the reader into stopping to consider the meaning and argument being presented. It’s not easy reading, but it is worth persevering.

    The final piece in Gather is “The Last Endeavour”, which tells the Cook story. It’s a prose poem that makes no bones about what these “ghosts” were doing: “we have the promise of history, the order to bring light to the dark”. It’s dramatic, ironic and, like most of the collection, satiric.

    Immediately preceding this is the telling “Dropbear Poetics” which concludes with:

    you do wrong        you get wrong
    you get
    gobbled up

    Can’t say plainer than that.

    The book, then, conveys ongoing loss, and critiques how deeply settler-driven history and literature is implicated in that, but it is also a hymn to country. Araluen is Bundjalung-born and raised in Dharug country, and her descriptions of the birds, trees and rivers of these coastal-riverine places are paradoxically beautiful when set against the overall narrative.

    Dropbear is an impossible book to review, because every time I pick it up to consider how to end this post, I see something else I want to share. I must finish it, but I must also mention the irony and wit to be found in the collection. Poems like “Acknowledgement of cuntery” and “Appendix Australis”, for example, are breathtaking in their use of humour to skewer settler hypocrisy and obliviousness.

    In a final act of deconstruction and, perhaps, reconstruction, Araluen ends her book with the defiant poem, “THE LAST BUSH BALLAD”, that sees the Banksia Men, the Bunyip, and the Dropbear defeated. It concludes on a reminder of the opening poem:

    I told you I was prepared to swallow.

    Araluen’s Dropbear might be a “strange” book, but it is certainly not little. It’s audacious, erudite and unsettling (pun intended), and warrants every bit of the time and attention I gave it – and more. Recommended.

    Brona (Brona’s Books) has also posted on this book. However, I don’t think she will be offended if I say that Jeanine Leane’s First Nations analysis in the Sydney Review of Books comprehends and explains this work far better than we ever could.

    Evelyn Araluen
    Dropbear
    St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2021
    104pp.
    ISBN: 9780702263187

    Written for Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week

    W.E.B. Du Bois, “Strivings of the Negro People” (#Review)

    W.E.B. Du Bois by James E. Purdy, 1907, gelatin silver print, National Portrait Gallery, which has released this digital image under the CC0 license

    While I knew of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), it wasn’t until I read Nella Larsen’s Passing earlier this year that I was inspired to read something by him. Americans will probably know him well, but Wikipedia (linked on his name) describes him as a “sociologist, socialist, historian and Pan-Africanist civil rights activist”.

    He grew up, continues Wikipedia, in “a relatively tolerant and integrated community” in Massachusetts, and from quite early on was involved in the equal rights movement for African Americans. In 1909, he was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Wikipedia writes that:

    Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the Talented Tenth, a concept under the umbrella of racial uplift, and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop its leadership.

    Du Bois and Larsen were both involved in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Du Bois, says Wikipedia, wrote that “a black artist is first of all a black artist.” While I love art with meaning, I don’t necessarily like prescription in the arts. However, when a group is so powerless, I completely understand the desire to expect all who can to put their shoulder to the wheel. We are certainly seeing a lot of it here in First Nations writing, and I’m loving (and learning from) the truths being told.

    I am still in Melbourne so don’t have my copy of Passing, with its excellent introduction, but the idea of “racial uplift” underpins much of the novel. It is supported by its main female protagonist Irene who belongs to the new Black bourgeoisie and is committed to the “uplifting the brother” project. But Larsen also explores through this novel, Du Bois’ theory concerning “double consciousness”, which, originally, says Wikipedia, referred to the

    psychological challenge African Americans experienced of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes” of a racist white society and “measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt”. The term also referred to Du Bois’s experiences of reconciling his African heritage with an upbringing in a European-dominated society.

    In other words, he’s saying that African-Americans have this two-ness or split whereby they are always conscious of how they view themselves and of how others view them. I don’t think things have changed much for people of colour. It must be exhausting, this being conscious, whether you like it or not, of how others view you (and then worrying about what behaviour that might bring).

    Strivings of the Negro People

    So, now Du Bois’ piece. The Atlantic published “Strivings of the Negro People” in August 1897. It is still available via their site. They introduce the article with a quote from within it:

    “It dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”

    This refers to the moment when, still a young boy, Du Bois realises that although he is just like everyone else (“like … in heart and life and longing”), he is excluded from the white world by “a vast veil”. The piece explores what this means. It’s a plea and a treatise on the treatment of African-Americans, a reasoned argument on the value to both “races” of recognising and appreciating each other. It’s also an analysis of the failure of the hope and promise of emancipation over the three decades between 1865 and the writing of the article in 1897.

    I found the analysis telling. He explores the trajectory of hope and action decade by decade, pinpointing the failures. But, he starts with the observation that no matter how hard a black person might study and work, might even do better than their white peers, “he” always faced a wall that was “relentlessly narrow, tall and unscalable to sons of night”.

    Then, comes the plea:

    He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.

    Then he turns to emancipation which had taken place thirty years before, and observes that “the freedman has not yet found freedom in his promised land”. In the first decade there was “merely a prolongation of the vain search for freedom”, but as the second decade dawned there was an awareness of another possibility, the ballot. With enthusiasm, black men “started with renewed zeal to vote themselves into the kingdom” but “the decade fled away” bringing nothing but “suppressed votes, stuffed ballot-boxes, and election outrages that nullified his vaunted right of suffrage”. (You get the gist, I’m sure, given recent history.)

    However, another idea also raised its head in this second decade, ‘the ideal of “book-learning”’ (education). Again, he resorts to biblical language (though apparently he was agnostic, if not atheist):

    Here at last seemed to have been discovered the mountain path to Canaan; longer than the highway of emancipation and law, steep and rugged, but straight, leading to heights high enough to overlook life.

    It might take longer, but … and so, he writes,

    Up the new path the advance guard toiled, slowly, heavily, doggedly; only those who have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull understandings, of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, how piteously, this people strove to learn. It was weary work.

    It didn’t achieve the desired goal, but it did something, “it changed the child of emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect”. People started to understand and analyse their burden. And what did they find? Poverty, yes – “to be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships”. And ignorance. But also “the red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race”. This meant, he writes, “not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of filth from white whoremongers and adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home”. A social and moral degradation.

    At this point, Du Bois turns to discuss the “shadow of a vast despair”, the shadow being “prejudice”. It’s interesting, because he suggests that prejudice is ‘the natural defense of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the “higher” against the “lower” races’. “The Negro” would support, he continues, “this strange prejudice as is founded on just homage to civilization, culture, righteousness, and progress”. BUT, the black man is

    helpless, dismayed, and well-nigh speechless; before that personal disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy … the all-pervading desire to inculcated disdain for everything black.

    Still, they press on with hope – not for “nauseating patronage” but for ‘a higher synthesis of civilization and humanity, a true progress, with … the chorus “Peace, good will to men.”’

    So, he gets to the third decade suggesting the attempts and strivings of the first two were of “a credulous race childhood”. The ballot, education and freedom (“of life and limb”… “to work and think”) are still needed, but through “work, culture and liberty” must be fostered the “traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to, but in conformity with, the greater ideals of the American republic, in order that some day, on American soil, two world races may give each to each those characteristics which both so sadly lack”. His arguments become somewhat idealised but his point is valid – that African Americans had much to offer the nation.

    Interestingly, his Wikipedia article tells how his 1935 history of Reconstruction which argued for the active and constructive role played by black people in this period ran counter to the “orthodox interpretation” of white historians (surprised?). It was virtually ignored until the late 1960s when it ‘ignited a “revisionist” trend’ in Reconstruction historiography. By the 21st century, his book had become a foundational text in these studies!

    A very interesting man, whose legacy continues for his forward, clear thinking about the social and psychological mechanisms of race.