Claire G. Coleman, Night bird (#Review)

Wirlomin-Noongar woman Claire G. Coleman’s short story “Night bird” is the second First Nations Australia story in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s anthology Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction, the book I chose for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week. The week finished officially a week ago, but I’m hoping Bill won’t mind my still referencing it. Coleman is not new to my blog. I reviewed her debut novel, Terra nullius, the year after it came out. She has written more fiction and some non-fiction since then, with a clear focus on the devastating impact of colonisation on First Nations culture and people.

“Night bird” continues this focus. It follows Ambelin Kwaymullina’s story in the anthology, “Fifteen days on Mars” (my review), which works well, because both draw on the importance and role of Ancestors in First Nations culture. Coleman’s story is told first person by an artist who is “too afraid to sleep, too tired to be awake”, who drinks to drown her sorrows, who fears she may be “going mad again [my emph]”. She tells us

I am haunted by the ghost of my Ancestors’ Country like a phantom limb …

[…]

I have been cut off from my Country, my ancestors cut up, the land drilled and dug and eaten by machines … my wounded homeland won’t let me rest.

This is not a subtle story. The narrator (whom I think is female, so I’ll go with that) grieves for a life she “could never have” because Country has been “severed”. She has “returned to Country” but, finding it “dead”, “could feel nothing and none” of her Ancestors. She feels haunted, but by what or whom?

I can hear a voice but I can’t make it out. I can hear a song but I can’t catch the words. I can hear the wind and it’s stealing my breath. I can hear nothing and it is screaming.

Country is part of her, but she wants to be free of the haunting, the “wordless voice”, the “phantom presence” that won’t go away. There is a wind, but it is “coming from the wrong direction – away from Country”. Then,

The wind changes, it caresses my back, and suddenly it’s coming from Country.

However, at the same time, a man appears and threatens her. There are now two voices – his and the Ancestors. This is a story about a battle between disempowerment (represented by the man) and empowerment (represented by the Ancestors). Is she, and are they, strong enough to prevail?

I suspect this story was inspired by an experience Coleman describes in her article in Writing the Country (The Griffith Review 63). She describes the life-changing experience of going to Country in 2015, her family’s Country that had been taboo due to a massacre that had occurred there in the nineteenth century. She writes:

I didn’t go there until 2015, that place changed my life forever, my world, my life, even the way I breathed. I took the taboo air into my lungs and I did not die or maybe I did. The bones of my feet landed on the sand and returned to life, I was born again on Country. The story of that place made me a storyteller; story is in my veins.

She says an old man told her that “no matter where we go Country calls out to us” and she writes of the bird, the Wirlo (or curlew), that “to me and mine are family”. Its cry, its scream, “calls me home” – as does the night bird in this story. She describes how Country cares for people as they care for Country. She writes:

I wept when I realised Country had not forgotten me even when I did not know Country. My old-people, my ancestors, would care for me.

All of this is seems embedded in “Night bird”, so now, back to it. It is another example of “Indigenous futurism”. It is ground very much in the real world. The voices that our narrator hears are mysterious, sometimes coming from her phone, sometimes from the air around her, but they are not magical, not fantastical, they are the Ancestors – and the story envisions a healthy relationship with them and thus Country.

On her website, Coleman includes a link to an interview she did with VerityLa after Terra Nullius came out. Among the questions was that one we readers love, which is whether any authors or novels influenced her. The first one she named was HG Wells’ War of the worlds, because it “is great in giving an understanding of how to show an overwhelming powerful enemy destroying a less well-armed defender”.  “In fact,” she says, “War of the Worlds is a powerful text for the examination of invasion and colonisation”. You can certainly see its influence in Terra Nullius, and it is evident here too.

Claire G. Coleman
“Night bird”
in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail (ed.), Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction
North Fremantle: Fremantle Press in association with Djed Press, 2022
pp. 66-73
ISBN: 9781760991463 (eBook)

Ambelin Kwaymullina, Fifteen days on Mars (#Review)

In 2014, Ambelin Kwaymullina, whose people are the Palyku of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, described herself in a Kill Your Darlings essay as writing “speculative fiction for young adults”. Three years later, in the 2017 Twelfth Planet Press anthology, Mother of invention, she said that she was “a Palyku author of Indigenous Futurisms”, citing Grace Dillon (as did I in this week’s Monday Musings) as the term’s originator. I share this progression in her thinking because it’s indicative of the energy and intellectual engagement among First Nations people with literature and the politics of what they are doing. Kwaymullina is an example of a First Nations Australian writer who is actively engaged in First Nations culture and thinking, as well as in the craft of writing.

I first came across Kwaymullina early in my volunteer work for the original Australian Women Writers Challenge, because many reviews for her young adult novels were posted to our database. But, I had not read her because YA literature is not my thing. However, I decided to read Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s anthology Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week 15-22 January, and the first work in the anthology by an Australian woman was “Fifteen days on Mars” by Kwaymullina. Woo hoo… here was my chance to finally read her. I will post on more in this fascinating book, which I’ve not yet finished, later.

“Fifteen days on Mars” is an accessible short story, told chronologically from Day One to Day Fifteen. The politics is made clear in the opening paragraph, by beautifully skewering colonial settler behaviour concerning the naming of places:

It had been almost a year since we came to Mars. That was what I called this place although it had another name. It was Kensington Park or Windsor Estate or something like that but I couldn’t have said what because I could never remember it.

Our first person narrator Billie and her mum have come to Settler suburbia, where they are “the only Aboriginal people”, for some reason that is not immediately clear though we sense there’s a specific purpose. Billie hadn’t wanted to come but, as her mother’s only offspring without children, she’d drawn the short straw. The story starts with her pulling weeds from their garden, the very plants that the rest of the neighbourhood love, plants (I mean “weeds”) like roses. In this metaphorical way the colonial setting is established. This is a world we know. Very soon a new couple moves in across the road. Billie, at her Mum’s insistence, does the neighbourly thing, and makes contact. She quickly realises that their new neighbour, Sarah, is being abused by her husband, whom Billie calls The Suit. What to do?

To this point, notwithstanding the hint at the start that there’s something unusual about the situation, the story reads like a typical piece of contemporary fiction – that is, set in the known present world. But slowly, we become aware that something else is going on. Billie refers to “the rules”. Does she just mean the normal “rules” of social behaviour? Nope, our suspicion is right, there is something else. There’s reference to Sarah needing to “ask”, and to whether what or how she asks is “good enough for them upstairs”, aka “the Blue”, as Billie’s mum calls them. Billie says:

the truth was we knew very little about them, except they were some kind of intergalactic healers. But we knew why they’d come. It was because of the Fracture.

So now it’s clear we are in speculative fiction/Indigenous Futurism/Visionary Fiction/SFF territory. This is the sort of speculative fiction I can enjoy, something that doesn’t require me to learn a whole new world but that injects something new into the world I know, something that upends it a little.

The Fracture is not fully explained, but “something had smashed into the relationships that were space-time and cracks had spread out from the point of impact” resulting in, says Billie, “bubbles of the past floating across my reality”. The Blue, we are told, are trying to repair this Fracture, leaving humans “to do something about the bubbles” – but to the Blue’s rules. Billie’s mum had signed up “for the job of changing the bubble-world, or at least, of changing some of the people enough so they could exist in our reality”. Hmm, this makes them sound a bit like missionaries. An ironic twist?

Anyhow, the story continues, with a strong reference to the Stolen Generations, as Billie and her Mum, recognising these are “strange times”, try a different tack to save Sarah, and call on the ancestors. They hope the Blue won’t mind.

I will leave it there. I enjoyed the story – because it tells a First Nations story truthfully but generously; because the characters of Mum and Billie, while being somewhat stereotypical (the wise Mum and the reluctant Billie), are warm and engaging; and because the ideas and the story itself are intriguing to watch being played out.

In her 2017 piece cited above, Kwaymullina describes Indigenous Futurisms as “a form of storytelling whereby Indigenous peoples use the speculative fiction genre to challenge colonialism and imagine Indigenous futures”. This is exactly what she does in “Fifteen days on Mars”. The colonial legacy is unmistakeable, with most inhabitants of Settler suburbia remaining “unbelievably ignorant”, but she also offers glimmers of hope. I don’t eschew bleakness, but as an optimist I also appreciate it when writers can see paths to a better future. It’s energising.

Ambelin Kwaymullina
“Fifteen days on Mars”
in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail (ed.), Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction
North Fremantle: Fremantle Press in association with Djed Press, 2022
pp. 42-64
ISBN: 9781760991463 (eBook)

Sandy Gordon, Leaving Owl Creek (#BookReview)

I do enjoy receiving books from non-profit independent publisher, Finlay Lloyd. Their books are physically distinctive, being longer and narrower than the norm, and they have a stylish, minimalist, design, which makes them lovely to look at and hold. They also appeal content-wise because Finlay Lloyd consciously, it seems to me, publishes books that regardless of form or genre interrogate prevailing values and attitudes, books that contribute to the conversation. Sandy Gordon’s Leaving Owl Creek is another such book.

Sandy Gordon could be included in my late bloomer category, meaning he’s an older first time novelist. A grandfather now, he is, however, not a late bloomer in terms of achievement because, as the book’s front-matter explains, he has had a significant academic and public service career, especially in the areas of intelligence and national security. The notes say that “when he finished his last academic book in 2014, he vowed never to write another footnote – hence the novel”. Lucky us.

Leaving Owl Creek is a dual narrative story, alternating between the first person diary of Nicholas (Nick) MacLean, who has been captured by the Mujahideen in Kashmir, and the third person story of his life which begins on the family property of Owl Creek. It’s not just his story, though, as also at Owl Creek are his sister Lilly, and Richard and Kate Connolly whose family has worked for the MacLeans for generations. The novel takes place over several decades covering the second half of the twentieth century, a time of significant social, cultural and political change. Two fundamental issues of change are introduced in the first chapter, one relating to class and status, and the other to gender, and particularly to masculinity.

However, the novel opens not with this chapter, but with Nick’s diary. He reports playing chess with his main captor, the Mujahid, and their discussing Nick’s western versus the Mujahid’s Islamic values. It is clear that Nick’s survival very likely depends on the Mujahid. This provides the main narrative tension for the novel, but it’s not the main interest, albeit I cared deeply about what might happen to Nick. (Gordon knows whereof he speaks, having written a nonfiction work about the region, India’s rise as an Asian power: Nation, neighborhood, and region.)

What I enjoyed about the novel was its portrayal of those issues I’ve mentioned. Nick and Lilly were born into the squattocracy, Protestant of course. They are privileged – materially, anyhow. In other ways, not so, because the expectations are not only high but they are conservative, which means, for example, that Nick is expected to live up to the traditional idea of manhood, an idea that focuses more on “honour” than on feelings. This does not sit well with Nick who is cut of a more sensitive and artistic cloth. He’s interested in art and poetry, which to his father are “not sound in a man”. Richard, the son of Catholic station workers, is closer to Mr MacLean’s idea of a man. This difference creates another tension in the novel as we watch Nick and Richard (named, ironically, for Richard Wright, but often more pointedly referred to as Dick) grow from boys to men. We do also have their sisters, who are each attracted to the other’s brother, but Leaving Owl Creek is not a cliched family drama. While these sisters’ roles are important to fleshing out the main themes, their relationships do not play out in the standard rural romance way – because, this is not rural romance. It’s a novel written by a man primarily about men.

“man of affairs” to “affairs of men”

So it is this that I’d like to tease out a little more. The second half of the twentieth century, and into the present, has been a difficult time for men. As women have found their place (albeit this has not yet translated into full equality) men have had to work out how their place fits in. For Richard, his Catholicism and working class background mean he starts with a handicap, but he’s a hard worker, a real “man”, and he gets opportunities as a result. He takes them and becomes a confident, successful, and powerful man, a politician in fact, but in the process he manipulates and betrays others, and loses his self. He talks big about a “man of affairs” being a humanist, but in the end, “the affairs of men” comes to encompass for him the ends justifying the means.

Nick, on the other hand, grows up with everything except what he wants most, the freedom to follow his own path. His struggle is great. He is sent to a prestigious boarding school, where his artistic preferences are not supported. On leaving school, he goes to university and gets caught up in the Push (about which I wrote early in this blog), and other leftist intellectual groups. It’s the 60s, and unsettled Nick falls prey to substance abuse. He fails his father’s expectations, and ultimately ends up in India where he finds a place for himself – until his capture. Nick too reflects on what it means to be a man but is less concerned with “manhood” than with what human beings are. In a fraught conversation with some leftist intellectuals, he sees the issue in terms of “moral choice”.

Politics provides the backdrop to the novel, and Gordon presents us with a broad sweep from Richard’s mother’s statement that their family had come out from Ireland for “political” reasons, through various wars, to our contemporary concerns with Indigenous dispossession and the increasing conflict between Eastern and Western values. But, threaded through this historical expanse is a recurring issue, the role of men, and the importance of “duty” and “honour”. Nick’s refusal of his Vietnam War call-up is the last straw for his father, and he is disinherited. From his father’s point of view:

‘If your country says it needs you … that has to be good enough. Beyond that it’s a question of honour …’

In the closing pages of the novel, Nick, still a captive of the Mujahideen, returns to these ideas:

The Mujahid. The thing is, he likes me, perhaps even loves me. Why then is it not enough? Why is it never enough?

Because duty, as he sees it, trumps liking, even love. Duty, honour, loyalty, death – these four ride side by side over the blistered landscape and will do so for as long as we humans occupy the planet.

Leaving Owl Creek is a highly readable and deeply thoughtful novel that tackles some complex issues, intelligently and generously. We feel for each of the characters at different points in their lives. We see the pressures they face – social, political, psychological – and we are encouraged to understand why they are who they are, and, beyond that, to consider how on earth we might all be better. Like Lisa, I recommend this book.

Sandy Gordon
Leaving Owl Creek
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2021
358pp.
ISBN: 9780994516565

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Jessica Au, Cold enough for snow (#BookReview)

What did I say about mothers and daughters recently? Just when I thought I’d done with them for the year, along came another, Jessica Au’s gorgeous novella, Cold enough for snow. However, before I get to that, let me describe the award it won, The Novel Prize.

Cold enough for snow was the inaugural winner of this plainly named, but ambitious prize which was established by three independent publishers, Australia’s Giramondo Publishing, the UK and Ireland’s Fitzcarraldo Editions, and North America’s New Directions. It is “a biennial award for a book-length work of literary fiction written in English by published and unpublished writers around the world”, and looks for “works which explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style”. The winner receives US$10,000 and simultaneous publication of their novel in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland, and North America.

Jessica Au’s novel was selected from over 1500 entries worldwide, and was published in the above-named territories this year, but is to be published in many more. It has made quite a splash, and was one of the most favourited Australian books in my recent 2022 Favourite Picks post. Those who nominated it used words like “meditative”, “mesmerising”, “elegance”, “exquisite” and “quietly brilliant”. I would agree with those.

Told first person, Cold enough for snow revolves around a holiday in Japan organised by a daughter for herself and her mother. They walk, and travel by train; they visit shops, cafes, galleries, churches and temples, the things you do in Japan. Very few places are identified, keeping the focus on the characters and the ideas being explored, rather than on travel. As someone who has visited Japan several times, I was initially frustrated by this. I wanted to compare my experiences with theirs, but I soon realised that this was not that sort of book. Once I accepted that, I also realised that it was, in fact, the sort of book I enjoy.

By this I mean that it is one of those quiet, reflective books, ones without a lot of plot – albeit I like plots too – but with lots to say about life and relationships, and with much to make you think. The novel has an overall chronological trajectory following the daughter and her mother’s journey but, along the way, the daughter – our first-person narrator – digresses frequently to consider other people and relationships in her life, particularly with her sister and partner. It is in these digressions, in particular, that we get a sense of what this trip is about.

Ostensibly, the book is about the daughter and her mother, who live in different Australian cities, reconnecting. In the opening paragraph, the daughter describes their walking to the train station:

All the while my mother stayed close to me, as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was the current, and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other, but continue to drift further and further apart.

However, it soon becomes clear that it is the daughter who is more concerned about drifting further apart. A couple of pages in she mentions that on a previous trip to Japan with her partner Laurie – one of the few named people in the novel – she “remembered thinking” that she wanted to share some of the fun she’d had with him with her mother. On the next page, she refers to a bonsai plant that her mother had had, and “remembered disliking it”, perhaps because it looked “unnatural, lonely, this very detailed, tiny tree, almost like an illustration, growing alone when it looked as if it should have been in a forest”. Subtly, Au has conveyed in the opening pages that the seemingly sure and in-control young woman we thought we had met is not that at all. Gradually this becomes more explicit. Nearly halfway through the novel, in one of her many digressions, she describes house-sitting for a lecturer and comments that “somehow it felt like I was living my life from outside in”.

There is a melancholic tone to this novel, which is not to say it is unhappy. It is simply that our narrator is uncertain about her life, while her mother, for whom she feels responsible, is quietly self-contained. Her relationships – with her partner, Laurie, with her sister, and with her mother – seem positive enough. It’s a ruminative book, in which the daughter’s thoughts roam between history, art, and life past and present, seemingly at will, but of course all carefully structured by Au to lead us to a deeper understanding. It’s a short book but I took time to read it because the thoughts and ideas, so quietly and delicately expressed, would constantly pull me up – because I am used to looking for meaning and answers in my reading. For example, early in the novel, she recounts looking at some pots in a museum. They were “roughly formed but spirited”, their handmade utility “undifferentiated from art”. I could grasp these ideas. So, it’s about art and life I thought, but then later, discussing Laurie’s father’s art, the daughter remembers feeling she didn’t “even know enough to ask the right questions”. And I realised that, perhaps, neither did I – and that this book, in which time and memory move fluidly rather than exactly, is about something very different.

The Japanese setting is perfect for this novel, because Japan too is paradoxical. In the cities, particularly, where our two spend most of their time, Japan is a bustling place but it also, sometimes in the smallest ways, manages to simultaneously exude stillness and quietness. Similarly telling is that the trip takes place in autumn – the mother and daughter’s favourite season – which is surely the season most conducive to reflection, and to the idea of change over which we have no control.

Early in the novel, one of the issues confronting our narrator becomes clear, that concerning whether to have children. She and Laurie have been discussing it exhaustively – between themselves, with their friends, and, it seems, also with her mother. She’s aware that, unlike her own generation, her mother very likely never had the opportunity to choose, and she comes to wonder

if it was okay either way, not to know, not to be sure. That I could let life happen to me in a sense, and that perhaps this was a deeper truth all along, that we control nothing and no one, though really I didn’t know that either.

Cold enough for snow is not easy to write about because its very essence is the mutability of life. How do you pin down something that seems to be about being unpinnable? And yet, Au manages to pin down this very fact, or, at least, to convey the idea that, as the daughter glimpses near the end, “perhaps it was alright not to understand all things, but simply to see and hold them”. A good book, methinks, to end the year on!

Lisa also reviewed this novel.

Jessica Au
Cold enough for snow
Artarmon: Giramondo, 2022
98pp.
ISBN: 9781925818925

Nell Pierce, A place near Eden (#BookReview)

Nell Pierce’s debut novel, A place near Eden, won the 2022 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. It was my reading group’s last book of the year, and it engendered a lively discussion, partly because our response was mixed and partly because its setting on the south coast of New South Wales is well-known to us.

Part coming-of-age novel, part mystery, part family drama, A place near Eden is told first person in the voice of Tilly who is around 20 years old when she is telling her story to a mysterious “you” – at least, “you” is not revealed to the reader until around half-way through the novel, so I won’t reveal it now. I can reveal however, that Tilly is trying to tell her side of a story to this “you”, and slowly, what this story is comes out of the murky recesses of her memory.

My reading group’s practice is to start with each of us briefly sharing our first impressions before we settle into deeper discussion. My first impressions for A place near Eden were that I loved its exploration of how truth can be manipulated or twisted, of different versions and perspectives of the same experience, and of the difference between facts and truths, in personal lives, in law, in art, but that I found the tone a bit heavy-handed, with little respite. Respite in tone – as Shakespeare knew – is good. A place near Eden is a reflective novel in which Tilly reviews the events that had happened to her, trying to make sense of them, so its tone is peppered throughout with “perhaps”, “maybe”, “looking back”, “in retrospect”, “now”, “still” and so on. It was a little unremitting. However, A place near Eden is a first novel so can be forgiven some flaws.

As you will have guessed, the title has both literal and metaphorical meanings: it is set near Eden in southern New South Wales, and the characters may be “near” but they don’t achieve being “in” Eden (paradise). Their own flaws prevent it.

The story starts with a prologue which looks back to halcyon days in the life of Tilly, then 13 years old, and her foster brother Sem and friend Celeste who were 14, almost 15 years old. The dynamic is set between them, one in which the younger Tilly is seen by the other two as “just a kid”. There is a bit of an experience gap between them – as can happen at the time of early puberty. An incident happens at the local pool that sets us up for the tone of the book, though it’s not “the” incident on which the book centres. In this incident, a small child falls – or is knocked – and hurts his head. Who did it? Tilly blames Celeste, though she herself “might” have done it. Writing later, she says:

The more I think on things, one way or the other, the more real they seem. That I was afraid of getting in trouble. Or that I wanted to punish Celeste. That it was her fault, or mine. I can believe it either way.

Throughout the novel, which primarily takes place when Tilly and Celeste are around 19 to 21 years old, the story is told in this maybe-this-maybe-that sort of tone. It is, essentially, a story about finding one’s self, one’s identity. In this case, it’s Tilly’s, so we see it all through her eyes, as she struggles to keep up with the just-a-bit-older, just-a-bit more experienced, just-a-bit more confident Celeste. This sort of uneven friendship is difficult to maintain.

“it could play either way” (Tilly)

So we come to the critical incident. Tilly and Celeste have been living at a holiday shack near Eden, while Sem – who is in a relationship with Celeste – comes and goes at will. One night, however, he disappears, and Tilly, who was drunk at the time, is blamed for it. Did she cause it or didn’t she? This is what she is trying to comprehend and explain to “you”.

Tilly is a character who likes facts – her preferred reading is the encyclopaedia – but she is aware that there is often a gap between facts and the truth (which she describes as “something that hissed out”). She is aware that “even when people try to tell the truth about something as mundane as a tomato, they couldn’t help but betray other things about themselves”. So, what are we to believe from this self-consciously unreliable narrator, from this narrator who says to us “saying something with confidence … can make a story real” and that “maybe we all embroider the truth sometimes”? Late in the novel, when she writes about telling her story to her lawyer, she says “I could feel stories emerging in my mind, ways of presenting things that I knew would please her”. She admits to lying to both the police and the lawyer, but that doesn’t, in fact, mean she is guilty of what she is accused of.

Alongside Tilly telling her story is her description of the documentary film being made about the case by her erstwhile boyfriend, Peter, who tells the story from three angles – the lost, troubled boy (Sem); a revenge story (Tilly); the manipulator (Celeste). In each version, different pieces of information are omitted to construct a specific viewpoint about what happened. It’s a clever portrayal of the “art” of the documentary. Tilly sees how “controlled” it is, and admits that she had “thought in art there might be truth”. Not here … though she had seen “truth” in Celeste’s portraits.

The book’s tagline on the cover is, “who do you trust when you can’t trust yourself?” This personal story is part of it, and reminds me of the recent conversation I attended with Heather Rose. She commented that “life is a process of forgiveness for the choices we make in order to be ourselves”. This could easily describe Tilly’s situation, as she struggles to come to terms with what she did – or what she may have done – in that tortuous process of becoming herself.

However, Nell Pierce also has a bigger story to tell, I believe. Late in the novel, Tilly comes to realise that, like her Mum, she is “sceptical of these neat stories we tell about people”. By concluding her book without a neat resolution, Pierce suggests to us that we too should beware of “neat stories”, that we should take nothing at face value. Question everything, just as Tilly seems to do.

Lisa also found this an intriguing book.

Nell Pierce
A place near Eden
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2022
296pp.
ISBN: 9781761066177

Lucy Neave, Believe in me (#BookReview)

Mother-daughter stories – in fiction and nonfiction – seem to have been particularly popular in recent years. Lucy Neave’s second novel Believe in me is one of these, but just this year I’ve read several others, including Larissa Behrendt’s novel After story and Jane Sinclair’s hybrid biography-memoir Shy love smiles and acid drops.

Their trajectories can vary, but in novels the most common one concerns a fractured relationship. More often than not, they are written from the point of view of the daughter (though in After story, Behrendt alternates the perspective between the two). Believe in me is one of those written from the daughter’s perspective, but in an interesting voice which switches between extended third person telling of her mother’s life and her first person telling of her own. The narrative starts around a year before Bet is born, out of wedlock in 1970s Sydney, to her 19-year-old American mother, Sarah. Why in Sydney and how Sarah became pregnant occupies the first quarter of the book.

However, the novel itself commences in 2004 with Bet telling us:

I would like to write down the portions of my mother’s story that I know, but I’m not exactly sure what happened to her in the year before I was born. At times, the anecdotes she told about her life make sense. At others, I traverse a tightrope high above the ground and have to fill the empty air beneath so that I can move from one place and time to another.

She is doing this because, she says, “if I can inhabit her consciousness, even a little, it might help me see who I am”. Immediately, then, we are clued into a problem, presumably the book’s key problem, that of Bet wanting to understand herself. She’s stalled it seems, but she needs, she continues, “to walk towards the future without always looking back”. Consequently, she tells her mother’s story by drawing on her mother’s scrapbooks “which are filled with overlapping memories and souvenirs and notes” and her own memory.

Sarah’s story is a sad and frustrating one. Bet introduces her in that first chapter as a naive, trusting 18-year-old from Poughkeepsie, New York. She’s being sent away by her mother, and the religious community to which they belong, on a three-month mission to Idaho with their preacher Isaiah. Well, the inevitable happens and Sarah finds herself unbelieved, pregnant and despatched to Sydney, far away from home, to have the baby. Sarah is expected to give her baby up for adoption – to a childless aunt and uncle who show her no warmth. However, with the help of midwife Dora, she manages to escape, and thence begins her new life as a single mother in a strange country. The Whitlam government is in, and things are changing, but life is still not easy for a single mother, particularly one as unprepared for life, and as unsupported, as Sarah was.

While the focus of the novel is Sarah, it is told through the eyes of Bet, and in Bet’s eyes her mother rarely measures up. She frequently describes her as weak, when Bet really wants her mother to be “unbroken, robust”. The child’s eyes, however, seem to be at odds with the reality. For example, one-third into the novel, Sarah realises that her own mother back home is never going to help her:

Sarah had thought that in the end her mom would understand what she needed … Now she understands her longings have always been irrelevant. She’s meant to accept all that she receives. Only sometimes, like now, she can’t. In any case, she’s someone else now, different to the core.

This idea of “acceptance” is an important mantra for Sarah. Religious in origin – accept what God gives you – it often frames her choices, but in fact, she doesn’t always “accept”. Indeed, she flees several men when she realises they are not right for her:

Some things, she realises – and why did it take her so long to work this out – should never be accepted. Some things turn out not to have come from heaven.

Nevertheless, a few pages later, Bet continues with the weakness theme, “a part of her was still weak, the way it had always been”. The story here is one of the child never fully knowing the parent. It’s ironic, in fact, that Bet sees Sarah as naive, which she was, because for much of the novel, so is Bet in terms of understanding the pressures Sarah was under. The result is an uncomfortable but very real tension between these two who both love each other but struggle to make that love work.

The idea of “acceptance” is one motif that runs through the novel, but another involves animals. Sarah becomes a wildlife carer – particularly for injured wildlife – and Bet, a vet, which reflects their mutual desire to nurture. More curious though is the fox motif which threads through the story. A baby fox, back in her American childhood, is the first wildlife Sarah rescues and cares for. She eventually releases him, but “foxes will always be with you” becomes a bit of a grounding talisman for her. The clue to it lies in her mother Greta’s advice when she sends Sarah off: “Don’t worry about us. Be as free as a bird, as a fox”. In the tradition of mothers and daughters, Greta wants more for Sarah than she had, just as Sarah in her turn wants more for Bet – and yet, in their turn, the daughters don’t understand and so don’t appreciate this in their mothers.

I did find one aspect of the novel somewhat challenging, and this relates to its “interesting voice”. I love “interesting voices”, but there were times when Bet’s telling of Sarah’s story felt awkward. How did Bet know this? Was it from the scrapbooks, from conversations, from Sarah’s own confidences, or Bet’s imagining? The uncertainty this occasionally engendered affected my ability to properly engage with Bet’s perspective. However, I did enjoy the novel, particularly the way Neave weaves through it many of the social issues affecting women in the decades she traverses. There’s a political element to this personal story.

So, how to end? Or, more to the point, what does it all mean? When I’m in doubt, there are three things I turn to – the opening paragraphs, the title, and, where it exists, the epigraph. I’ve already mentioned the opening which explains that Bet is writing Sarah’s story in order to understand herself better. This, I’d say, she achieves (but to say how would give too much away).

Believe in me does have an epigraph, and it’s appropriate for a book about fraught mother-daughter love. It’s from Eudora Welty’s The optimist’s daughter, “… any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love”. I’ve read some Welty, but not this one. However, this idea seems perfect for a daughter to take from her mother’s life.

And finally, there’s the title. It’s a little trickier. As I was reading the novel, I wondered who was saying “Believe in me”? Sarah? Bet? God (whom she’s supposed to accept)? The egregious Isaiah who tried to convince Sarah to lie for him? Probably all of these, conveying the challenge we all face regarding who to believe and trust. It’s only through hard experience that we come to really know whom we can believe. Lucy Neave’s Believe in me, with its perceptive exploration of complex relationships, is one of those reads that makes you think, and for that I enjoyed it.

Lisa also reviewed and enjoyed this book.

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Lucy Neave
Believe in me
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
312pp.
ISBN: 9780702263361

Monday musings on Australian literature: Prime Minister’s Summer Reading List

The Grattan Institute is an Australian non-aligned, public policy think tank that was established in 2008. Since 2009 it has published, at the end of the year, their Prime Minister’s Summer Reading List. This list, as they wrote on the inaugural 2009 list, comprises “books and articles that the Prime Minister, or any Australian interested in public debate, will find both stimulating and cracking good reads”.

The first two lists contained 8 titles, but since then it has been 6. A curious number, but then, any number would be arbitrary, so why not? Literary editor, Jason Steger, shared the 2022 list last week, and provided some interesting background. This included sharing Grattan’s chief executive Danielle Wood’s explanation that they “try to pick books that have something interesting, original, or thought-provoking to say on issues that are relevant to the Australian policy landscape. The books don’t have to be by local writers or about Australia … but they do have to address issues that have relevance in an Australian policy context.” 2022’s list, which will be formally launched on 8 December, has two books by Americans.

Steger says that no-one knows, usually, whether the Prime Minister reads any of the recommendations. Grattan rarely receives a thank-you letter from the PMs, which is poor. Don’t they have minders to do those things? Isn’t it good manners to thank people for gifts? One Prime Minister, though, has shown interest. Wood told Steger that:

We did hear from one. It was Malcolm [Turnbull]. He asked for the books to be couriered to his holiday home rather than the Lodge and I think he read at least some of them that year. He was probably the most receptive PM to the idea of the list.

Here is the 2022 list in their order, with a small excerpt from their reasoning:

  • Career & family: Women’s century-long journey toward equity, by Claudia Goldin (American researcher on gender economics; nonfiction): “essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the barriers to gender equality – and how we got here”.
  • We come with this place, by Debra Dank (First Nations Australian writer; memoir): “As Australia contemplates a Voice to Parliament, this book reminds us to listen. Listen when the land tells her story. Hear the voices of the traditional owners”.
  • My father and other animals, by Sam Vincent (Australian journalist/writer; memoir): “about regeneration, sustainability, and legacy… a story of how a son learns about his own family, just as much as how he learns to become a farmer”. 
  • Cold enough for snow, by Jessica Au (Australian author; novella): “an inner journey, arriving at the realisation that some gaps can never be bridged, some people will never be fully understood, and some baggage will never fully be shed. And that whether we are ready or not, time carries us forward, forcing our roles to adjust to new circumstances”. (On my TBR; Reviews by Lisa and Brona.)
  • Buried Treasure (in Griffith Review, 77), by Jo Chandler (Australian journalist; essay): on Australia’s million-year ice core project, “a beautiful and hopeful essay about building a collaborative understanding of the rhythms of our planet”
  • Healing: Our path from mental illness to mental health, by Thomas R. Insel (American doctor; nonfiction): “offers a hopeful vision of how we can remake our mental healthcare system”.

So, one work of fiction, one essay, two memoirs and two works of nonfiction.

Here are links to all the lists, by year: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022. There are some interesting books in there, of which I’m sharing one or two from each year, in listing year order:

  • Chloe Hooper’s The tall man (2009, creative nonfiction) 
  • David Malouf’s Ransom (2009, novella) (my review)
  • Noel Pearson’s Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia (Quarterly Essay 35) (2009, essay) 
  • Andrew Leigh, Disconnected (2010, nonfiction)
  • Judith Brett’s Fair share (Quarterly Essay 42) (2011, essay)
  • Frank Moorhouse’s Cold light (2011, novel) (my review)
  • Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350 (2012, creative nonfiction) 
  • Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north (2013, novel) (my review)
  • Joan London’s The golden age (2014, novel) (Lisa’s review)
  • Samuel Wagan Watson’s Love poems and death threats (2015, poetry collection)
  • Stan Grant’s Talking to my country (2016, nonfiction/memoir) (my review)
  • Judith Brett’s The enigmatic Mr Deakin (2017, political biography) (Nathan’s review)
  • Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come (2017, novel) (my review)
  • Robbie Arnott’s Flames (2018, novel) (Lisa’s review)
  • Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (2018, memoir)
  • Jess Hill’s See what you made me do (2019, nonfiction) (my review)
  • Alex Miller’s Max (2020, novel) (Lisa’s review)
  • Alison Whittaker’s Fire front: First Nations poetry and power today (2020, poetry anthology) (Brona’s review)
  • Paige Clark, She is haunted (2021, short story collection)
  • Rick Morton’s On money (2021, nonfiction)
  • Henry Reynolds’ Truth-telling: History, sovereignty, and the Uluru Statement (2021, nonfiction) (Janine’s review)

I’m particularly interested in the fiction choices, because they have often gone for non-mainstream, more reflective works, and they have also, on occasion, included poetry. I like that. But, why these particular choices?

Well, for Ransom, they write “it’s a tale of transformations” and “if only government reports were written in language like this”. For Cold light, a more obvious choice, they say it’s “about power, secrecy, the mortal struggle between capitalism and communism – and urban planning” and conclude with:

Frank Moorhouse once lamented the fact that, despite all their riches of human experience, Australian novelists had disdained the realms of government and business as ciphers too corrupt and foul for their art. But writing by journalists, academics and policy wonks cannot provide a complete understanding of our society. Fiction also has a vital role; for some readers, the vital role…

For readers like us, I’d say.

The other comment I’d like to make concerns themes and subject matter. Equality – gender equality, yes, but also more broadly – features often. First Nations authors and issues appear regularly, as they should while so much remains unresolved. Books about democracy and how it is faring also keep popping up, unsurprisingly. On the other hand, climate change and the environment, while they do appear, seem to have a relatively low profile in the list by comparison.

If you had the opportunity to make one recommendation to the leader of your country, what would it be? My guess is that Bill’s would be Chelsea Watego’s Another day in the colony. Let’s see if I’m right. Meanwhile, what will Albo read?

Heather Rose in conversation with Sally Pryor

As I’ve written before, Muse Canberra, a restaurant-cum-bookshop or vice versa, offers a wonderful program of book events, year after year. I don’t get to many, but today I attended a conversation featuring Tasmanian author Heather Rose with local journalist Sally Pryor.

The participants

Heather Rose has written three children’s books and five novels, of which I’ve reviewed two, The Museum of Modern Love (my review) and Bruny (my review). Her latest book, the subject of this event, is different, a memoir, Nothing bad ever happens here: A memoir of loss and recovery.

Sally Pryor is the Features Editor of our newspaper, The Canberra Times, which is now part of Australian Community Media. Since that company changed hands in 2019, it is now publishing local reviews once again, after some years in the dark when most of the arts reviewing we got was syndicated from the big city newspapers.

The conversation

After Dan did the usual intros, Sally spoke a little more about Heather and her book, explaining that while Heather had always planned to write a memoir, she hadn’t planned to publish one, for several reasons, one of which was that she was wary of outing herself as a spiritual person and of putting her views onto others. Sally described the memoir – which Heather has indeed published – as the “least predictable and most enticing memoir” she’d read. Heather then read the book’s first chapter, “Sky”. It places herself as a 6-year-old at school, and then concludes with

I could write a memoir about travelling, the writing life, or my love of making cakes. But I’m still that girl under the tree who wants to get to the big conversations, to the heart of things. So here are some stories about life and death. About experiences that have no easy explanation, but which happened, nevertheless. The unknown, that 95% – maybe it’s an invitation for compassion. Life is a process of forgiveness for the choices we make in order to be ourselves.

On what started it all 

Sally suggested they start with the tragedy that, says the back cover blurb, set her on “a course to explore life and all its mysteries”. Heather commenced by describing her idyllic childhood in Tasmania. It was beaches, paddocks and orchards; days spent outside; a “glorious, wild childhood”. There was the family home on the edge of Hobart and a shack on the Tasman Peninsula, built by her maternal grandfather built the shack. He also taught Heather to appreciate nature, telling her, “Look Heather, that’s what beauty is”. But, just after she turned 12, her grandfather and older brother died in a boating accident. It destroyed the family, and by the time she finished year 12, she found herself alone in the family home. She decided to go overseas, to live her life “very fully” because her brother hadn’t.

On life being “a process of forgiveness for the choices we make”

Sally shared a little of that overseas trip, that “thrilling life”, which had it all, from meeting celebrities, including the Queen, to staying in a Buddhist monastery, not to mention romance, drugs and alcohol. But, asked Sally, what did she mean by life being “a process of forgiveness”?

One of the things I enjoyed about this conversation was Rose’s comments on writing memoir, and one of the places she discussed it was here. One of the most challenging things about writing a memoir, she said, is revisiting who you were in the past. Memories are tough to go back to. She was reckless, but didn’t realise then what dangers she’d put herself in. She made many mistakes, and revisiting all those things is “a hollowing out experience”. She wrote a lot, and then had to decide what to leave out to hone it to the things that shaped her. She needed to confront what she’d inflicted on herself, and to not blame others. It was her life she said, and she was going to own it, hence life being a process of forgiveness for all we’ve done. I found this moving – and something worth thinking about a bit more for myself!

On the book’s spiritual journey

Sally then turned to the spiritual journey aspect of the book, calling it a “very religious book”. She asked, in particular, about Heather’s taking part in a Native American ceremony that lasted several years. I won’t detail it here as it’s all in the book, but it was the Sun Dance. The point is that it changed her world-view entirely because after this she did not see herself as separate. She felt connected to everything (animate and inanimate), and “did not see world as a fixed reality”. She writes in the book, “everything was permeable, malleable, responsive” (p. 132).

Sally, continuing this theme, mentioned that she understands Heather always asks people if they’ve experienced anything they can’t explain, and everyone has! Most are post-death experiences – messages from the recently dead that all is ok – but others include warnings (like “don’t go that way”) that people feel have served them, sometimes to the point of saving their lives. For Heather this is reassuring, the idea that we have other senses, while Sally said she finds it frightening, which resulted in Heather teasing her ideas out a bit more.

Heather’s point is that the hardest thing is to think our lives are meaningless. She goes back to Descartes, but instead of “I think therefore I am” she sees it as “I am, therefore I feel”, “therefore I think”, etc. Life is a finite thing, she continued, and our fear is that maybe it’s all for nothing. Perhaps, she said, but we could also think that maybe it’s all for everything. Don’t we all love people, she said, who are vibrant, alive, who give of themselves?

On the book’s title

Sally suggested that the book’s title was “a way of reframing the narrative”. Heather said that in her 50s she visited the place, Lime Bay, where the tragedy had occurred and “felt nothing”, which brought her to think that “if everything just is, maybe nothing bad ever happens”. (Me: Not sure about this.) She then threw out that she “likes being un-evolved”. In my experience, the idea of being “un-evolved” is usually seen as a bad thing, but I like her understanding of the idea, her sense of never being finished, of always being curious and open.

Q & A

There was a brief Q&A, which I’ll summarise:

  • On what she wanted her children to take away from the memoir: Heather shared that her 22-year-old daughter had said that most of her readers were older, but she thought it was a good book for people HER age 22 because it will make them braver. Heather added that it’s not bad for kids to see their parents 360°.
  • On her family’s response to the book given they were not allowed to talk about the tragedy at the time: This was hard, particularly how her parents would feel about it, but she also felt that it was her story, not theirs. Her sister read various drafts, and said she felt it completed her life. Heather was most concerned about her father, who has been a great supporter of hers but whose grief had been “enormous but unvoiced”. His reaction was “I think we all needed you to write about it”. Heather also commented that writing memoir is hard, because you can’t avoid writing about people who are alive, and then quoted Hemingway’s, “writing is easy, you just sit down and bleed”! Sally commented here that most people can’t get their feelings onto a page, so she can see what it meant for Heather’s dad, at which point, Heather observed that she was relieved to be returning to the novel!
  • On whether characters get away from her: Yes, for example her The butterfly man character “didn’t tell her the truth for two and a half years”! She kept stitching up the end to give him redemption, but had to let that go because it wasn’t him, it was her, the writer. That’s what makes good writing, she said, when the writer stops trying to intervene. She also gave a Bruny example.
  • On her reluctance to wear a “spiritual tag”: This was partly because things go very badly when women put themselves out in the world. It can be a “very vicious world” if you stand up and align with a specific perspective. But, she also wants people to take on their own perspective, rather than imposing her own point-of-view. The questioner appreciated that Heather is still exploring, which she saw as the “heart of spirituality”.
  • On the process of writing, particularly re fiction vs nonfiction: With fiction there are rules, responsibilities, and voice. We know, for example, that with Murakami we will get a “distant, hapless” voice, and with Kingsolver, “heart”. There is so much you can build on in fiction. With the memoir, she had to start with nothingness to find who she was, and she found she is still that 6 year old girl looking for the big conversations. Writing the memoir was “harrowing, and hallowing” but she feels braver, and now owns all she is.
  • On returning to the novel: Heather loves writing fiction because she loves her characters, and she also enjoys the research.

Closing the session, Dan commented on the level of attention he’d observed in all our faces! I’m not surprised. It was such an engaging, different and, at times, surprising discussion – and that always gets my vote.

Brona has reviewed this book.

Heather Rose: Nothing ever happens here (with Sally Pryor)
Muse (Food Wine Books)
Saturday, 26 November 2022, 4-5pm

Elisa Shua Dusapin, Winter in Sokcho (#BookReview)

French Korean writer Elisa Shua Dusapin’s award-winning debut novella, Winter in Sokcho, was published when she was just 22 years old. As the title conveys, it is set in Sokcho, a tourist town in the Republic of Korea near the border between the two Koreas. In fact, when the Korean peninsula was divided into two countries following World War II, Sokcho was on the Northern side, but became part of the South after the 1953 Korean War armistice 1953. I suspect Sokcho was chosen as the setting partly for its “divided” history, this being in-between, neither one thing or the other,

But, more on that later. The novel’s unnamed first person narrator is a 24-year-old French Korean woman who works in a struggling guesthouse. She seems to do everything – reception, cooking, cleaning – but with little enthusiasm. The novel opens with the arrival of an unexpected guest, the 40-something French graphic novelist, Yan Kerrand. The two are drawn to each other in some way, but, at least from Kerrand’s point-of-view, it doesn’t seem to be romantically driven. For our protagonist, the situation is a little more complex. She has a boyfriend – Jun-Oh – but it’s not a satisfactory relationship from her perspective. However, her fish-market worker mother is expecting an engagement any day. The situation is ripe for something different to happen in her life, but will it – and what, anyhow, does she want? She seems betwixt and between.

Winter in Sokcho has many of the features I like in a novella, starting with spare expressive prose, a tightly contained storyline, and a confined setting. There’s also a small cast of characters, with little or no digression into backstories. All we have is what’s happening now.

And, what is happening now is that the stranger’s appearance has affected our narrator. In the second paragraph, while registering him as a guest, she says

I felt compelled for the first time since I’d started at the guest house, to make excuses for myself. I wasn’t responsible for the run-down state of the place. I’d only been working there a month.

We then move to her visiting her mother, and another thread begins to appear, that of body image. We’ve already been told that one of the guesthouse guests is “seeking refuge from the city while she recovered from plastic surgery to her face”, and now we are introduced to our narrator’s mother’s concern about her appearance. She’s too thin, her mother says. Our narrator rejects this, but soon after, in a photograph her boyfriend has taken of her, she sees “a wasteland of ribs and shoulder blades receding into the distance … her bones sticking out” and is “surprised at how much”. When she’s with her mother, she binges on the food her mother makes, only to feel “sick” and later repelled by her “misshapen body”. There is a tension between this single mother and her daughter that pervades the novel. We sense that our narrator would like to leave Sokcho. Indeed, there’s a reference early on to the “literary world” suggesting she has aspirations in that area, but she feels she cannot leave her mother. Betwixt and between.

Throughout the novella, there’s an atmosphere of things being out of kilter or not quite right. Early on, the narrator describes Sokcho’s beach:

I loved this coastline, scarred as it was by the line of electrified barbed wire fencing along the shore.

This is not your typically loveable beach view, but she herself bears a physical scar on her thigh to which she often refers. It’s unexplained but there are hints later of self-harming. Meanwhile, later in the book, Kerrand tells her that he prefers the beaches of Normandy to those in southern France, because they are

Colder, emptier. With their own scars from the war.

And so the novella progresses, in this clipped spare prose, with a sort of wary dance going on between the narrator and Kerrand. He’s there for inspiration for the last book in his series about “a globe-trotting archaeologist … A lone figure. With a striking resemblance to the author.” She is intrigued by him. She offers to show him some local sights – the border region, with its checkpoint “No Laughing” rule, and the nearby national park, with its snowy mountains and waterfalls. She watches him, surreptitiously, as he draws by night, but always the drawings are destroyed by morning, because they are imperfect.

What does Kerrand see in her, what is he looking for? This being a first person narrative, we see it all through her eyes. She is as reliable a narrator as she can be, but like any first person narrator her viewpoint is limited by her perspective.

Winter in Sokcho does not have a simple resolution, but I’ll return to that idea of Sokcho being chosen as the setting. Its divided history mirrors our narrator who is also divided – in her French Korean heritage and her torn sense of self. Further, Sokcho is described as “always waiting”, as it seems also is our narrator, though for what, even she doesn’t really know.

How much is this a personal story and how much political? Two-thirds through, as she and Kerrand discuss their scarred beaches, she tells him (and just look at this writing):

Our beaches are still waiting for the end of the war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In winter that never ends.

There can be no neat ending to such a story, but without spoiling anything, I’ll share something she sees in Kerrand’s final drawing:

A place, but not a place. A place taking shape in a moment of conception and then dissolving. A threshold, a passage …

Does this suggest hope, albeit tenuous – for both the narrator and her Korea? I’m reading it that way. As for the closing lines … they are glorious.

Read for Novellas in November, Week 2: Novellas in Translation.

Elisa Shua Dusapin
Winter in Sokcho
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas-Higgins
Melbourne: Scribe, 2021 (Orig. pub. 2016)
154pp.
ISBN: 9781922585011

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Vietnam War fiction

Having just posted on Biff Ward’s The third chopstick, and with the 50th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s election (which set in train our final withdrawal from the war) being imminent, I felt now seemed an appropriate time to devote a Monday MusingsAustralian fiction about the war.

Ward’s book is nonfiction, but here I want to focus on fiction because of the special role the creative or imaginative arts play in reflecting who we are. Academic Geoffrey Davis makes the point that

there is an important distinction to be drawn between writing by former active combatants, which often appeared in the immediate post-war period and was largely inspired by personal experience of the war, and fiction by non-combatants, published considerably later. Each new generation must form an image of the wars that have shaped its times and must assess the way in which those wars have impacted on their own society.

Yes!

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The sympathizer

The most recent Vietnam (American) War novel I’ve read is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The sympathiser (my review), which satirically confronts the mess of this war through the experience of Vietnamese refugees in the USA, but I have also read a handful of Australian novels about the war.

“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory”
(Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing ever dies: Vietnam and the memory of war, cited by Davis)

A select list

Here is a select list of novels and short story collections, with a brief note on their focus or angle:

Charles Hall, Summer's gone, Margaret River Press
  • Alison Booth, A distant land: on war-reporting and corruption
  • Charles Hall’s Summer’s gone (2014) (my review): includes conscription and draft-dodging
  • Myfany Jones’ The rainy season (2009) (Lisa’s review): on war trauma and its effect on the family
  • Adib Khan’s Homecoming (2003): on a Vietnam vet’s postwar trauma
  • Nam Le’s The boat (2008): includes short stories about Vietnamese refugees
  • Gabrielle Lord’s The sharp end (1998): on traumatic psychological effects of the war on soldiers
  • Doug McEachern’s Stardust and Golden (2018) (Lisa’s review): on conscription
  • William Nagle’s The odd angry shot (1975): a war-time story based on the author’s experiences
  • Hoa Pham’s Lady of the realm (2017) (my review): set in Vietnam itself, pre, during and post war
  • Hoa Pham’s The other shore (2014) (Lisa’s review): on the impact in Vietnam itself
  • John Rowe’s Count your dead (1968): realities of war, and American policy, drawn from author’s time there
  • Jospephine Rowe’s A loving, faithful animal (2016) (my review): on PTSD and intergenerational trauma
  • Evie Wyld’s After the fire, a still small voice (2009) (Kim’s review): on war trauma in a Vietnam War conscript and his war-veteran father

I have called this a select list, which might imply that I’ve curated a special selection but in fact, I didn’t find many books beyond those I already knew, so this list includes most of those I found. Why are there so few?

This is a question author Alison Booth also raised in a post she wrote on “Australian Fiction and the Vietnam War”. She commences:

The Vietnam War is sometimes termed a forgotten war. Neglected by Australian literature until relatively recently, it seems it was the war that most of us wanted to forget. The last and most prolonged proxy battle of the Cold War, it saw Australians become increasingly divided. Should the country be at war at all, or had it been manipulated into involvement by its political leaders? Did people have the right to take to the streets and protest about the war? And just how far was the security intelligence organization prepared to go to silence the protesters? 

These issues offer endless possibilities for writers of fiction and yet they have been little used. 

When she looked for lists of fiction, what she found (as did I) was mostly written by American males. She finds this lack “puzzling” because so much of what happened then has relevance to now. For example, 50 years after that war, we are still confronting “those trade-offs between surveillance and security on the one hand, and personal liberty on the other”; we are still involved in unwinnable wars; and protests still generate conflict. She concludes by wondering whether it will take more time “before novelists find the Vietnam War period appealing” and “before publishers do as well”. Or, maybe it’s that “too many people remember that period with distaste” and we need to wait until the next generation is interested in historical fiction featuring the Vietnam War. I have no answers, but, like Booth, I do find it curious.

However, Davis observes that some of Australia’s non-Vietnam war literature might, in fact, be a response, to it. One critic, he writes, has suggested that the authors of some of our First World War novels, such as McDonald’s 1915 (1979) and Malouf’s Fly away Peter (1982), “may have chosen the divided, angry and anguished climate of that time as their setting as a means of dealing indirectly with Australia’s part in the Vietnam War, where similar social schisms greeted Australian involvement”. An interesting explanation, though these could also have been a reaction to the increasing interest in “celebrating” war? Further, Davis says that the same source has suggested that “the Vietnam War is the hidden subject” of some novels set in Southeast Asia, like Christopher Koch’s The year of living dangerously (1978) and Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach (1981). Another interesting point.

Finally, Davis suggests early in his paper, and reiterates it at the end, that the anti-war novel has a long tradition in Australian literature, and that “this has been influential in shaping the attitudes of subsequent generations of Australians to their country’s history”.

What say you?

Sources