Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran, These strange outcrops (#BookReview)

Bagging Canberra – often used synonymously for the Federal Government – is almost a national sport, but in recent years anthologies have appeared to counter this with more complex stories about this place. The first two I’ve read – The invisible thread, edited by Irma Gold (my review) and Meanjin’s The Canberra issue (my review) – commemorated Canberra’s centenary, but last year saw the publication of the evocatively titled These strange outcrops.

This anthology is the work of two young Canberrans, Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran, who founded Cicerone Journal. Established in 2018, it is, they say,

a Canberra-based publication that seeks to encourage an open curiosity about the world in a socio-political climate of disconnection and disenchantment. We aim to publish writing that is exploratory and thoughtful, and new and unusual.

The journal’s fifth edition will be devoted to speculative fiction, and is due soon.

So now, These strange outcrops, which is subtitled, Writing and art from Canberra. It comprises original short stories, poems, and visual art created by established and emerging Canberra writers, and has a specific goal, as the editors write in their Foreword. It “grew out of a desire to question media narratives that portray Australia’s capital city as a place of disconnection and insularity”. They note that with a population of 400,000, Canberra and the surrounding region is “home to far more stories and perspectives than are commonly depicted in the news”. They wanted, they say, to “challenge the prejudices and stereotypes” and “celebrate the varied lives and imaginings of this unique place”.

“blurry at the edges” (Owen Bullock)

They have achieved their goal, and with style. This publication is physically gorgeous, from the cover, with its iconic Canberra bus stop framed by two Canberra floral emblems (the Royal Bluebell and Correa), through its beautiful endpapers comprising a correa blossom pattern, to the care taken with the design of the individual pieces. I can’t imagine any contributor not being thrilled with the look of their contribution.

But, the main point is, of course, the content. It more than lives up to the appearance, by which I mean, the book is not just a pretty face. An important thing with anthologies is the order, and it’s clear that the editors thought carefully about this. They start with the physical Canberra, and its natural environment, which is one of the reasons many of us love this place, and conclude with the experiences of different members of Canberra’s diverse population. In between, are various explorations of a wide range of aspects of life in Canberra, from those common to us all (like Cheryl Polonski’s poem “Wintertime in Canberra” and Penelope Layland’s poem “Showtime”) to some that speak to more specific experiences (like Daniel Ray’s prose piece about that challenging post-Year-12 time, “Queanbeyan: Quinbean: Clear water”). Some contributions are movingly personal, while others are unapologetically political. The end result is an authentic whole, that shows Canberra to be a rich and complex place, a bit “blurry at the edges” but with enough commonality at the core that makes us real, regardless of what outsiders might think.

Now, I did have some favourites, and will share a few of them over the rest of this post. The opening set of poems, “Canberra Haiku” by Owen Bullock beautifully introduces the collection, with its series of little impressions portaying Canberra’s breadth, from flowers peeking through a cracked pavement to a tattooed bus passenger and a permaculture working bee, from magpies and our mountains and lake to heatwaves and “blurry … edges”. The next few pieces explore place, often with an awareness of what was before we came, such as Janne D Graham’s poem “Crace Park” which conveys a sense of wrongness in our “calculated spaces”. A sort of antidote – or comment on this – is Helen Moran’s vibrant painting “Rainbow Serpent sleeping in Lake George”, the Rainbow Serpent being significant to many First Nations Australia peoples. It mesmerises me, because, while looking simple, it evokes complex and conflicting ideas. Set against a dark blue and black background, the bright, cheery serpent also looks ready to pounce. At least, that’s how it appears to me.

Patricia Piccinini, Sky Whale, pic: Nick-D from Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0

Some of the pieces invoke wry humour to make their point, like Fiona McIlroy’s poem “sky whale” which uses the Patricia Piccinini’s Canberra-Centenary-commissioned hot-air balloon “The Skywhale” to reflect on attitudes to public art that challenges perceptions.

Canberra is
to have a whale of a time
in the Centenary
to live it up
to lighten up
kick up our heels
yet a flying
maternal mammal
is just pushing the

The wordplay throughout the poem is delicious.

“come so far, lost so much” (Joo-Inn Chew)

Some of the strongest pieces concern migration and racism. Canberra, like much of Australia, is a multicultural place. We have Ngunnawal and other First Nations people here; we have Australian-born residents who have come from around Australia for work; and we have migrants including refugees. We have – or had, before the pandemic – an annual, vibrant and successful Multicultural Festival, which celebrates this aspect of the region, but several pieces in the anthology convey the sadness and pain that must always come with migration, regardless of its cause. Anita Patel speaks in “What are you cooking?” of the sadness of losing her mother in another part of the world, so that even those weekly phone conversations are no longer possible, while Joo-Inn Chew’s poem “A new arrival at Companion House” talks of the hope contained in the birth of a baby to people who have “come so far, lost so much”.

Others are much darker, speaking to non-acceptance, such as Michelangelo Curtotti’s ironically titled poem “The welcome”. In one of those perfect segues, this poem is followed by Stuart McMillen’s graphic short story, “I used to be a racist”.

As frequently happens when reviewing anthologies, I’ve only cursorily dipped into the treasures contained within. I apologise to all those contributors whom I don’t mention here, but know that you’ve been read and heard. The best thing would be for more to read your work in this thoughtful, considered anthology. It can be purchased from Cicerone (linked above).

Meanwhile, let’s finish on Rafiqah Fattah’s defiant poem, “Generation selfie”, about the 16 to 25 year olds who are too often ignored or passed over:

And now, there is a tremor in the air
We are here

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Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran
These strange outcrops: Writing and art from Canberra
Canberra: Cicerone Journal, 2020
ISBN: 9780646814155

David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short (eds), The near and the far: More stories from the Asia-Pacific region, Vol. 2 (#BookReview)

Book cover

This anthology, like the first The near and the far volume, stems from a project called WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange), an intercultural and intergenerational program which “brings together Australian and Asia-Pacific writers for face-to-face collaborative residencies in Asia and Australia”. The most recent residencies have been in Indonesia (2018), The Philippines (2017) and China (2016). The editors write in their Introduction to this volume that these residencies provide a safe space in which writers come to trust “in a way that is powerful and unusual, that their bumbling work-in-progress and their wild hopes will be met with kindness.” This is probably why, as Maxine Beneba Clarke describes in her Forward, “the writing in this book veritably sings: it is a cacophony of poetry, essay-writing, fiction and nonfiction”.

This volume is structured similarly to the first, starting with the foreword and introduction, and concluding with some notes on WrICE and a list of contributors with mini-bios at the back. There is also, in this one, a conversation between the two editors. The works are again organised into three sections, this volume’s being Rites of passage, Connecting flights, and Homeward bound. For some reason, I enjoyed more of the pieces in first and third sections, than the second. There are 27 stories, with a little over half being by women; three are translated. As in the first volume, each piece is followed by a reflection by the author – on the writing process, their goals and/or their experience of WrICE.

To tame words with ideas (Nhã Thuyên)

Now the stories. Given the project, the writers are of course a diverse group, coming from Australia (including two First Nations writers), Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. I knew the Australians – Ali Cobby Eckermann, Alice Pung, Christos Tsiolkas, Ellen Van Neeerven – but most were new to me, which feels embarrassing, really.

I’m not sure I could ascertain a strong theme running through this collection as I did last time, but there is an overall sense of writers trying “to tame words with ideas” (“Utterances, by Nhã Thuyên, tr. by Nguyên-Hoàng Quyên), of trying to find the right words to articulate their ideas across diverse cultural spaces. I like this image of taming words with ideas. It suggests to me many things, including that words are hard to pin down, and that ideas/emotions/passions are hard to communicate in words. It is certainly something that you feel the writers working at in this book, some of them consciously, overtly, sharing their struggles with us.

I particularly liked the first section “Rites of passage”, with its pieces about, essentially, identity, though the subject matter includes issues like aging, coming out, postnatal depression, father-son relationships. Christos Tsiolkas in “Birthdays” writes of a gay man, grieving after the break-up of a longterm relationship, and facing aging alone. Told third-person, but with an immediacy that has you identifying with the narrator’s unhappy restlessness, his questioning of who he is, and where he is going, makes a perfect, accessible first piece for the anthology.

In “Eulogy for a career”, Asian Australian, Andy Butler explores the challenges of identity in white Australia, of finding his place, particularly as a young Asian-looking boy wanting to ballroom dance! He cynically notes that, after years of ostracism, he is suddenly, in this new pro-diverse world, being offered opportunities. “Progressive white people,” he writes, “can’t get enough of us”. But, he knows and we know how fragile this foundation is likely to be. First Nations writer Ellen van Neerven closes out this section with small suite of poems, “Questions of travel”, riffing on Michelle de Kretser’s novel of the same name. “When we travel”, she writes, “we walk with a cultural limp.” Our identities can be fluid or feral or freer – when we travel – but there are no easy answers to living and being.

In the second section, “Connecting flights”, the pieces are loosely linked by explorations of place and self. Mia Wotherspoon’s Iceland-set short story, “The blizzard”, exposes the moral and ethical complexities of contemporary political activism, while Steven Winduo’s “A piece of paradise” crosses continents, with characters from Papua New Guinea, Australia and the US pondering the possibility of intercultural relationships. Han Yujoo’s “Private barking” is one of the pieces that overtly addresses that challenge of taming words. “Sometimes we need a knife to write. (Or teeth)”, says Korean Yujoo, trying to write with her “little English”.

First Nations author, Ali Cobby Eckermann opens the last set with “Homeward bound”, a home-grounded poem set in a cave where self finds home in place, but knows it’s not secure. Else Fitzgerald’s  “Slippage” is a cli-fi short story, in which grief for the environment is paralleled by grief for a lost love. The very next story Lavanya Shanbhogue Arvind’s “A long leave of absence” is also about a lost love, this one due to a father’s forbidding the marriage, resulting in the narrator turning to alcohol. For each of these writers, home is fraught.

There are several pieces in this section that I’d love to share, but the one I must is deaf writer Fiona Murphy’s “Scripta Continua”. I must share it because it reiterates much of what Jessica White writes about in Hearing Maud (my review). This five-part piece takes us from the idea of “conversations”, which Murphy often feels like she is “peering into, rather than partaking in”, through the “spaces” (and silences) deaf people frequently inhabit, the fatiguing “attention” so necessary for communication, and the “writing” that helped her start to understand herself better, to “Auslan”, the sign language system that brings new, less fatiguing, ways of conversing and inhabiting space!

The final piece, “Wherever you are” by Joshua Ip, is a real treat. A long poem comprising 28 quatrains, it consistently flashed my memory with phrases and ideas that sounded familiar. Well, of course they did, because, as he explains in his closing reflection, “Each quatrain is a response to each writer’s gift, in sequence”! So 27 pieces, 27 quatrains in response, with a concluding one of his own. How clever, and what respectful fun many of them are. “Words span and spin the globe”, he writes. If you are interested in such words – touching, probing, confronting ones – I recommend this book.

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David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short (eds),
The near and the far: More stories from the Asia-Pacific region, Vol. 2
Melbourne: Scribe, 2019
ISBN: 9781925849264

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Us Mob Writing, Too deadly (#BookReview)

Us Mob Writing, Too DeadlyToo deadly is an anthology of writings by the Canberra-based writing group Us Mob Writing. Comprising Australian First Nations writers, this group was formed in the late 1990s and is, apparently, one of our capital’s longest running writers’ groups. I saw advertising for the book’s launch back in late 2017, but was unable to attend. I was consequently thrilled to be offered a copy to review some months later. Finally, it worked its way to the top of the pile and I have read it. Things happen slowly here at the Gums!

The book comprises works by 11 women writers. It is introduced by Jeanine Leane whose novel Purple threads I reviewed a few years ago. She describes the content as including “prose and narrative poetry; flash fiction, fiction and creative non-fiction; and life writing.

It was interesting to read this just after reading Anita Heiss’s anthology, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review). Heiss’s book, obviously, is all life-writing, while this anthology is more varied in form and subject matter, but, as in Heiss’s book, many of the works are overtly political, not surprisingly, but all writers speak of connection to culture, in some way.

Now, how to do this? I don’t usually discuss every writer in an anthology because doing so, without writing a tome, risks being superficial, but I’m going to try here and see if I can find a fair balance. You be the judge.

Wulli Wulli writer Lisa Fuller: eight pieces, mostly poetry. They deal with her writing practice, her sources of inspiration, and her sense of self. My heart went out to her struggles to accept that she is “good enough” in poems like “Who me?” and “Never enough” (“I will kill myself through/ should-i-n-g and my 20/20 judging”), but I also loved her sense of humour and word plays. “Waking” made me laugh, with the “only clock in the place/ disguised as a phone” as did her wry references to her “Master pieces” in “Electronic inclusions”, which describes her preference for “paper and pen” over keyboard. She also writes of nature and the inspiration it provides, including:

the mist envelops
its cool embrace
blocking everything
making the everyday
more mysterious

Juru-Kija poet Michelle Bedford: six poems, most of which directly address culture – her connection with it, and/or loss of it. In “Kindred Spirit-so many stories untold”, the refrain at the end of each verse is “so many stories untold”, while “Straight up and back with a certain native pride” tells of a hunting party and how engaging in cultural practice brings contentment and pride. Coming from the beautiful Kimberleys, she has some poems evoking her love of that landscape: “Colour me fine” is a love-letter to the Kimberley that I could relate to. Other poems are more overtly political. “Standing alone with others” and “I promise you … she is worthy” reminded me somewhat of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s work.

Wiradjuri poet Yullara Reed: one poem, “Catch me if you can”. Told in the voice of a bird, her allegorical poem confronts its reader with the realities of indigenous life, particularly regarding the stolen generations, as the bird watches out for catchers. There’s a cheeky freshness to this poem which makes its message so much starker.

Erubian writer Chella Goodwin, from the Torres Strait: two poems and one prose piece. “Morning dreaming” is a gorgeous poem about yearning for a simpler life. Her irregular use of rhyme here is particularly effective. Many of us can relate to these lines, “microsoft word/ part of the city herd”, and to

divorcing the city
with its traffic and hustle
for straight roads to the horizon
where the kookaburras hustle

Bundjalung writer Samia Goudie: six pieces, mostly poems. They mourn a loss of culture, but also express defiance (particularly “White lie”) and sorrow (“Dirt child”). Her prose piece, “Coming home”, is a short story about a stolen generation daughter meeting her mother for the first time. The insensitivity of the church official, where the meeting is effected, is breathtaking. He wants a photo for, he says:

“… the church newsletter, the story, our story; it is such a great story. The congregation will love it.”

Whose story?

Yuin writer Brenda Gifford: one memoir piece about her life on the road, for ten years, with the mixed indigenous and non-indegnous band, Mixed Relations. Much of the story would be familiar to any band, I guess, except that this one has the added issue of race to deal with. She talks of confronting racism in Moree, and of the opposite in Brewarrina, where the local mob showed them the fish traps (now made famous by Bruce Pascoe in Dark emu.) She also writes of touring North America, and sharing experiences with First Nations Americans (not to mention trying their wonderful fried cornbread!)

Wiradjuri author Kerry Reed-Gilbert (grandmother of Yullara above) has ten pieces, and is the best-known, most published of the group. Reed-Gilbert also appears in Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, with a strong small town story. Some of her poems talk of dark history, such as blood loss and massacres in “The place in the paddock”, while others ask for Australians to work together, as in “Reflections” and “I know you”. Many of her pieces, as do those of others, talk of the wisdom of older people (uncles, grandfathers, grandmothers) and, further back, of the Old or Ancient Ones from whom the laws come.

Ngemba/Barkindji writer Barrina South: four pieces. Her poem “Ghost Gum” describes the ageing and regeneration of a tree, but surely also works as a metaphor for indigenous history – the losses (“pooled blood appears on the surface caused by previous contusions”) and the hope for the future (“She reaches up and gently sways/ Dancing in time with the stars…”) “Baaka” is more overtly political, but also uses nature, the river in this case, to oppose long connection with culture (and the “old people”) against loss (and “they [who] fence rivers”).

Wiradjuri poet Marissa McDowell: three pieces. “By the campfire” is a lovely hymn to indigenous creation spirit Biamie, “the maker of all things”, while “Me” is a plea to be respected “before all is lost/at what human cost”.

Kamilaroi writer Joyce Graham: eight pieces, starting with three haiku which lead into more powerful, pull-no-punches poems. “Proud Uncle” references, I believe, the story of the two indigenous men Jimmy Clements and John Noble who walked miles to attend the opening of Canberra’s provisional parliament house in 1927. It confronts us with our lack of interest (“ignored by white/ present not caring/ not curious/ Dismissive/ ignorant of your importance”). It’s a story most Canberrans didn’t know until recently. Certainly I didn’t – “ignorant”! “Life’s landscape” uses strong language, too, to make its point, describing “the white dust storm” and its aftermath.

Torres Strait Islander writer Samantha Faulkner: twelve pieces, including five prose pieces. Faulkner’s pieces, like many others, explore the history of indigenous experience in Australia. “The Old Man” also reflects on the Jimmy Clements and John Noble story, describing the two men as “compelled to be there”. “Tribute to Mabo” is another straightforward narrative poem about an indigenous hero. “One Day at Walpa (Walpa Gorge, Kata Tjuta/the Olgas” made me laugh at its depiction of tourists visiting this beautiful peaceful, place. And “It’s a small town world” succinctly conveys opposing images of small towns – narrow on one hand, and big-hearted on the other. Faulkner’s is, generally, a lighter touch than some in the book, but no less effective for that.

There are, then, recurring themes in the anthology, as you’d expect – to do with loss and disconnection caused by colonisation and white laws – but while some are angry (and understandably so), many are generous and hopeful, looking to a better future. Motifs recur too. There’s the wisdom of older people and of the Old Ones, and, of course, nature, particularly trees and birds, appears in many pieces.

Too deadly is a challenging book to read with its varied styles and tones, but it is well worth the effort because this very variety provides a breadth of insight that is not easily come by. I’ll close with some lines from McDowell’s “Me”, because, in many ways, it conveys the heart of the book (but apologies for not getting the lines’ layout right):

Images are plastered all over our screens
Scaring the weaker
And empowering the meaner
Open your door and open your mind
move a bit closer
I could be your friend
not an enemy
Who’s portrayed as the end.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeUs Mob Writing
(Eds. Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Samantha Faulkner, Barrina South)
Too deadly: Our voice, our way, our business
Us Mob Writing, 2017
ISBN: 9780992559823

(Review copy courtesy Sarah St Vincent Welch and Us Mob Writing)

Anita Heiss (ed.), Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (#BookReview)

Anita Heiss, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia

As many others have said, including my reading group, Anita Heiss’s anthology, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, should be required reading for all Australians. At the very least, it should be in every Australian secondary and tertiary educational institution. Why? Because it contributes to the truth-telling that is critical to real reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Truth-telling comes in many forms. There are formal processes, as through truth-telling commissions, but there are also the informal processes that we can all engage in while we wait for the government to fiddle-diddle around deciding whether it can front up and do the right thing.

Essentially, truth-telling means all Australians acknowledging and accepting “the shared and often difficult truths of our past, so that we can move forward together”. These truths include the original colonial invasion of the country, the massacres, the Stolen Generations, and the ongoing racism that results in continued inequities and significant gaps in almost every health, educational and occupational measure you can think of. Informal truth-telling encompasses all the things we do to inform ourselves and each other of these truths. Heiss’ anthology, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, which contains 50 stories by indigenous Australians on their experience of growing up indigenous in this so-called lucky country of ours, contributes to this informal truth-telling. Taken as a whole, the book provides a salutary lesson, for all Australians who care to listen, on the experience of being indigenous in Australia. Taken individually, each story has the potential to break your heart. If you think I’m laying it on a bit thick, then you haven’t read the book!

“a stranger in my own land”

The above line from William Russell’s story, “A story from my life”, brought me up short because it replicates a line I read in Atkinson’s book The last wild west (my review). Atkinson describes his Indigenous friend and co-worker Sno as being “an alien in his own homeland”. There is strength in this replication between books, just as there is strength in the repetition of experiences within Heiss’s book, and the strength is this, that every repetition reinforces the truth of the historical (and continuing) injustice faced by Indigenous Australians. The stronger, the more inescapable the truth becomes, the harder it must surely be to ignore.

So, what are the repeated experiences in Growing up Aboriginal in Australia? Well, there are recurring references to the Stolen Generations, to being questioned about identity (“are you really Aboriginal?”, “you look too white to be Aboriginal”), to feeling disconnected from culture, to being called racist names, to being humiliated in myriad ways too numerous to list, and to being physically attacked. These are the experiences that we’ve all heard of, but Heiss’ contributors enable us to feel them. And that’s important. I’ll share just a few quotes from a few stories:

Thankyou for your acknowledging every 26 January with such grace and humility. Thankyou for your encouragement – and advice to me – to let the past be in the past, to simply ‘get over it’ on the day my people’s land was invaded and dispossessed. (Dom Bemrose’s biting “Dear Australia”)

My father cut to the chase. ‘Olly, you can’t go telling people we’re Aboriginal … It isn’t safe’. (Katie Bryan, “Easter, 1969”)

I would paint and draw and sculpt about being Aboriginal. I would see people twitch uncomfortably and sometimes even let their ignorant thoughts out: ‘But you don’t look it’, ‘From how far back’, ‘Do you get lots of handouts?’ (Shannon Foster, “White bread dreaming”)

In Year 2 I was lined up with Aboriginal classmates to be checked for nits and, as I stood there with fingers being raked through my hair, I felt angry and embarrassed as my non-Indigenous classmates watched. I realised that … for some reason it was only supposed to be us Aboriginal kids that had nits. (Jared Thomas, “Daredevil days”)

None of us kids are allowed to go anywhere outside after dark by ourselves. We can’t ever go to the toilet at night: we gotta go in twos, and Mummy stands at the door and watches. She has a big bundi* ready in case there’s trouble … Terror is outside the door, and we can’t do anything about it. (Kerry Reed-Gilbert, “The little town on the railway track”)

It was hard selecting these quotes – not because they were hard to find but because there were so many options that it was hard to decide which ones. That’s the shame of it. And these stories come from all ages – from teenagers to those in their 70s or 80s –  and from all parts of Australia, from, as Heiss writes in her Introduction, “coastal and desert regions, cities and remote communities.” They come from “Nukuna to Noongar, Wiradjuri to Western Arrernte, Ku Ku Kalinji to Kunibídji, Gunditjamara to Gumbayanggirr and many places in between.”

The contributors include many well-known people – writers like Tony Birch and Tara June Winch, sportspeople like Patrick Johnson and Adam Goodes, performers like Deborah Cheetham and Miranda Tapsell –  but there are also lesser-known but no less significant people, many of whom are actively working for their people and communities.

Despite the devastating picture being painted, the book is not all grim. There are also positive repetitions in the book. They include deep connection to country, the importance and support of family, and particularly, the strength of mums. There’s humour in some stories: you can’t help but laugh, while you are also grimacing, at Miranda Tapsell’s story of her friends expecting her to turn up to a party as Scary Spice, but opting for Baby Spice instead (Miranda Tapsell, “Nobody puts Baby Spice in a corner”).

“two divided worlds”

One of the early stories is particularly sad because its 29-year-old author, Alice Eather, took her life before the book was published. In her person, in her story, in her life, she represents the challenge Indigenous people face in Australia today. Her story “Yúya Karrabúrra” starts with a poem. At the end of the poem she writes:

This poem is about identity, and it was a really hard thing to write in the beginning because identity is such a big issue. It’s a large thing to cover. The poem is about the struggle of being in between black and white.

Now Alice, like many in the book, had an Indigenous parent and a non-Indigenous one, but the struggle she names here is faced by every person in the book, regardless of their family backgrounds, because every one of them must contend with white society and culture, and it’s clearly darned hard.

I’m going to close on this idea of identity, because identity is the well-spring from which everything else comes. The stories are organised alphabetically by author, which I’m sure was an active decision made to not direct the conversation. Coincidentally, though, the last story – Tamika Worrell’s “The Aboriginal equation” – provides the perfect conclusion. It constitutes a strong, unambiguous statement of identity. She says:

I will not sit quietly while my identity is questioned. It doesn’t matter how many times you say you didn’t mean to be offensive, that doesn’t dictate whether or not I’m offended.

Then concludes with a hope that she

will live to see a future that is less ignorant, less racist and at least somewhat decolonised. Until then, I’ll continue to be an angry Koori woman, educating those who don’t understand and those who choose not to.

She’s not asking for the moon here is she? The least we can do is choose to understand – and we can start by reading books like this.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has also posted on this book, and there are several reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

* “bundi” is a Wiradjuri hitting stick I believe.

AWW Challenge 2019 Badge

Anita Heiss (ed.)
Growing up Aboriginal in Australia
Carlton: Black Inc, 2018
ISBN: 9781863959810

Carmel Bird (ed), The stolen children: Their stories (#BookReview)

Carmel Bird, The stolen childrenCommenting on my post on Telling indigenous Australian stories, Australian author Carmel Bird mentioned her 1998 book The stolen children, describing it as her contribution “to the spreading of indigenous stories through the wider Australian culture”. It contains stories told to, and contained in the report of, the National Enquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (Bringing them home)*. She offered to send me a copy, and of course I accepted (despite having read much about the Report at the time.)

Bird said in her comment that the book is “still regularly used in schools”. This is excellent to hear because it contains a history that needs to be told – forever, alongside all those other histories taught to Australian students. It needs to be as well (if not better) known by our students as the story of The Gold Rush or Our Explorers. We need to know it, we need, as a nation, to know our dark side, our failures, as well as our big adventures and achievements.

What makes this book particularly useful is Carmel Bird’s curation of it – and I would call what she’s done “curation” because of the complexity and variety of the writings she has gathered and organised. Bird has structured the book carefully to tell a story, with introductory front matter (including a preface from Ronald Wilson the National Committee’s prime commissioner); the Stories themselves; Perspectives from people at the time, including Hansard excerpts from politicians at the tabling of the Report; the Report’s Recommendations; and end matter comprising an Afterword from historian Henry Reynolds and a poem titled “Sorry” by Millicent whose story appears in the Stories section. Bird’s curation also  includes providing introductions to each of the stories to draw out important issues or points about that person’s situation, and adding other explanatory notes where appropriate.

This careful curation ensures that the book contains all the content and context it needs to stand alone as a resource for anyone interested in the Stolen Generations.

“It made no sense”

In her story, Donna says “It made no sense”. She’s describing her train trip away from her mother in the company of a white woman, a train trip she’d been initially excited about, thinking it was to be a family trip. However, with her mother staying behind on the platform and her brothers disappearing one by one as the journey went on, it just made no sense to her.

None of the stories make sense. And they are all heart-rending. Some children were given up willingly by their mothers, who believed it would result in better opportunities, and some, most, were stolen, often suddenly, with no explanation. Some were newborn, some pre-school or primary school-age, while others were 12 years old or more. Some found themselves in loving foster homes, but many found themselves in institutions and/or abusive situations. All, though, and this is the important thing, suffered extreme loss. They lost family and they lost language and culture. Fiona, for example, who will not criticise the missionaries who cared for her, says, on reconnecting with her family thirty-two years later:

I couldn’t communicate with my family because I had no way of communicating with them any longer. Once that language was taken away, we lost a part of that very soul. It meant our culture was gone, our family was gone, everything that was dear to us was gone.

Fiona also makes the point, as do several others, about the treatment of the mothers:

We talk about it from the point of view of our trauma but – our mother – to understand what she went through, I don’t think anyone can understand that.

The mothers, she said, “weren’t treated as people having feelings”.

The stories continue, telling of pain, pain and more pain. Murray says “we didn’t deserve life sentences, a sentence I still serve today”, and John talks of being a prisoner from when he was born. “Even today,” he writes, “they have our file number so we’re still prisoners you know. And we’ll always be prisoners while our files are in archives”. This is something that I, as a librarian/archivist, had not considered.

But, there’s more that makes no sense, and that’s the government of the time’s refusal to apologise, to satisfy, in fact, Recommendations 3 and 5a of the Report. This issue is covered in the Perspectives section, with extracts from speeches made by the then Prime Minister John Howard and the Minister for Aboriginal Torres Straight Islander Affairs Senator Herron who argue against making an apology, and from the Opposition Leader Kim Beazley and Labor Senator Rosemary Crowley, who made their own apologies. Crowley also says:

If ever there were a report to break the hearts of people, it is this one.

The Perspectives section also includes other commentary on the Report and the apology. There’s a letter to the editor from the son of a policeman who cried about his role in taking children away from “loving mothers and fathers”, and one from La Trobe Professor of History Marilyn Lake contesting the historical rationale for the practice of forcible removal. She argues that there had never been “consensus [about] the policy of child removal”. There’s also a long two-part article published in newspapers that year, from public intellectual Robert Manne. He picks apart the argument against making an apology, noting in particular Howard’s refusal to accept that present generations should be accountable or responsible for the actions of earlier ones. Manne differentiates between our role as individuals and as members of a nation:

we are all deeply implicated in the history of our nation. It is not as individuals but as members of the nation, the “imagined” community, that the present generation has indeed inherited a responsibility for this country’s past.

In the event, of course, an apology was made, finally, in February 2008, by Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. This, however, does not mitigate the value of Bird’s book. It has value, first, as documenting our history and the voices of those involved – indigenous people, politicians and commentators. And second, it contains thoughts and ideas that we still need to know and think about, not only for historical reasons, but because in the twenty years since the Report we have not made enough progress along the reconciliation path. It is shameful.

I loved Carmel Bird’s introduction. It’s both passionate and considered, and clearly lays out why she wanted to do this book. I’ll conclude with her words:

I think that perhaps imagination is one of the most important and powerful factors in the necessary process of reconciliation. If white Australian can begin to imagine what life has been like for many indigenous Australians over the last two-hundred years, they will have begun to understand and will be compelled to act. If we read these stories how can we not be shocked and moved …

“There can,” she says, “be no disbelief; these are true stories.” This is why the stolen generations should be a compulsory part of Australian history curricula (Recommendation 8a). It’s also why, to progress reconciliation, we should keep reading and listening to indigenous Australians. Only they know what they need.

aww2017 badgeCarmel Bird (ed)
The stolen children: Their stories
North Sydney: Random House, 1998
ISBN: 9780091836894

(Review copy courtesy Carmel Bird)

* For non-Australians who may not know this Enquiry, its first term of reference was to “trace the past laws, practices and policies which resulted in the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by compulsion, duress or undue influence, and the effects of those laws, practices and policies”. You can read the full Report online.

Ellen van Neerven (ed.), Writing black (#BookReview)

Writing black: New indigenous writing from Australia is one of the productions supported by the Queensland Writers Centre’s if:book that I wrote about in a recent Monday Musings. It’s an interactive e-book created using Apple’s iBooks platform, and can be downloaded free-of-charge via the if:book page or directly from iBooks.

Title page for Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi

Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi (Using fair dealing provisions for purposes of review)

Writing black was edited (and commissioned) by Ellen van Neerven (whose book Heat and light and story “Sweetest thing”, I’ve reviewed here). It contains works by 20 writers, in a variety of forms, including prose by writers like Bruce Pascoe, Tony Birch, and Marie Munkara; poetry by Tara June Winch, Lionel Fogarty, Kerry Reed-Gilbert and Steven Oliver (most of which are presented in both text and video); and twitter-fiction by Siv Parker. For each writer, there is a “title” page which provides a brief biography, and the works are illustrated with gorgeous sepia-toned photography by Jo-Anne Driessens.

In her editor’s introduction, van Neerven states that, by the time of publication, there had not been a “digital-only anthology of Australian indigenous writing”. This book addresses that gap, but with a very particular goal. It was, she writes, “moulded by possibility”, by the fact that “the multimedia and enhancements a digital publication allows lifts the imagination”. Certainly, we see some of these possibilities in this production.

Her point, though, that particularly interested me was this:

Expectations of what we write about are changing, no longer the narrow restriction of life stories and poetry. Indeed, Indigenous writers do not need to write about Indigenous issues at all, if they choose not to. With more Indigenous books and authors comes a new generation of readers — open-minded to what Indigenous writers can write about, and across new forms and experiences.

Great point – just as it’s important that we see indigenous people on television and in movies, for example, without their indigeneity needing to be referenced or be part of the story. Anyhow, we see this broadening of content in Writing black – in Jane Harrison’s “Born, still”, for example – although, not surprisingly and completely understandably, given where we are on the reconciliation journey, many of pieces do have political intent.

This brings me to one of the appealing aspect of this production, which is its variety, not only in form as I’ve already mentioned, but in tone and content. The pieces span moods from the intensity of Tara June Winch (“Moon”) to the cheeky humour of Marie Munkara (“Trixie”), from the anger of Kerry Reed-Gilbert (“Talking up to the white woman”) and the frustration of Steven Oliver (“You can’t be black”) to the melancholy of Bruce Pascoe’s (“A letter to Barry”). Many of the pieces speak to loss of country and identity, and the emotional impact of these. What makes them particularly powerful is that they come from all over, from the tropical north to country Victoria to various urban settings.

Another appealing thing, which stems from its being an e-Book, is that we can hear poets perform their own work, as well as read the text ourselves. One of these is the new-to-me Steven Oliver. He has four poems in the collection – “Real”, “You can’t be black”, “Diversified identity” and “I’m a black fella” – with video of him reading each of them. He (or his poetic persona) is an urban dweller who regularly confronts questions concerning his indigenous identity. In “Real” he describes a discussion with another who refuses to accept he’s “black”, who produces those crass arguments like he’s “more of a brown” and “not really a full”, but who suddenly turns when our poet responds that his English name suggests he’s not “from here”. Oliver writes:

Listen here Abo, you know-it-all coon
It seemed that my friend has spoken too soon
Just moments ago I was not the real thing
Yet now by his words my heritage clings

This is a long-ish poem, but is accessible. Its use of rhyming couplets provides a light touch that keeps the reader engaged while the actual words drive home a serious point about Aboriginal identity. I hope it’s taught in schools.

Another poem of his, “You can’t be black”, also addresses assumptions others make about what being Aboriginal is:

You can’t be black
When the media shows Aborigines they live on communities
And struggle with petrol, poverty and disease
So you can’t be black
If you’re black you wouldn’t have nice clothes on your back.

Oliver’s poems are made to be performed, as are those of the next poet Kerry Reed-Gilbert.

She also comes out fighting, with five poems. She writes of being in a bar, waiting for the racist slurs (“A conversation and a beer”), or of being exploited by people who only want to know her to further their own aims (“Talking up to the white woman”). She speaks in the voice of a white racist in “Because my mum said so” to show how racism is learnt through families. This is a particular concern of mine. I’ve seen schools trying their hardest to teach tolerance and respect – but that role-modelling at home is mighty powerful stuff.

Another well-established poet who has been politically active for decades is Lionel Fogarty. His two poems in this collection focus more on caring for country, on sharing the land, on passing knowledge on.

The prose pieces are, overall, more diverse. There’s Tristan Savage’s cheeky short film script, “Gubbament man” about Freddy the indigenous “discrimination prevention officer”. Siv Parker’s twitter-fiction piece “Maisie May” was originally released as tweets over several hours on, note, 26th January, in 2014. It tells of a trip to country for the funeral of Aunty Maisie May who “could tell you about country and our ways that we lost over the years.” Marie Munkara is here too with her particular brand of humour to tell about “Trixie” who takes revenge on her ex. There’s also Tony Birch whose “Deep rock” clearly draws from (or fed into) his novel Ghost River (my review). And there’s David Curtis whose “What kind dreaming” tells of three young indigenous men, two already becoming familiar with the life and law of their country and the other a greenhorn from the city, who go bush. Our greenhorn soon learns a few things from the other two, who respect “them old people”.

In an interview in Sydney Review of Books, Ellen van Neerven comments briefly on why she wanted to do this “digital collection”:

For me it’s as much about audience and access. There is a really hungry international audience for Indigenous writing but also lots of roadblocks in getting the books out there. Being able to access work online is definitely an advantage and we’ve had a lot of feedback and contact from people overseas who have been able to find out about Indigenous writing and read content from 20 different authors that way.

And that’s exactly it. This oh-so-rich collection introduces readers to many of Australia’s current significant indigenous writers, not to mention the range of issues that interest them. And it’s free to download. That we should be so lucky! A big thanks to if:book and the Queensland Writers Centre for supporting such innovative and sophisticated projects as this one.

aww2017 badgeEllen van Neerven (ed.)
Writing black: New indigenous writing from Australia
State Library of Queensland, 2014
ISBN: 9780975803059

David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short (eds), The near and the far: New stories from the Asia-Pacific region (Review)

David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short, The near and the far

Anthologies, almost by definition, have a unifying theme, something that explains their existence. There are the “best of” type, as in best of a year or of a genre, for example. There are those drawn from a prize, such as The trouble with flying, and other stories (my review) from the Margaret River Short Story competition. And of course there are subject-oriented ones like Rebellious daughters (my review) or Australian love stories (my review). David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short’s anthology, The near and the far, is another type. Its origin is a project called WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange) which, the editors tell us, is “a program of reciprocal residences and cultural events focused on writers and writing from Australia and the Asia-Pacific”. The residencies and events occurred in such places as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Australia. The aim was to enable Asia-Pacific writers to immerse themselves in the face-to-face exchange of ideas and collaborative experiences, in order to build cultural understanding and find, as one participant says, “sustainable ways of speaking amongst ourselves and relating to one another as cultural practitioners”.

The result is that the stories – and even the forms of the pieces – are varied. The book has been thoughtfully presented. There’s a foreword by Alice Pung and an introduction by the editors at the beginning, and some notes on WrICE and a list of contributors with mini-bios at the back. The stories themselves are organised into three groups – The Near, The Far, and The Near and The Far – though I’d probably have to think hard about why certain stories have been allocated their particular group. There are 21 stories, 15 of which, if I’ve counted correctly, are by women. There’s a lovely extra touch, which is that at the end of each story is an author’s reflection – on the writing process, the goals and/or the experience of WrICE. They were often illuminating.

Before we get to the stories – and of course I’m only going to be able to focus on a few – I’d like to share some comments from the foreword and introduction. In her foreword, Pung calls the book a travel anthology, and I suppose it is, in a sense, though I may not have described it that way if I hadn’t read her foreword! She says

The near and the far is one of those rare travel anthologies, combining fiction with poetry and longform essays, each piece revealing a real insider’s experience of inhabiting a different world without exoticising the foreign. Each story has a centre – whether philosophical, moral, or political – and yet none of them are didactic.

The editors talk of how our different colonial experiences had “left long shadows across our imaginations”. They refer particularly to “settler” Australians who live in what was seen as an “outpost” – further than the “Far East” – and yet who still tend to look to Europe and America for our main cultural input. “The far feels near”, they write, “and the near feels far away”. That makes a lot of sense – to me.

You think you know (Omar Musa)

Now the stories. They come from, as you’d expect, a diverse group of writers, from Australia and Vietnam, from the Philippines and America, and from many places in between. Some I knew – like Melissa Lucashenko, Omar Musa, Cate Kennedy, and of course Francesca Rendle-Short – but most were new to me. Many of the pieces explore in some way the idea of what we know and don’t know. They may be about ignoring what we know because it’s too painful, or because we fear the rejection of others. They may be about the disconnect between what we assume and what we find. Or they may simply be about facing something new or unexpected.

I loved that indigenous Australian writer Melissa Lucashenko’s story, “Dreamers”, was chosen to start the anthology. Set in rural Australia in 1969, two years after the famous referendum, it’s a beautifully structured and told story about the relationship that develops between indigenous woman and her non-indigenous employers. It’s a story about love, loyalty and tolerance, but manages to quietly reference, without being polemical, social change issues such as environmental protest and the stolen generations.

Not surprisingly, the theme of accepting – welcoming, hopefully – diversity runs through the book. In “My two mothers”, Singaporean Suchen Christine Lim shares a story about a young adopted girl’s shame at having two mothers, her unwillingness to appreciate their love and tender care, and her eventual recognition of what they had given her.

If you have ever read or heard Australian-Malaysian performance poet Omar Musa, you won’t be surprised to hear that diversity underpins his contribution, “You think you know”. In this first-person story he explores “the deeply troubling issues” regarding sexual identity in Malaysia through his narrator’s (presumably himself) friendship with a young Malaysian man met on a bus. It’s a quiet, reflective, wrenching story – quite different from the higher octane wordplay of his performance poetry.

A story using a completely different tone and pace is Chinese-Indonesian, now American writer Xu Xi’s “BG: The significant years”. In a time when scientists and historians argue about dating nomenclature – BCE/CE anyone? – Xu Xi has come up with her own, BG or Before Google! Google (created 19 August 2004, if you want to know) provides for her a significant life marker. In short chronological sections, starting with “BG 43 (circa 1961 to ’62)”, she chronicles her life – in a lightly satirical tone – from applying to go to university in America, to becoming a US citizen, and getting a job and then losing it in the 1986 stock market crash. Her commentary on life in the US is enlightening. Joining the unemployment queue meant, she writes, that “for once I wasn’t a minority, because the minority was the majority in that government office”! Telling eh?

There are many more stories I’d like to share: Laurel Fantauzzo’s second-person-told story, Some Hints About Travelling to the Country Your Family Departed, about going back to the place (in her case the Philippines) a parent came from; Francesca Rendle-Short’s “1:25,000” on the geologies of time, on memories, regrets and saying “no”; and Maxine Beneba Clark’s short, painful, 9/11-inspired “Aviation” in which accepting “other” is put to the test.

And then there’s David Carlin’s gender-bending, mind-bending “Unmade in Bangkok”. Inspired by Thailand’s ladyboys, he explores ideas about identity and gender. The story is told in ten sections, mostly in third person but slipping between male and female personas. In section four, “she” considers:

Women make themselves up, men do not. This is curious when she thinks about it. To be a woman, in this culture, is to be a creature dipped in fiction, whereas to be a man is to be altogether real or at least natural, unconstructed.

So she dresses up and considers: “What is she becoming? Ever more fictional? A character in drag?” I enjoyed how Carlin explored gender identity, using broader ideas about “fiction”. “Some fictions trap us”, he writes, “but other fictions free us”. For ladyboys the implications are serious. It’s a complex story which covers a lot of ground. I need to read it again.

I titled this section “you think you know” because in all the stories, the writers are seeking to know, not so life can be assured, or complete, but in the spirit of understanding, of growing. Alvin Pang, in the note to his story “The Illoi of Kantimeral”, discusses the invented language he used:

Their precise meanings may or may not be immediately discernible from context, but neither is the experience of engagement, negotiation, resistance, and mystery within the Asia-Pacific itself as straightforward as we might wish the world to be. There is humility and pleasure in earnest encounter, and in listening out for the inherent humanity of what we do not fully recognise.

Perfect! This is a book which confronts us with many ways of seeing and experiencing. Different stories will appeal to different readers, depending on experiences, but I hope I’ve given you a taste. Books like this deserve a bigger audience than they often get.


David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short (eds),
The near and the far: New stories from the Asia-Pacific region
Melbourne: Scribe, 2016
ISBN: 9781925321562

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman (eds), Rebellious daughters (Review)

Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman, Rebellious daughtersTo rebel or not to rebel, that is the question. At least, it’s the question that interested memoirists Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman who, having written their own stories about “conservative upbringings and subsequent rebellions”, wanted to discover what other women could reveal about that “universal life experience”, the rebellion against parents. This book, Rebellious daughters, is, obviously, the end result – and it makes for fascinating reading.

In their Introduction, Katsonis and Kofman quote American author Gordon Lish’s statement that the  best thing writers can do is to get themselves “in trouble”, to “make it hot” for themselves. This is what they wanted from their contributors, they wanted them to take risks – and it’s what they got.

Like most anthologies, Rebellious daughters has been carefully ordered. It starts with one of the grand-dames of Australian literature, Marion Halligan (“The daughters of debate”) who describes herself as “well-behaved”, as the “good girl” that so many of the later contributors rebelled against. But this is not to say that she didn’t engage in her own little subversions, such as reading forbidden books. They didn’t do her any harm, she writes, “the delicate ones were my parents.” I related to Halligan’s story because, like her, I was the eldest, “the one who came before, who paved the way” and didn’t rebel dramatically. But, enough of that, I’m talking order, structure, here.

The book ends with author-journalist Jane Caro (“Where mothers stop and daughters start”) who shares her daughters’ rebellions, the loud in-your-face one and the withdraw-and-don’t-engage one. Her motherly perspective provides a satisfying, logical conclusion to the anthology. And then, right in the middle, the ninth story of seventeen, is author-publisher Rebecca Starford’s “Who owns my story”. Drawing on her own life and memoir, Starford grapples with the form, with the ethics and practice of memoir writing. I was intrigued by the placement of this contribution, but it’s clever. Having read eight already, I was ready to think about the issues Starford posed, and then, as I read the final eight, I had them in mind.

So, what are the issues? Starford starts by quoting author JP Dunleavy, who said that “The purpose of writing is to make your mother and father drop dead with shame”. Starford likes this quote because

it reveals, simply and with a degree of sharp comedy, the risky nature of memoir writing.

She touches on several issues. One is the idea of shame, and whether it is “an emotion women memoirists suffer from more acutely than our male counterparts.” She thinks it is, and wonders if this is due to girls being taught that they should never speak out. She also explores “a nagging moral quandary”, that is, “the right” to tell stories that involve others. It is, she admits, “the biggest ethical question a memoirist faces” particularly when the memoir portrays these others “in an unflattering light”. She discusses the option of writing the story as fiction. (But we all know cases where people “see” through that – or think they do – don’t we!) Anyhow, she says that she couldn’t choose the fiction option:

For me, the act of writing a memoir was important to the process. If I’d written my experiences as fiction, I would have been hiding behind the genre, and that would have been self-defeating, less courageous, and less honest.

This makes sense to me – and implies that many memoirs are a form of catharsis or, at least, of resolving one’s past. This seems to be the case for Starford who concludes that her memoir has resulted in improved communications with her father. And, she says, while her memoir might have seemed like rebellion to him, for her it was about “seeking to understand him and my mother” and how her experiences as a child had shaped her.

Starford’s analysis of the personal and ethical implications of writing memoirs provides a wonderful grounding for understanding of the other “stories”. There’s a lot of pain here, but there’s also humour, occasionally laugh-out-loud, more often wry. Lee Kofman’s story (“Me, mother and Sexpo”) about taking her conservative Hassidic mother to the Sexpo exhibition is hilarious, but is also a lesson in the assumptions we make – particularly about our parents. Michelle Law’s (“Joyride”), on the other hand, perfectly captures her pain of rebelling only to discover that she’d misread the feelings of the boy in question.

Not surprisingly many of the stories are about tension over boys and sex. Krissy Kneen (“Wundermärchen: A retelling of my grandmother”), whose Steeplechase I’ve reviewed, comes to realise in the end that instead of being the rebellious granddaughter she thought she was, she had taken on her grandmother’s mantle, she’d become a storyteller who likes to shock the innocent. It’s just that her grandmother used death, where she uses sex.  In “Resisting the nipple”, Rochelle Siemienowicz, whose memoir Fallen I’ve reviewed, tells of her struggle against the “good girl” expectations of her strict Seventh-day Adventist family and then of her complicated feelings, particularly regarding her mother, when becoming a mother herself.

In many of the stories, the youthful rebels are shocked to discover things aren’t as they thought they were or would be. Jamila Rizvi (“The good girl”) is confused when she realises that a girl (like her baby sister for example) could be not-good but liked. Jo Case (“Rebelling to conform”), in her desperation to be popular, starts to do poorly at school only to realise, later, that some of those popular girls she was trying to emulate got good grades. And Amra Pajalic (“Nervous breakdowns”) is frustrated by her out-of-touch migrant mother’s nervous breakdowns until she realises the cause is a mental illness.

Not all the rebellions in the book are against mothers – some are against fathers and grandmothers – and not all are resolved but, in most of the stories, age and experience eventually bring rapprochement. That doesn’t mean of course that the daughters capitulate. Rather, they come to understand their mothers (or whomever) a little more and their mothers likewise learn to accept the daughter they have. As Susan Wyndham (“A man of one’s own”) concludes

life is a long lesson and from this distance I prefer to look back with tenderness on those riotous years … And for both of us I say, no regrets.

And that seems the perfect point on which to end my post on this engaging, sometimes shocking, but thoroughly generous and warm-hearted book.

Note: A percentage from the book’s sales is going to the Women’s Legal Service Victoria.

aww2017-badgeMaria Katsonis and Lee Kofman (eds)
Rebellious daughters: True stories from Australia’s finest female writers
Edgecliff: Ventura Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781925183528

(Review copy courtesy Ventura Press)

Edition de luxe: A collection of short stories

Edition de luxe: A collection of short stories inspired by our hotelsLast October, I wrote a Monday Musings post on writers-in-residence programs. The first one I listed, because I listed them alphabetically, was Accor Hotels MGallery Literary Collection. This is (or was?) a collaborative program with Melbourne’s The Wheeler Centre. Quoting what I wrote then, ‘it involved providing eight award-winning Australian writers with a short residence in one of Accor’s boutique MGallery hotels and commissioning those authors to write a short story which will be published in a book which will be “presented exclusively to guests at MGallery Hotels”.’ Well, it just so happens that this weekend we are staying in one of these hotels, and what did I find but the book of short stories titled Edition de luxe: A collection of short stories inspired by our hotels. Woo hoo!

It’s a nicely presented little book, with, for each writer, a brief bio, their short story, a brief history of the hotel plus that hotel’s special appeal, photographs, and a “memorable moment” describing something you might be able to enjoy if you stayed at the hotel. This is marketing after all, in addition to offering the treat of a bit of support to writers. The marketing bit comes to the fore when you look at the table of contents. It lists the title of the story, and the name of the hotel at (or about) which it was written, but NOT the name of the writer! Harumph. I’m always irritated when names of authors are not given due recognition in listings.

So, without further ado, I’m going to name the writers, 6 women and 2 men, who appear in the book. They are:

  • Favel Parrett (“Gold”)
  • Graeme Simsion (“Slideshow”)
  • Chris Flynn (“The prophecy, 1931”)
  • Robyn Annear (“Batman’s Hill lives”)
  • Toni Jordan (“Like a kindness”)
  • Debra Oswald (“Dog grooming”)
  • Alison Croggon (“Hello”)
  • Hannie Rayson (“Pip”)

I’ve read the stories – of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this! They are all 2-3 pages, some fiction, some not. They probably, the fiction ones anyhow, qualify as flash fiction, depending on your definition.

The first story, Favel Parrett’s “Gold”, is a little mood piece about what she sees from the balcony of her room at Mount Lofty House, “her” hotel, naturally. It’s non-fiction, and I enjoyed her description of the end of the day:

Time is measured in light. Evening shadows begin to stretch over the valley. The gold moves further and further away towards the horizon, chased by the sun going down.

Nice, peaceful.

The fiction pieces vary in tone from the poignant or sad, like Graeme Simsion’s “Slideshow”, with its little surprise ending, and Alison Croggon’s more worrying “Hello”, to the more lightly humorous, like Chris Flynn’s “The prophecy, 1931” about Walter Lindrum (set in Melbourne’s Hotel Lindrum) and Hannie Rayson’s sperm-donor-inspired final story in the collection, “Pip”. Historian Robyn Annear explores Melbourne’s Batman’s Hill, razed in the 1860s to make way for the railway, in her story “Batman’s Hill lives”, and Toni Jordan, in the Blue Mountains, recounts a chance encounter, which may or may not be real but which makes a sweet story, in “Like a kindness”. But, perhaps, though it’s hard to choose, I most liked Debra Oswald’s “Dog grooming” with its tale of subversion and catharsis.

I won’t say more. These are little pieces, perfect for reading in a hotel at the end of a busy working or travelling day. Quality writers, thoughtful stories. I wonder what, if any, feedback Sofitel/Accor and the Wheeler Centre have had, how the writers found the experience, and whether the project will be repeated.

Sam Tranum and Lois Kapila, Love on the road 2015 (Review)

Love on the road 2015, book coverRules, they say, are made to be broken, and so it was that I broke my rule* of not accepting overseas publications for review and said yes to a short story anthology from Ireland, Love on the road 2015: Twelve more tales of love and travel. I’m not exactly sure, in fact, why an Irish publisher offered me this book for review. Perhaps it’s because I’ve reviewed a collection, Pelt and other stories, by expat Australian Catherine McNamara who is included in this anthology. Whatever the reason, it didn’t take me long to break my rule on this occasion because I love short stories, because it includes an Australian (woman) author and, perhaps most importantly, because it’s an international collection and so offered me a perfect opportunity to diversify my reading.

The collection opens with a brief Foreword by the husband-and-wife editors. They explain that this is the second Love on the road collection, the first published in 2013. The collections are the end-product of a contest in which the editors called for submission from authors around the world “to send us their tales of love and travel, true or imagined”. In this second volume, one is true, the rest are fiction, and they are set all over the world, from Iran to the Philippines, from Zimbabwe to Costa Rica, from New Zealand to the USA.

Eight of the twelve stories are by women, and one of these is the true story. Written in second person by New Zealand writer Nod Ghosh, “Janus: A path to the future” tells of her husband’s decision, after thirty years together, to transition to female and describes their trip to Belgium for the first surgical procedure in the transition, facial feminisation. It’s a warm story about a strong love that transcends gender. Several of the stories are health-related. Catherine McNamara’s story, “Enfolded”, is about a woman visiting a past lover at his request, after an accident has left him, wheel-chair bound, with paralysed legs. The language is tighter and more restrained than many of the stories I’ve read by McNamara, but it perfectly matches the tension between the couple’s playful, no-strings-attached past and what future, if any, they might forge.

American writer Marlene Olin’s “Sunrise over Sausalito” is also health related, but its tone is upbeat. Indeed there’s a lovely variety in tone in this collection, which is something I like in anthologies. Anyhow, in this story an elderly widower has checked himself into a nursing home. He figures that since he’d checked himself in, he can also check himself out, which he does in a very special way (and no, I don’t mean by the usual way people check out of nursing homes!) It’s a warm, engaging story about how it’s never too late to fulfil your dreams.

Not all the stories are about positive relationships, though. American writer Shirley Fengenson’s “Not a finger more”, set mostly in Costa Rica, is a chilling first person story in which a wife describes her life with a physically abusing, emotionally controlling husband. Fergenson handles her first person narrator with confidence and compassion – and makes it all too real.

The four stories I’ve mentioned demonstrate the diverse ways in which the writers interpreted the theme, but it doesn’t stop there. And here’s the thing. Given the theme, I wasn’t really expecting the degree to which political issues would feature in the collection. It started with the first story, “The queue”, by Zimbabwean novelist Tendai Huchu. It was rather strange to be reading this story as we were hearing about Greek people queuing at ATM machines during their current crisis, because this story is about people lining up at the post office for their monthly pay cheques, though they need first to make sure that they are in the right queue – not the bread one, for example. It’s a story about attitude: are you or are you not able to make the best of a frustrating situation? This story’s tone of wry but hopeful resignation made it a perfect opener for this wide-ranging collection.

Other stories were more hard-hitting, such as Malawian writer Stanley Kennai’s “We will dance in Lampedusa” about a pair of hopeful young asylum-seekers trying to get from Tripoli to Italy by boat. Again, a timely story that might open a few eyes, if it ever got to the right ones. Even harder-hitting, though, is Tendayi Bloom’s cleverly titled “Manila envelope”. Bloom is an English political scientist specialising in migration policy. She has lived in the Philippines, though is currently based in Spain. Her story is a heart-sinking one about a naive Filipina teenager and the nefarious practices by which young women in poor countries are lured into foreign exploitative employment arrangements. This was a powerful story indeed, and is probably the one I’ll most remember.

Well, I think that’s half the stories. I can’t write about them all, but I did enjoy them all. The mother of the main character in “Sunrise over Sausalito” tells him that “Life … sends you detours”. And that’s what this book is about – the detours (or turning points) that we all face, and the way that love, of some sort, whether it be genuine and supportive, or exploitative and abusive, is usually behind those changes. Every story offers a different perspective, with a resolution to match. The editors have done an excellent job.

I must say I did chuckle over the front cover blurb written by Lane Ashfeldt, an Irish writer unknown to me. She describes the collection as “Vivid tales of life across the globe that let you travel while standing still”. I chuckled because at the conference on Emma I attended last weekend, we made fun of Mrs Elton’s complaint at the Box Hill picnic that she was “really tired of exploring so long on one spot”! In the case of this book, though, I’m with Ashfeldt. I was way too engaged to even notice that I had stayed on one spot – while my mind had flown around the world!

Sam Tranum and Lois Kapila (ed)
Love on the road 2015: Twelve more tales of love and travel
Dublin: Liberties Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781909718586

(Review copy supplied by Liberties Press)

* This rule is a pragmatic one. I just have to keep a lid on review copies to enable me to have some input into what I read!