Gabrielle Carey, Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (#BookReview)

I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim (nee Mary Annette Beauchamp, 1866-1941) back in the 1990s when Virago republished her first novel, Elizabeth and her German garden. Published in 1898, this novel, writes Gabrielle Carey, was an immediate hit, turning her, almost overnight, into one of England’s favourite authors. It was certainly a revelation to me.

I went on to read several of her books, including her pseudo-autobiography All the dogs of my life, over the next decade. I was completely charmed by her wit and humour together with her insights into love and marriage, and their impact, in particular, on women’s lives. Anyone who’s a Jane Austen fan couldn’t fail, I’m sure, to see von Arnim’s ancestry. I wrote one of my early Monday musings posts on her.

Book cover

What, a Monday Musings on Australian literature on Elizabeth von Arnim? It was cheeky I know – and I admitted it at the time. Yes, she was born in Australia, but yes, she left here, never to return, when she was three. However, I just wanted to write about her. And so, it seems did Gabrielle Carey, who opens her hybrid memoir-biography with

When I first discovered Elizabeth von Arnim, I found, for the first time, a writer who wrote about being happy. So much of my reading life – which essentially means so much of my actual daily life – had been spent reading miserable literature because, let’s face it, most literature is miserable.

Carey isn’t clear about when she discovered von Arnim in relation to when she started working on this book, but says that once she discovered von Arnim, she became something of a “von Arnim evangelist”. She was “incensed” that von Arnim had been so completely forgotten. I could relate to this, because I felt the same. Unfortunately, my evangelising didn’t go far because no-one in my reading group had heard of her when I recommended that we do one of her novels as our “classic” this year. More on that, then.

If you are among those you don’t know this writer, you might be surprised to hear that several biographies have been written about her, including three in the last decade. I have two of them, Jennifer Walker’s more traditional literary biography, Elizabeth of the German garden: A literary journey, published in 2013, and Gabrielle Carey’s. The third is Joyce Morgan’s The countess from Kirribilli, published in 2021. Just this should tell you something about the fascination with which this woman is held, this woman who published 21 books, whose first cousin was Katherine Mansfield, and who knew EM Forster, had an affair with HG Wells and married (among others) Bertrand Russell’s brother. She had a life – and then some!

OK, so I’ve written quite a bit about Elizabeth von Arnim, but not much about Gabrielle Carey’s book. Only happiness here is the third sort-of literary biography that Carey has written, the other two being Moving among strangers (my review) about Randolph Stow and her family’s connection with him, and Falling out of love with Ivan Southall about her losing faith in this childhood writing idol. Carey, it seems, likes to explore her subject matter through the prism of her own life and experience (a bit like Von Arnim did with her fiction). This is not to everyone’s taste, but when done well, like, for example, Jessica White’s Hearing Maud (my review), it can be both engaging and effective.

I loved White’s book for the way she explored Maud Praed (daughter of novelist Rosa Praed) through their joint experiences of deafness, neatly marrying information with activism. Carey’s book has a very different driver, one I foreshadowed in the opening quote from her book. A few pages on, Carey makes her goal clear:

What did Elizabeth von Arnim understand about happiness that no other writer I’ve ever come across did? And is it something I too might be able to learn?

She wanted to know “the secret to her enviable ability to enjoy life” because it was clear from her novels and journals that she did, despite the many trials she faced. Indeed, the book’s title is the sign von Armin put over the door of her Swiss chalet. Carey argues that von Arnim “was, perhaps unknowingly, one of the earliest proponents of positive psychology”. Carey was so serious about her goal that amongst the end-matter in her book is a page titled “Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles of Happiness”. There are nine, but if you want this bit of therapy you are going to have to read the book yourself! However, to whet your appetite, the first one is “Freedom”.

Carey tells her story – I mean, von Arnim’s story – chronologically, regularly interspersing her own reflections and experiences in relation to von Arnim’s. An early example occurs when she writes about von Arnim’s first marriage to the much older Count von Arnim, and her novel inspired by this, The pastor’s wife (albeit the Count was not a pastor!) In this novel, von Arnim writes that “Ingeborg in her bewilderment let these things happen to her”. Carey immediately follows this with:

How well I understand this experience of letting things happen. All my life I had let things happen to me, often without my consent.

And she then spends nearly two pages exemplifying this from her life. Mostly this approach of Carey’s was interesting, even illuminating, but there were times when it felt a little too self-absorbed. However, this didn’t overly detract from what is a thoughtful introduction to von Arnim and her work. In under 250 pages, Carey manages to tell us something about almost every one of Von Arnim’s books – how each one fit into her life, what aspects of her life it drew from, and how it was received at the time. In that same number of pages, she conveys the richness of von Arnim’s long and event-filled life. I’m impressed by how succinct and yet engaging the book is, and am not surprised that it was shortlisted for the 2021 Nib Literary Award. I should add here that while the book is not foot-noted – its not being a formal “literary biography” – there are two and a half pages of sources at the end.

So, what did I, as a reader of von Arnim, get from this book, besides a useful introduction to her complete oeuvre? Well, firstly, I got a deeper understanding of how much of her oeuvre drew from her own life, and from that I got to better understand her attitude to marriage and to the relationship between men and women, and to her exploration of, as Carey puts it, “the clash between the concept of the ideal and the real”. I also got to understand more about her times, its literary milieu, and her place within it – and to see how we can never really foretell which writers will survive and which won’t. When von Arnim died, obituary writers were sure she’d not be forgotten. They also believed she’d be far more remembered than her shorter-lived cousin, the above-named Katherine Mansfield. But …

… as Carey sums up, “her style of conventionally plotted novels, however, rebellious, insightful or entertaining, soon went out of literary fashion”, because, wrote English novelist Frank Swinnerton, “her talent lay in fun, satirical portraiture, and farcical comedy”. These, he said, were ‘scorned by the “modern dilemma”‘. We are talking, of course, of Modernism, which, as Carey puts baldly, “didn’t believe in happiness”, a value that has carried through to today.

I will leave this here, because I want to return to it in a separate post. Meanwhile, I’d argue that while von Arnim’s books might be witty, they are not simplistic. They come from an astute and observant mind that was able to comment both on the times and on universalities in human nature. They may not have Modernism’s bleakness, but they aren’t light fluff either. Carey’s simple-sounding quest has, I think, touched on something significant.

Brona (This Reading Life) enjoyed this book, which she ascribes to the bibliomemoir genre.

Gabrielle Carey
Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim
St Lucia: UQP, 2020
249pp.
ISBN: 9780712262975

Jane Sinclair, Shy love smiles and acid drops (#BookReview)

Jane Sinclair’s hybrid biography-memoir, Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage, is an unusual book. Covering around two years in her parents’ life, this book comprises, mostly, letters sent between her parents between April 1960 and July 1962 when Sinclair and her mother were in England while her father remained in Australia. Between the letters (and some entries from her mother’s journal), Sinclair adds explanatory information, which ensures the narrative flow.

Sinclair was 5 to 7 years old when these letters were written. Being so young, her memory of that time is scattered, but she has clearly thought much about her parents in her adult life. Also, she remembers family stories of those times told to her later, and she did discuss her parents’ relationship with them, though, as is the way with such things, not as much as she wishes she had. The book was inspired by her finding the letters that underpin this book.

What makes this book particularly interesting is who her parents are, the artist Jean Langley and music critic John Sinclair. You may or may not have heard of them, but these two were part of mid-twentieth century Melbourne’s arts and music scene. In particular, they had close connections with the Heide artistic community, which inspired Emily Bitto’s award-winning novel, The strays (my review), and which was created by two art-lovers and philanthropists, John and Sunday Reed. This community was famous for two things, the art produced there and the complicated personal relationships amongst its members.

Some of Australia’s best-regarded modernist artists were associated with Heide, people like Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, and Joy Hester, all of whom appear in this book. Artist Arthur Boyd was also close to these people, though not part of the community. However, Heide was just as well-known, as Wikipedia puts it, for “the intertwined personal and professional lives of the people involved”. Sunday Reed herself had affairs with several in the community, with her husband’s knowledge. This art history is what primarily attracted me to the book, but it was the background rather than the focus that I’d hoped. Instead, Shy love smiles and acid drops is exactly what it says it is, the story of “a difficult marriage”. As we are told on the back cover

when Jane Sinclair was five her mother Jean Langley followed her lover, Arthur Boyd, to London and took Jane with her. This book covers the two years they live there before returning to Australia in 1962, by which time her mother is three months pregnant to an Englishman.

“Your letter makes me cross” (Jeannie)

The letters are difficult reading because of the emotional pain and distress they contain. There are some fascinating insights into London and England at a time when many Australians saw it as a mecca for arts and culture. Indeed, while Jean Langley was there, living near the Boyds, so were their friends, Barry Humphries and his wife.

In her introduction, Sinclair speaks of how the letters caused her to “seriously question” her mother’s “version of herself as the aggrieved, wronged wife that she had cultivated and genuinely believe to be true”. Sinclair was also sorry that she had never allowed her father, who died twenty-five years before her mother, to tell his side of the story. This is understandable given when he died, she had probably not reached that age of (hopefully) wise reflection many of us do later in our lives, that age when we start to really see our parents as human beings, rather than seeing them through the prism of their relationship with us. I think this is so, in even the best of parent-child relationships?

Anyhow, Sinclair tells us that her parents’ relationship was “intense and difficult” from the start. They separated many times, but “there remained an irresistible attraction that kept them returning to each other”. Eleven years of age separated her mother and father, but it seems that personality difference (“not compatible emotionally”) was the essential problem. John Sinclair apparently tended to melancholy and depression, while Jean Langley was a romantic. “She could create sparkle and shine” and “wanted the world to be a beautiful place of happy endings”. All this comes through the letters. John expresses his sadness, his missing his wife and daughter, while Jeannie expresses her frustration with him, and her increasing disappointment with life and human beings, as things become more and more complicated. The England she adored at the beginning of her trip is not so great when it becomes cold and grey, and as the reality of never having enough money sets in.

“a riddle, muddle, fiddle, diddle” (Jeannie)

But what comes through even more is miscommunication, and particularly what seems to be Jeannie’s wilful misreading of John’s letters. When he invites her to return home on her terms – meaning she can live separately from him if she wishes – Jeannie seems to misread that wilfully, insisting again and again that she can’t be his wife, she won’t sleep with him, and so on. Readers wonder where she reads this, because we don’t.

At times, I put my feminist hat on and wondered whether there was something about John that we don’t know. Should I be supporting my down-trodden sister, I started to wonder? But, while there are, naturally, gender issues to do with women’s place in the mid-twentieth century, I don’t read a woman wronged by her husband here. I read a woman who, due to her own personality, and upbringing perhaps, regularly let emotion cloud her ability to reason – to her own detriment as well as those around her. She falls in and out of love twice during this English sojourn – besides the apparently abiding love for Arthur Boyd – and admits in June 1962 that, “I seem to have made a mess of my emotions”.

As the narrative progresses, daughter Jean notes that her mother, who liked to see herself as truthful, strayed often from it:

My mother believed in her emotional truth, and unfortunately for my father, it was sometimes very far from reality.

Reading this, I think I would say more than “sometimes”. I have known people like Jeannie, people who have such a zest for life but who wear their emotions so close to the surface that they can’t reason through what is really happening. They can be both joyful and draining to be around, and this is how Jeannie comes across.

This is not my usual review, because, in a sense, it’s hard to review such a personal book. Indeed it’s so personal that it’s worth thinking about its target. There’s some interesting social history here – life in the 60s, the experience of Aussie artistic expats in London, the challenges of communication in those pre-electronic communications days. There’s also a little about the the art world, the odd reference to a Boyd or Nolan exhibition, to the Blackmans, and to Brett Whiteley whom Jeannie calls “a shocking little upstart”. But, overall, this is a nicely presented but intense story of a “difficult marriage”, and it will appeal mostly to those interested in human relationships.

Read for #ReadIndies month (kaggsysbookishramblings and Lizzy’s Literary Life). Hybrid is a Melbourne-based independent publisher, with a special but not exclusive interest in Judaica. I have reviewed many of their books over the years.

Jane Sinclair
Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2021
279pp.
Cover art: from oil painting by Jane Sinclair
ISBN: 9781925736588

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

Cindy Solonec, Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez (#BookReview)

Cindy Solonec’s Debesa is one of those curious hybrid biography-memoirs that are appearing on the scene. Its subtitle describes it as The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez, implying biography, but in fact, Frank and Katie are Solonec’s parents and so the book also incorporates some of her own story as part of the family. I’ll return to this later, but will start with the main content, the biography.

Debesa spans four generations of the family, starting in the 1880s with Solonec’s maternal great-grandparents, but it centres, as the Media Release says, “on the unlikely partnership of Cindy’s parents: Frank Rodriguez, once a Benedictine novice monk from Spain, and Katie Fraser, who had been a novitiate in a very different sort of abbey – a convent for ‘black’ women at Beagle Bay Mission” north of Broome. The Release also explains that Debesa is a rewriting of Solonec’s 2016 PhD thesis which “explored a social history in the West Kimberley based on the way her parents and extended family lived during the mid-1900s”. What Solonec does in the book, then, is to turn her thesis into a readable history and a family memoir, a combination that is becoming an increasingly acceptable approach to historical writing.

There is some contention about this tree’s prison use, but not about its cultural significance.

I was keen to read Debesa for a few reasons, not least being that I’ve been to the Kimberleys (east and west) and am intrigued by this beautiful region and its complicated history. I grew up being aware of its pastoral history, particularly regarding the Durack family and the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and I came to understand some of its colonial past when I saw such “sights” as the Boab Prison tree in Derby during my visits there. As Solonec’s family story is contemporaneous with the mid-twentieth century Duracks and the Ord River scheme, it was enlightening to see this world from a smaller and more marginalised perspective. I say “smaller” because Frank and Katie’s property, the titular Debesa, was a small pastoral holding, and “marginalised” because Katie’s “mixed descent” Indigenous (Nigena) background meant the family was always on the outer.

Solonec sets the scene in her Introduction by providing a brief history of the Kimberley’s colonial history, one founded on “the ideology that everyone must live like white people. Speak their language. Adapt to the ways. And marry lighter skinned people …”. It’s the same story that we’ve read before – people dispossessed, country spoiled, and children stolen. In her early chapters, Solonec documents the family’s story from the time of her maternal great-grandparents, Indian immigrant Jimmy Casim/Nygumi and his Nigena wife, Muninga. Their daughter, Solonec’s grandmother Jira, was born in 1900 and stolen with her cousin in 1909. Designated as orphans and renamed Phillipena and Francesca, they were taken to Beagle Bay Mission, leaving their mothers distraught.

Alongside the stealing of children was the stealing of the land:

On stations along Mardoowarra [lower Fitzroy River], land was fundamental to Nigena existence. They knew every part of that country intimately. Their neighbours and the broader Australian post people’s concept of ‘country’, their religious attachment, their awareness of food sources, was inherent to their way of life. They knew the call, cry, track of every living creature. Everything that breathed, every hill, every creek, crevice and outcrop and night sky with its myriad of galaxies, they knew by name. The seasons dictated their movements and their care for country within pliable boundaries. No-one ever got lost.

But, the Nigena had to watch, Solonec writes, as their land was taken for pastoralism and their sacred sites destroyed and/or renamed. Her extended family, “like refugees in their own country, lived in bush camps near the homesteads” and the women were preyed upon by “lecherous, irresponsible guide menfolk”. There is nothing new here, but Solonec puts flesh on the bone by telling it through the prism of her own family.

In chapter 3, we meet Solonec’s parents, Frank, who migrated from Galicia, Spain, in 1937, and Katie, whose parents were the stolen Phillipena and Fulgentious, a Nigena man with a white stockman father. Together they forge a life, drawing on their deep and shared commitment to Catholicism. They take work where and when they can, Frank as a trusted builder and Katie a respected cook and station-worker. They raise and educate their four children, acquire their own land, and slowly build a home and establish a small pastoral business, Debesa. Theirs was a partnership in every sense of the word. Solonec makes the interesting observation that Aboriginal cultures and European peasant cultures, from which Frank had come, have much in common, including a “strong sense of kin”. And, of course, Frank as a non-English migrant, had his own experience of bigotry and prejudice.

Biography? Memoir?

There’s excellent historical research here about life in the Kimberley, with illuminating “short histories” of subjects like mustering and wage disparity, and discussion of issues like the divisive and destructive “exemptions” from the Native Administration Act. (Tony Birch addresses similar exemptions in his novel, The white girl.)

To write this book, academic Solonec drew, rightly, on a large body of secondary sources and other life-writing about the region – all of which is documented in the thorough bibliography at the end – but she also had her father’s diaries, which provided the book’s “chronological framework”, and the stories of her mother and extended family passed on through oral tradition. She writes that, fortunately:

Aboriginal peoples still uphold past events through oral histories … I was excited to find that their stories were not that hard to cross reference with the literature. Their memory vaults with stories that have been handed down served them well, confirming the reliability of Indigenous intelligence.

(I suspect she means “intelligence” in both meanings here.)

As I opened this post, though, the book is a curious mix. The first half reads like a traditional biography while the second half slips more into memoir. This is heralded in the Introduction where Solonec describes her aim as

wanting to leave a documented account for posterity about the way marginalised peoples lived in the Mardoowarra (Fitzroy River) region during the middle of the twentieth century. A social history as experienced by my families. I wanted to leave an account of ordinary people’s everyday lives that would not otherwise be recorded. An account based on my parents’ joint biography.

This is perfectly valid, and she achieves what she set out to do. Her approach does, however, raise some questions, particularly towards the end, where there’s a risk of the subjective blurring the objective, making the truth potentially hard to discern. Solonec is justly proud of her parents’ achievements, and certainly they had much to contend with, but there’s a sense that all the problems they had were external, which seems unrealistic. I don’t believe, however, that this invalidates the critical historical truths contained here. In fact, the warmth of the story makes Debesa an approachable history which, given the significance of its subject, is a good thing.

Lisa also reviewed this book, engendering some good discussion.

Cindy Solonec
Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez
Broome: Magabala Books, 2021
264pp.
ISBN: 9781925936001

(Review copy courtesy Magabala Books)

Alison Croggon, Monsters (#BookReview)

Alison Croggon’s Monsters: A reckoning is a demanding but exhilarating read, demanding because it expresses some tough feelings, and exhilarating because of the mind behind it, the connections it makes and the questions it asks. Coincidentally, it has some synchronicities with my recent read, Sarah Krasnostein’s The believer. Both talk about “uncertainty”, and both conclude by talking about “love”, but beyond these two ideas are very different books.

Monsters is categorised on its back-cover as narrative nonfiction/memoir. However, it could also be described as an essay collection, albeit a linked-essay collection, because each individually-titled chapter seems to take up an issue – or return to an earlier issue – and riff on it, though riff is too frivolous a word for what Croggon does.

The book has an interesting trigger and an even more interesting trajectory. The trigger is the final breakdown in what had been a very difficult relationship with her sister. The trajectory is to explore this through the lens of colonialism, the “colonial project”. It’s audacious, really, and yet it makes a lot of sense. It certainly adopts the idea that the personal is the political with a vice-grip that doesn’t let go.

I’ll start with the memoir part. Threading through the essays are references to her white middle-class family. She starts, in the first two chapters – “The curse” and “Ancestors” – with a quick expose of the family tree. It goes back to the 1100s, but she focuses mostly on the 19th century’s Great Uncle Bee who was heavily implicated in “the colonial project”. Her thesis is that “colonisation is, necessarily, a process of traumatisation for everyone who is born in the system”. Croggon does not wish to diminish its greatest impact on the colonised but her point is that the “system” damages everyone. She argues, albeit using “a small, wonky, uncertain line”, that the attitudes and values inherent in the system can (even, perhaps, must) poison personal relationships. She writes, two-thirds through the book:

I was born as part of a monstrous structure – the grotesque, hideous, ugly, ghastly, gruesome, horrible – relations of power that constituted colonial Britain. A structure that shaped me, that shapes the very language that I speak and use and love. I am the daughter of an empire declared itself the natural order of the world.

The memoir part, the family part, particularly regarding her sister, is tough and hard – and I admit that I would not want to be her sister reading this book. However, although Croggon has the pen in her hand, so of course we feel her pain at “the fracture”, she does not absolve herself of her role. Indeed, at the end – and she means personally and politically, I believe – she talks of “attempting to understand my own complicities”.

“Are we irrevocably broken by our histories?”

Here is where the essay aspect of this intriguing work illuminates, because, in different but sometimes overlapping essays/chapters, she explores issues like patriarchy, whiteness, feminism, primarily as they play out through “the colonial project”. Take, for example, her analysis of patriarchy and its impact on the relationship between women: “how it distorts and destroys relationships between women: how it creates this deadly competition…” Competiton being, of course, fundamental to colonialism.

Now, I wanted to reject this because I do not feel in competition with women – I have always loved the sisterhood – but, I can’t ignore the overarching point she is making, one that’s bigger than my little world. She continues:

For centuries, our foundational cultural texts have said, over and over again, that women are without worth.

I could easily (but naively) dispute this by pointing to my life, but I have to admit to my privilege and, whether conscious or not, to the entitlement under which I live. I am therefore willing to accept Croggon’s thesis regarding colonialism – and its impact on the personal as well as the political:

We are both [she and her sister] the product of a machine that has spent centuries concealing its violence, that pours countless resources into disguising its greed for resources and power as an exercise in human progress.

This machine is fed, as Croggon sees it, by a faith in binaries: “good/bad, men/women, white/black, right/wrong, guilty/innocent”. These binaries “profoundly infected” her relationship with her sister but, as she explores through her essays, they also underpin the colonial view of the world that permeates so much of our thinking and behaviour still today. We have not, as we know, shaken off the bonds of our colonial past, and if there’s one thing Croggon rams home, with erudition and sophistication, it’s how deeply ingrained colonial thinking is in everything we do. To put it simply, colonialist cultures are racist, sexist, hierarchical, and rely on “conquest, erasure, entitlement” to survive.

One of my favourite, one of the most clarifying essays/chapters, is “The whiteness”. In one chapter she pulls apart denotation, connotation, implication, and more. She says that “whiteness isn’t really about skin colour. Like blackness, it’s a category”. She writes that “the savagery of whiteness, its pettiness, its hypocrisy, its dishonesty, its murderousness: these are hard things to understand about oneself.” She writes of the whiteness that is able to argue its own victimhood. And, she admits to discomfort with prodding the traumas of her white family in the face of Black anguish.

It is uncomfortable being white today, with all our privileges – and it is even more uncomfortable that such a weak word as “uncomfortable” probably adequately describes our feelings and uncertainties.

You can probably see by now that this is not a simple read. It’s certainly not one you can dip into and read an “essay” at random, because the argument is entwined through memoir. It’s fragmented, and draws on a seemingly random group of thinkers and writers against which she bounces her own ideas. It requires concentration to follow the links and connections, the slipping back-and-forth between the personal and the political, but, as I flip through the book to write this post, what I see are a lot of “Yes” marks in the margin.

Some of these “yeses” relate to sharing some experiences, such as a childhood love of reading, or to seeing the world similarly, but others relate to the questions she leaves us with, because there are no answers here.

Towards the end comes the admission that “I can’t see what I can’t see”. Of course! But this is also the cry of someone who wants to see more. Also near the end, she returns to her relationship with her sister, and the role of patriarchal norms and colonialism’s assumptions in its collapse. She says “I can’t see how it can be undone”. This is the biggest – and, to be honest, most confronting – question Croggon leaves us with. Can it be done? Can we unlearn colonialism’s cruel premises and heritage, so that we can undo what we have done?

Challenge logo

Alison Croggon
Monsters: A reckoning
Melbourne: Scribe, 2021
275pp.
ISBN: 9781925713398

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Alf Taylor, God, the devil and me (#BookReview)

It was a complete coincidence that, as I was writing last week’s Monday Musings post on diversity and memoir, I was also reading a First Nations memoir, but such is the reading life, eh? The memoir, Alf Taylor’s God, the devil and me, is, however, both very much a memoir but also its own thing, which I’ll explain as we continue.

For those who, like me, hadn’t heard of Alf Taylor, here is a brief bio. He grew up in the Benedictine-run New Norcia Mission, Western Australia, escaping when he was fifteen years old. He then worked around Perth and Geraldton as a seasonal farm worker, before joining the Australian Army. Eventually, he “found his voice as a writer and poet”, and has had three collections of poetry and short stories published, including one also published in Spanish. He has given readings at festivals and events in Australia, England, France, India and Spain. The memoir’s Foreword describes him as the leading “Elder Nyoongar writer in Western Australia, as Kim Scott [who has appeared on my blog] is the leading younger writer”.

God, the devil and me is typical memoir in that it focuses on a particular aspect of Taylor’s life, his time at New Norcia from around 7 years old to his escape as a 15-year-old. We are talking the 1950s and 60s, which is horrifying to this 50s-60s child! As he tells it, he asked his parents, on a visit to the mission, if he could stay because his brother was there. So the die was cast, but very soon he realised it had not been a good request. Although his father and brothers, and his father’s mother had all gone “through New Norcia Mission”, and had become “good Catholic[s]”, for him it was a terrible experience. His story is one of unremitting brutality – including regular use of straps and sticks to keep the children in line, a diet that consisted primarily of “sheep’s head broth”, and inappropriate clothing – and utter rejection of the children’s Indigenous language and culture.

But, God, the devil and me, is also quite different from your usual memoir. For a start, and most significantly, it’s not told chronologically. Instead, it constantly shifts around, telling various stories ranging over his time at New Norcia. On the surface, the book looks like a bunch of, often quite short, anecdotes but, these stories are connected, not so much chronologically, as thematically, with one occasion or story usually leading organically to another. The end result is an impressionistic – if Dickensian – picture of life at New Norcia, rather than a coherent life story.

Many themes run through the memoir, the brutality, the sadness and loneliness, and alcohol, to which he is introduced through helping the priests with the altar wine. He doesn’t shy from intimating his own later problems with alcohol and he makes clear that many of his Mission friends had died early due to it. Another major thread of course is religion, and his introduction to God and the Devil, who, he is told by the priests, will always be with him. Early in the memoir, alcohol and God are intrinsically linked in his mind:

‘Taylorrr, you’rrre neverrrr going to make it in life. When you get out of herrrre, you arrrre going to get a flagon, find a shady tree and drrrink yourrrrself to death. All of you.’

Being so young, I clasped my hands in prayer and whispered, ‘Yes, Brother, I am going to do all those things when I grow up.’ I agreed with Brother Augustine because I thought that God was passing those words to the brother, who in turn, spat them at me.

Here we see one iteration of the memoir’s underlying idea, the confusion in the young Alf’s mind about religion – what it meant, who God was, how Jesus fit in, not to mention the role of the Brothers in it all. Near the end of the memoir is a surreal scene in which the sleeping Alf leaves his body and ascends to Heaven where he meets (good) Judas and (drunk) Peter. In this scene, Alf finds/creates/discerns a more charitable Christianity than he has experienced at the Mission (which, he sees as being worse than Hell could ever be).

“turn sorrow into laughter”

Alf Taylor is clearly a storyteller. He convincingly embodies his young self when writing about his childhood. The memoir is fundamentally political, but you don’t hear words like “invasion” or “dispossession”. What you hear is a mish-mash of history as young Alf understood it. White Australians are generally referred to as Captain Cook’s Australians and the government, Captain Cook Government. He describes a visit to the Mission of the “Native Affairs men and women”. When asked who founded Australia,

of course, at the top of our lungs, we all shouted in unison ‘Captain James Cook’ with such pride that even old Jimmie Cook himself would’ve risen from the grave and saluted us little Native children.

Similar, usually self-deprecating, humour recurs throughout. Taylor is one of those writers who can use humour to inject a sting in the tail. Here is another moment. Injured by a rock, he is taken to hospital in Perth, where:

I was in for the shock of my life – there were little Captain Cooks lying everywhere; there seemed to be a million of them, and not one little blackfella around.

And, what’s more, he notices that “the gawking Watjella kids all looked the same”!

However, Taylor’s experience isn’t all bad. There are bright moments. Footy is one, but best is when they can get out into the bush. It is in these moments that young Alf is happiest:

running free through the bush, watching the birds fluttering through the leaves or sitting by a stream watching a babbling brook hiss its foam at you was magic … to me, the bush was Heaven. Only Watjellas went to Heaven; we Nyoongahs, when we died came back as a bird or an animal, even as a newly formed brook to quench the thirst of other weary Nyoongah kids … I mean, to me, the bush was everything, my mother, my father; to me, in the bush, I could do no wrong; the fire of Hell did not exist.

He recognises his Ancestors as being the source of his true spirituality – and yet, there is always the overlay of “God, the devil and me”. How DID that fit in with everything else?

Early in the memoir, Taylor shares that the “best thing” he got from New Norcia was learning to read and write. These, he said, were “my weapons” and he devoted much time to them. He also talks about the love of books, and “sneaking off to the library” when others were playing: “a book was like magnetism to me and the pencil was my friend”.

I will leave it here. With its strong content and seemingly disjointed structure, God, the devil and me is not an easy read, but it pays persistence with gold, because this voice, while different from other First Nations voices, complements them and adds depth to the truths we are hearing.

Contribution for Brona’s AusReadingMonth2021.

Alf Taylor
God, the devil and me
Broome: Magabala Book, 2021
289pp.
ISBN: 9781925936391

Review copy courtesy Magabala Books

Marie Younan with Jill Sanguinetti, A different kind of seeing: My journey (#BookReview)

In many ways, Marie Younan’s A different kind of seeing: My journey is a standard memoir about a person overcoming the limitations of her disability which, in this case, is blindness. It’s told first person, chronologically, from her grandparents’ lives through her birth in Syria to the present when she is in her late 60s and living in Melbourne. However, there are aspects of her story which add particular interest, and separate it, in a way, from the crowd.

One of these aspects is that Younan’s story is not only a story about blindness, but about migration and cultural difference. Younan is Assyrian, and was born, the seventh of 12 children, in the small village of Tel Wardiyat in northeast Syria. Her maternal and paternal grandparents moved, variously, through Turkey, Iran, Russia, Greece and Kurdistan escaping genocide and persecution before they all ended up in Tel Wardiyat. In her own life, Younan’s family moved to Beirut, but with some of the family having already migrated to Melbourne and with civil unrest increasing in Lebanon, more of the family applied to migrate to Australia. Younan herself was initially rejected because of her blindness, so, while her parents left for Melbourne in 1975, she returned to Syria, before moving to Athens to an older sister. Finally, in 1978, and now in her mid-20s, she was granted a visa for Australia joined her parents and family. (What a kind nation we are!)

If this wasn’t enough challenge, Younan’s life was also affected by her conservative upbringing. The book starts with a little prologue chapter describing how, at the age of 7, she came to properly understand her difference, that she is blind:

it dawned on me that there was a ‘thing’ called seeing that everyone else could do except me […]

It was the day my life as a blind person began.

We gradually come to realise that Younan was, as a child, doubly disadvantaged, because while she was brought up lovingly, nurtured by parents and siblings, she was excluded from so much that could have helped her develop as a person. She was not allowed to go to school; she was not allowed to go to big family events like weddings; and when a doctor suggested a corneal transplant for her when she was 10, her grandmother and father refused, because they didn’t believe such a thing was possible. Further, when she was 12, a relative offered to take her to a boarding school for blind girls – so she could “learn something and grow up with knowledge” – but her grandmother and father again opposed it. Her father said,

‘I’ve got 12 children, and I’m not sending one to boarding school, especially if she’s disabled.’

She was heartbroken, asking her mother why not. She didn’t “know anything about the world, or about life”, and badly wanted to. Yet, she expresses no bitterness in the book towards her family. Indeed, she dearly loves and respects them.

Anyhow, she arrives in Australia, highly dependent on her family and functionally illiterate.

I have spend a lot of time on this first part of the book because not only is her early life so interesting in its difference from my own life, but because it lays the groundwork for the astonishing changes she made in her life, with the help and inspiration of others, after her arrival here. I’m not going to detail all that. I’ll simply say that, largely through the mentorship of a man called Ben Hewitt (to whom the book is dedicated), she was introduced to various services, organisations and people that resulted in her learning to read; learning Braille; studying psychology and later interpreting; travelling around Victoria speaking on behalf of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind; and working as an interpreter, including for refugees through Foundation House. It’s an amazing trajectory – and one told quietly, and with humility and respect for her family and for all who helped her on the way.

It’s not surprising that she’s been described as “Ben’s biggest challenge and his best success story”. His role in encouraging her, in turning around her thinking from “I can’t” to “I can” cannot be underestimated, because, by the time she met him, Younan had a desire to learn but very little confidence in her ability to do so.

For all its straightforwardness, though, her story does have a little mystery. Younan was not born blind, but became blind when she was a few months old. Just what caused her blindness is a little question that runs through the book, and I’ll leave it to you to discover, but well-intended actions by a much-loved grandmother were involved. It’s a heartbreaking story of mistakes, accidents and missed opportunities, but Younan, if she resents any of it, has the grace to focus on what she has, not what she hasn’t or what might have been.

Now, you may have noticed that this book was written “with” Jill Sanguinetti, who has appeared here before with her own memoir. Younan met Sanguinetti around 1988 at the Migrant Women’s Learning Centre, when she joined sighted migrant women in a Return to Learning class. Sanguinetti was the teacher, and explains in the her Introduction to the book how she and Younan had stayed in touch after the class finished. Some years later, they “decided to work together to write the story of Younan’s life and educational journey”. Younan is, she writers, a “mesmeric storyteller”, but with one thing and another, it took 8 years to finalise the book. There were “many cycles of telling and writing, re-telling and re-writing”, and it shows in the end product, which is tight and keeps focused on the main theme of Younan’s journey from a dependent, innocent young girl to the independent achiever she is today.

A good – and relevant – read.

Challenge logo

Marie Younan with Jill Sanguinetti
A different kind of seeing: My journey
Melbourne: Scribe, 2020
214pp.
ISBN: 9781922310256

(Review copy courtesy Scribe.)

Bill curates: Best Young Australian Novelists

Bill Curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. Today, what I’d like to know is where do all the Best Young Novelists go? Emily Maguire, who’s featured in this post from 2013, wrote one about Gundagai a few years back that was well received (Ok, I criticised some of her truckie stuff), and Romy Ash – I know the name, but where are the others? 

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My original post titled: Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists

Back in May, the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) announced its Best Young Australian Novelists awards. They have been doing this for 17 years, though I only became aware of them a few years ago. They are usually announced at or to coincide with the Sydney Writers Festival.

The judges this year were Marc McEvoy, SMH Literary Editor Susan Wyndham, and Melbourne author Kristin Krauth whom I’ve only become aware of through the Australian Women Writers Challenge. To be eligible, writers have to be “35 years or younger when their book is published”. So, the award is called “Best Young Australian Novelists” but it is apparently granted on the basis of a specific book.

Zane Lovitt, Midnight Promise

This year’s winners are:

  • Romy Ash whose Floundering was short-listed for this year’s Stella Prize, Dobbie Literary Award, and Miles Franklin Literary Award, among others. An impressive achievement for her debut novel. She has also written short stories, and I’ve read one, “Damming”, which was published in Griffith Review Edition 39. I have not, though, read Floundering. It apparently explores “the menace of a hostile landscape”. I’m fascinated by the fact that the outback continues to be a significant presence or theme in Australian literature. Ash argues that while writing about the outback may seem a cliche, the point is that much of Australia is “not benign”. That surely is the point, and is what makes it so rich with dramatic possibility.
  • Paul D Carter for Eleven Seasons which won the 2012 Vogel Literary Award and was shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the 2013 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. The novel is apparently about “boys obsessed with football and the men who live by its rules”. Sounds like one that would be interesting ro read in the context of Anna Krien’s Night Games which I reviewed last month. Interestingly Carter’s day-job is teaching English in a Melbourne girls’ school.
  • Zane Lovitt whose Midnight promise I have – woo hoo – read and reviewed here. It’s more a collection of interconnected short stories, but there is a loose narrative thread running through it following the career of its  private detective protagonist.
  • Emily Maguire for Fishing for tigers. Maguire, unlike most of the winners, has quite a few books, including three other novels, to her name, and has won the Best Young Australian Novelist award before. She teaches creative writing, and it sounds like she’s well qualified to do so, doesn’t it? Fishing with tigers was inspired by Grahame Greene’s The quiet American, and is about “divorcee Mischa Reeve, 35, whose affair with Vietnamese-Australian Cal, 18, upsets her friends, including Cal’s father, Matthew”.
  • Ruby J. Murray whose Running dogs was, like Carter’s Eleven seasons, also shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the 2013 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. I hadn’t heard of Murray, I must admit, but this book sounds interesting. It’s set in Indonesia, which is a significant country for Australia, and like Maguire’s Vietnam-located Fishing for tigers, it is about an expat Australian aid worker. Murray, who worked in Indonesia in 2009, was horrified at how little Australians knew (know!) about Indonesia despite its importance to us economically and politically, not to mention being a major holiday destination for Australians.
  • Majok Tulba for Beneath the darkening sky. It, like Maguire and Murray’s books, is set outside Australia, in this case, in Sudan. And, like Romy Ash’s Floundering, it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize. It’s narrated by an 11-year-old village boy and is “about child soldiers in Africa”. It’s fiction. Tulba says he used some experiences he and his brother had, but he was not himself a child soldier. Apparently Sudanese rebels tried to recruit him but he “failed the test – he was shorter than an AK-47 assault rifle“! Lucky him, eh?

They sound like an interesting bunch of authors and books, don’t they? And, I’m rather intrigued that half of them are not set in Australia, which reflects our increasingly multicultural society. It’s good to see our literature recognising this.In 2012, only three awards were made – Melanie Joosten for Berlin Syndrome, Jennifer Mills for Gone (which is waiting patiently in my shelves to be read), and Rohan Wilson for The Roving Party. Past winners have included Nam Le, Christos Tsiolkas, Chloe Hooper and Markus Zusak.

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Bill is right about Emily Maguire. In fact I have read and reviewed the book he mentions, An isolated incident (my review), as has Bill (his review) as you might have guessed from his comment. Moreover, she has a new book coming out this year, Love objects. I also wrote a second post about this award in 2020. But now, over to you …

Have you read any of these authors? If so, we’d love to hear what you’ve read and think.

Bill curates: Ruth Park

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. This is a most enjoyable project as I read every post and usually the comments too. Which is why I’m still only up to Oct. 2010. Today, because I can, I’ve chosen an AWW Gen 3 post on Ruth Park which I had previously overlooked.

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My original post titled: Monday musings on Australian literature: Ruth Park

The muddle-headed wombat by Ruth Park, book cover

For a New Zealander, Ruth Park is a very popular Australian! Not only did she write the much-loved (and studied) Harp in the south trilogy, but she also wrote the hugely popular (in its time) radio serial The muddle-headed wombat, was married to the Australian D’Arcy Niland (now deceased) who wrote The shiralee, and is mother to children’s author-illustrators Deborah and Kilmeny (now deceased) Niland. Ruth Park also won the Miles Franklin Award with her Swords and crowns and rings, and wrote two very popular autobiographies, Fence around the cuckoo and Fishing in the Styx. And this is not all – or even all of the best – that she’s produced in her long career.

Park was born in New Zealand in the early 1920s and first came to Australia in 1940 when she met D’Arcy Niland. She writes that Australian writer Eve Langley*, with whom she had a longstanding friendship, said of Niland:

‘That’s a good face … Do you know what it is saying?’
‘No, what?’
‘It says “Take me or leave me.” I like that.’

So apparently did Park. She returned to Australia in 1942 to work as a journalist, and married Niland. They worked at various jobs in rural New South Wales for some years before Park’s stories gained the attention of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) resulting in their decision to try to make a living from free-lance writing. They wrote, and wrote, and wrote – anything that would earn money. They wrote, for example, short stories, genre stories (such as romances and westerns), radio talks and radio plays, scripts for radio comics, all the while honing their skills for their more serious writing goals. And they lived during these early years in Sydney’s inner city slum, Surry Hills.

These experiences of living in rural areas and city slums are clearly evident in Swords and crowns and rings (the story of the dwarf Jackie, and his love Cushie Moy) and the Harp in the south trilogy (the story of the Darcy – ha! – family). The thing I love about these books – both of which span the first 4-5 decades of the twentieth century – is the way Park explores gritty issues like poverty, abortion, religious bigotry, unemployment and illness with a psychological and social realism that also encompasses warmth and humour. Her main characters tend to be the quintessential Aussie battlers, but their concerns transcend time and place. It’s not surprising, really, that these works keep being read, re-published, set for study, and adapted for television and film.

Realism though is not the only string to Park’s fictional bow. She wrote in several “genres” for a range of audiences, including fantasy for children. Her Muddle-headed wombat stories ran on the ABC Children’s Session from 1957 to 1971. I have to say that I never have really been one for anthropomorphism, and have read few children’s classics featuring animals (no, not even The wind in the willows) but even I would tune in for the wombat! Park also wrote a children’s time-travel fantasy Playing Beatie Bow, which is taught in schools and has been made into a film.

And yet, for all this, I’m sure she is little known outside Australia … if I am wrong, please let me know!

In the meantime, I will conclude with her description in her first autobiography, Fence around the cuckoo, of her first sighting of Australia as she arrived by boat:

What I saw were endless sandstone cliffs reflecting the sunrise. A chill ran over my skin, my ears buzzed as they had once done when I was about to experience uncertainty about something as yet unknown. The sea fled south, its malachite green changing to beaming blue; the sky was sumptuous with a sun hotter than I had ever known.

This was my first glimpse of Australia Felix, the ancient, indifferent, nonpareil continent that was to become the love of my life.

Ruth Park is not one of those ground-breaking writers who makes you go, wow!, but  she is an excellent story-teller who has an enviable ability to create and develop memorable characters who confront the real “stuff” of life. You could do far worse than read her if you want an introduction to Australian literature. If I haven’t convinced you, read Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Tony of Tony’s Bookworld on Harp in the South, and kimbofo at Reading Matters on her “Top 10 novels about Australia”.

*Park mentions Langley (whom I reviewed early in this blog) several times in Fence around the cuckoo. One concerns Park’s decision to stay with Eve to escape a Peeping Tom uncle but, when she arrived at the windmill in which she believed Eve to be living, she found no Eve but another woman who had heard of Eve but not for some years. “What had happened to that weird girl?”, the new windmill resident wondered. Poor Eve. She was indeed a bit weird and had a rather sad life, but that is another story.

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Book cover

It’s interesting for me to re-read these old posts of mine, and think about how I’d write them now! Regarding Park, my admiration has only grown for her warmth, humour and abiding sense of fairness. Check my Park posts here.

But, back to Bill. He says he’s not a fan of Park’s autobiographies but he does recommend, whenever he can, the Park/Niland memoir The Drums Go Bang, which we have both reviewed (Bill’s review) (my review). I enjoyed her autobiographies, but The drums go bang is very special.

Are you are Park fan? If so (or if not), we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Bill curates: Charles Dickens and Australia

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

I’m such a fan of Monday Musings – I guess we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t all enjoy talking about books, and writing, and authors, and translators, and publishers – that all the posts that jump out at me, seem to be MMs. From Sept 2010 Sue discusses the Australianness of an author who was never in Australia. As Hannah Gwendoline D’Orsay Tennyson Bulwer [Last Name] wrote in Comments “I had no idea Dickens had such a connection with Australia.”

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My original post titled: Monday musings on Australian literature: Charles Dickens and Australia

Charles Dickens, c1860
Dickens, c. 1860 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Here’s something completely different for my Monday musings! Not an Australian author, not even a foreign born author who came to Australia (though, being the great traveller he was, he did consider a lecture tour), but Charles Dickens does have a couple of interesting “connections” with Australia. These connections are supported by the existence of some letters written by him at the National Library of Australia.

On convicts and migration in general

Transportation of convicts to Australia – actual, implied or threatened – features in several of his novels. These include John Edmunds in Pickwick Papers (1836-37), the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), Mr Squeers in NicholasNickleby (1838-39), Alice Marwood in Dombey and Son (1846-48), and Magwitch (probably the most famous of all) in Great expectations (1861)not to mention Jenny Wren who threatens her father with transportation in Our mutual friend (1864-65). Dickens apparently learnt quite a lot about convict life, and particularly the penal settlement on Norfolk Island, from his friend Alexander Maconochie (to whom I refer in my review of Price Warung’s Tales of the early days).

Clearly, it was this knowledge which inspired the letter he wrote to the 2nd Marquess of Normanby (George Augustus Constantine Phipps), who was Secretary of State for the Home Office . He suggests

a strong and vivid description of the terrors of Norfolk Island and such-like-places, told in a homely narrative with a great appearance of truth and reality, and circulated in some very cheap and easy form (if with the direct authority of the Government, so much the better) would have a very powerful effect on the minds of those badly disposed … I would have it on the pillow of every prisoner in England. (3 July 1840, Original in the National Library of Australia, Ms 6809)

He offers to write this narrative, gratis. As far as I know, although Dickens and the Marquess were friends, nothing ever came of this offer.

While Dickens deplored the treatment of convicts in the penal settlements, he also saw Australia as a land of opportunity. The transported Magwitch, as we know, made his fortune in Australia. Mr Micawber, debt-ridden at the end of David Copperfield, emigrates to Australia and becomes a sheepfarmer and magistrate. But, perhaps the strongest evidence of Dickens’ belief in Australia as a place where people could get ahead, is the emigation of his sons.

On his sons

Two of Dickens’ sons – Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens* (nicknamed Plorn) – emigrated to Australia, both with their father’s encouragement.

Alfred (1845-1912) migrated to Australia in 1865. He worked on several stations/properties in Victoria and New South Wales and as a stock and station agent, before partnering with his brother in their own stock and station agency, EBL Dickens and Partners. He died in the United States in 1912, having left Australia on a lecture tour in 1910. Dickens’  youngest son, Edward (1852-1902), went to Australia in 1869. He also worked on stations before opening the stock and station agency with his brother. He later worked as a civil servant and represented Wilcannia in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1889-94, but he died, debt-ridden, in 1902 at Moree. Australia did not quite turn out to be the land of opportunity for these two that Dickens had hoped, but fortunately he was not around to see it!

A couple of Dickens’ letters to his sons are held at the National Library of Australia. One was written in 1868, not long before Plorn left England, and includes some fatherly advice:

Never take a mean advantage of anyone in any transaction, and never be hard on people who are in your power …

The more we are in earnest as to feeling religion, the less we are disposed to hold forth on it. (26? September 1868, Original in National Library of Australia, Ms 2563)

One does rather wish that Dickens had taken his own advice regarding not being “hard on people who are in your power” in his treatment of his poor wife Catherine.

Eighteen days before he died in 1870, he wrote this to Alfred:

I am doubtful whether Plorn is taking to Australia. Can you find out his real mind? I note that he always writes as if his present life were the be-all and end-all of his emigration and as if I had no idea of you two becoming proprietors and aspiring to the first positions in the colony without casting off the old connexion (1870, Original in National Library of Australia, Ms 6420).

These are just two of the many letters that he wrote to (and about) his sons in Australia. More can be found in published editions of his letters. I have chosen these particular ones purely because we have them here in Canberra. It’s rather a treat to be able to see Dickens’ hand so far away from his home.

Do you enjoy close literary encounters of the handwritten kind?

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What an interesting choice of Bill’s but I am glad to be reminded of this post as I have been wanting to read more of Dickens’ journalistic writings. Whether I will is another thing but, you never know.

Are you a Dickens fan?

Bill curates: Some Australian expat novelists

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. I’m a bit over seeing my name up the top here, but Sue has asked me to keep going for a little longer, and how could I possibly say no.

This one is from August 2010. My opinions on the topic are quite different from Sue’s, but I’ll save that for Comments.

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My original post titled: Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian expat novelists

Australia is the only country I have come across that divides its writers into residents and those who have dared to live elsewhere. Can one imagine Americans writing of Ernest Hemingway, or the Brits of Auden, thus? (Carmen Callil, Australian-born founder of Virago Press)

That answers one of my questions: that is, whether other nations talk about “expats” the way we do. Apparently they don’t. Is it the oft-quoted Australian cultural cringe? Is it envy? Perhaps I’ll just skirt the issue and say that Australians have a bit of a reputation for wanderlust, so I’m not surprised that we have our share of novelists who have gone overseas and stayed. One of those is Kate Jennings whose “fragmented autobiography”, Trouble, I reviewed last week. Kate Jennings went to New York in 1979, and has not returned (except for regular visits). In her book, she includes interviews with three other expat Aussie writers, Sumner Locke Elliott and Ray Mathew (both now deceased), and Shirley Hazzard. I thought it might be interesting to talk a little about some of our still-living novelists who reside in the USA.

But first, Ray Mathew, the least known of Jennings’ three interviewees. I hadn’t heard of him until a few years ago when he was the subject of one of the National Library of Australia’s (NLA) gorgeous little “A Celebration” books, using funds bequeathed in his name by his American friend and patron, Eva Kollsmann. The Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsmann Trust is a significant bequest which funds a number of initiatives at the NLA. One of these is the annual Ray Mathew Lecture which is to be given by “an Australian living abroad”. The first lecture was given in 2009 by Geraldine Brooks, and the second, this year, by Kate Jennings.

Shirley Hazzard
Hazzard, 2007 (Courtesy: Christopher Peterson, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

For brevity’s sake – and because I’ve read each of these writers – I’ll just focus in this post on five Australian expat novelists based in the USA. Some of them are very well known internationally, moreso than many of our home-based writers. This is not surprising I guess: if you live in the USA and get published there your market potential is far greater than it would be at home. That said, the lure of increased fame and fortune is not the reason these writers moved overseas:

  • Geraldine Brooks: moved to New York in 1983 to study, met and married American journalist (Tony Horwitz), and now splits her time between Australia and the USA. Geraldine Brooks titled her Ray Mathew lecture, “The opportunity of distance”. She’s the youngest of these five and, perhaps, has the most uncomplicated view of her relationship with home. She has travelled widely and discussed in that lecture all the benefits that have resulted, but her final point is:

For all its opportunities, distance can still feel like a tyrant, sometimes, when a partner’s work or a kid’s schooling means we must spend more time there than here. The oscillation stalls, the roots start to dry out. It’s like a high stakes game of musical chairs. Round the world you go, and then the music stops and you have to sit down somewhere, but it’s not quite the chair you were aiming for.

  • Peter Carey: moved in 1990/91 to New York with his wife to work in their respective careers, and has remained there. Peter Carey, not surprisingly given his status, is often asked about his expat status. Here is what he said in an interview for the Paris Review:

Of course, there is a specially reserved position in Australian culture for the expatriate. The prime expatriates—people like Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes—belong to an earlier generation than mine. When these people return to Australia, they are asked, What do you think of us? How are we doing? The expatriate is occasionally lauded and occasionally fiercely criticized for daring to come back and judge. I try to stay away from that as much as humanly possible. I don’t feel at all like an expatriate….

  • Shirley Hazzard (has died since I wrote this post back in 2010): moved to Hong Kong with her parents in 1947 when she was 16 years old, ending up in New York in 1951 where she has been mostly based since, though does spend time regularly in Capri, Italy. A webpage on Shirley Hazzard summarises her expat status in this way:

Hazzard does not reject her designation as an Australian writer but insists her temperament is not national. She only took out United States citizenship twenty-five years after she began living in New York, on the resignation of Richard Nixon. Eschewing nationalistic identifications, she does not consider herself as an expatriate, and emphasized that “to be at home in more than one place” (Gordan and Pasca). However, her novels are full of displaced Anglos in Hong Kong and Italy, or displaced Australians in London and New York.

  • Janette Turner Hospital: moved to Boston in the mid 1960s with her husband, and has lived in Canada and the USA. She now splits her time between these two countries and her home state of Queensland. In an early Griffith Review, Hospital commented on the impact of modern technology on being physically displaced, and wrote:

Place is unequivocal. But virtual communities and diaspora organizations suggest that you don’t always need to be somewhere to be a part of something. You can check the surf report, vote, play scrabble, watch the evening news, buy a car or be connected to country from the other side of the world. This new reality reflects an age-old truth: that home is where the heart is. It offers a new kind of citizenship. One we’re defining as we go.

  • Kate Jennings: as described above. She bookends Brooks nicely: not only because they gave the first two Ray Mathew lectures but because they both value travel highly but offer almost opposing conclusions. Here is Jennings from her lecture:

I have lived now in New York nearly as long as I lived in Australia. Heretical as it might seem, Australia is neither my country nor my home, as it is for Geraldine. It’s the place I started from, to paraphrase TS Eliot slightly. It shaped me, but so have my 30 years in New York city. I have, as Robert Dixon put it, ‘overlapping allegiances and multiple affiliations’.

Well, that lot provides enough to think about I reckon. I was going to talk a little about these writers’ works but I’ve taken up enough of your time for this Monday. More anon… Meanwhile, if you’ve lived away from “home” for any period of time, what do you think about all this?

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Thanks so much Bill for being willing to continue this series until I can get back to some semblance of normal reading and posting. I’m particularly pleased that he chose this one because given he has some different ideas to mine. I look forward to hearing them to seeing whether I agree, given I wrote this post over 10 years ago.

And, of course, we’d be interested to know what you think…