Biff Ward, The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War (#BookReview)

Biff Ward’s The third chopstick was my reading group’s October selection. It’s the second book by Ward that we’ve done, the first being her memoir, In my mother’s hands (my review), about growing up with her academic father, the historian Russel Ward, and her mentally ill mother, at a time when mental illness was shameful and to be hidden. It was a moving book that engendered an engaged and wide-ranging discussion. Biff Ward, in fact, attended that meeting.

The third chopstick is another personal book, but one that’s not so easy to classify. I would describe it as hybrid memoir-creative nonfiction. Memoir, because it’s about her experience as an anti-Vietnam war protester who later chose to meet Vietnam veterans and listen to their stories. And creative nonfiction, because, although nonfiction, it uses some of the devices of fiction to engage its readers. These include hinging her story around one particular vet, Ray, whom she describes as her “muse”, her “archetypal veteran”, her conduit, perhaps, to “the missing piece”. His story, combined with his powerful presence, gives the book its compelling, narrative drive.

The implication of what I’m saying here is that while The third chopstick is historical it is not an academic history. Although Ward did the historian thing, and conducted recorded interviews with vets, she does not attempt to present an “authoritative” analysis of protesters or of vets, but a thoughtful, personal quest. It has no footnotes, although there is a selected reading list at the end, and there’s no index. This is not to say, however, that it doesn’t add to our understanding of history, because it certainly does.

The book has a logical, and more or less chronological, structure, though there is criss-crossing of timelines where appropriate. It has three main parts – Protest, Veterans, Vietnam – which are bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue. In Protest, Ward describes her life as a protester, and introduces us to her ongoing interest in Vietnam long after the war ended. In Veterans, she introduces us to the veterans she met and interviewed, shares their stories and experiences, and reflects on these. Finally, in Vietnam, she discusses post-war Vietnam, including how Vietnamese people have processed, and live with, what happened. She has visited the country many times – as a sole tourist, on war-themed tours, and as a tour leader herself. On some of those visits, she either accompanied or met vets. Through these postwar connections, she starts to bring together her central questions concerning how we Australians got caught up in this, and what it did to us – as a nation, as individuals – though, of course, there are no simple answers.

“a scrambled snarl”

A bit over halfway through the book, while interviewing Nick, an SAS veteran of the war, Ward confronts the issue of “killing”. Nick’s story causes her to think about that and, thence, her stance as a pacifist. She realises she’d never really grappled with it. She had, she writes, a ‘”natural” antipathy to killing, a generalised kind of pacifism which yearns for peace’ but she also believed that, if needed, she would strive as hard as she could to defend “me and mine”. Her pacifism was “a scrambled snarl of thoughts and feelings”. She doesn’t explore this further, as it’s not the subject of the book, but …

… I liked this expression because what her book does is explore just what “a scrambled snarl” war is, whichever way you look at it. I particularly liked her various reflections on war. She makes the point early on that it is well known that war takes years to recover from. Vet Graham tells her that medieval knights “used to go into a monastery after being on a crusade”. He himself had, after leaving the army, been ill; he’d been in hospital and at a health farm, before spending “thirteen years, mostly alone, making music, keeping quiet”. By the time Ward met him, he was working with the Federation for Vietnam veterans.

Throughout the book, then, Ward reflects on war in general, but I’ll just share a couple that captured my attention, both resulting from her reading of Ray’s journal, where he expresses the trauma he experienced. It leads Ward to suggest “that the truth of all war is only these depthless oceans of grief”. A few pages later, she discusses “moral injury”, which “refers to an injury to the soul, to morality, to what can happen when a soldier has to do something against his own sense of what is right and wrong.” The injury done to Ray is immense.

Ward may not have intended this, but her book also functions, at least a little, as a cautionary tale, because she shows how easy it is to believe you are doing the right thing when you protest for a humane cause, and be oblivious to the potential for unintended consequences. The anti-Vietnam War protesters’ beef was with the government and its policies, but the result, as we all know now, was that the soldiers who went to Vietnam were vilified – not so much by the core protesters but by others who took their ideas on without understanding the politics. Ward shares some of the facts and myths about how it played out.

Ward also discusses those other two big fall-outs from this particular war – Agent Orange and its ongoing impact on the health of both soldiers and Vietnamese people, and PTSD, which she describes as the Vietnam vets’ gift to the world.

What makes this book a particularly good read, besides all this subject matter, is the language, which mixes journalistic-style reportage with more evocative writing. There’s too much to share, but here’s one describing her experience of transcribing Ray’s journal:

As I transferred his words from the page to pixels on my screen, they sometimes spiralled off and pranced about the room like leering pixies.

(This sometimes necessitated her needing to take a break!)

Here’s an appropriate point to explain the title, because it came from Ray, as she explains in Chapter 2. While in a restaurant, he places two chopsticks in parallel lines, about two centimetres apart, across a bowl, and names the space between the two as “normal life … where people get born and grow up …” etc. Then, he takes another chopstick (“the third chopstick”), places it parallel to the others, the same distance apart, and says

The veteran lives here, alongside but separate, see? He can see this life, he pointed back to the first space. He can see what other people are doing, but he can’t join in. He doesn’t know the rules anymore. It might look like like garbage to him. It’s got no connection to what’s happening inside him, see?

The secret, Ray continues, is for the veteran to be able to handle both “his own stuff” and join in. There’s a little more to it but that’s the gist.

    Lest you be thinking so, The third chopstick is not just relevant to those who lived through the Vietnam War era. As I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking about a war that is happening right now. Near the end, Ward writes:

    So even today, for the People of the Bag*, the mountains and the rivers, the land and the water and their interconnectedness are concepts integral to the way Vietnamese conceive of themselves. And, I chucke to myself, those men in Washington and Canberra thought they could somehow beat them, that the People of the Bag would eventually give up? Really?

    Given its origins in a leftie anti-Vietnam war protester who went on to engage openly and genuinely with soldiers involved in that very war, The third chopstick is quite an astonishing book. For anyone interested in the complex experience of war, it makes excellent reading. All eleven who attended my reading group agreed.

    * The Vietnamese, from their Creation Myth

    Biff Ward
    The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War
    Penrith: IndieMosh, 2022
    313pp.
    ISBN: 9781922812025

    Telltale, Carmel Bird and me

    In my recent post on Carmel Bird’s bibliomemoir, Telltale, I hinted that there could be another post in this book. There could, indeed, be many, but I must move on, and I must not spoil the book for others. However, given many blog-readers enjoy personal posts, I’ve decided to share a few of my particular delights in the book. I found myself frequently writing “Yes” in the margins …

    “I’m glad, now, that I have always defaced books”

    … because, like Carmel Bird, I have, since I was a student, “defaced” my books. Not only that, but my defacements seem to be of a similar ilk to hers. For example, I sometimes add an old envelope, or post-it notes, inside back covers to carry more notes. Like her, I love books with several empty pages at the back to accommodate note-taking.

    Not enough blank pages at the end of Telltale!

    Carmel Bird also loves indexes – and I love the fact that Telltale has a beautiful index, because such a book should, but often doesn’t. But, what really tickled me was her comment early in the book that “I also make a rough index on the empty pages at the ends of books I read” (or, as she also writes, “pencilled lists of key elements”). Yes! Sometimes, my indexes are more like notes, but other times my notes are more like indexes. Mostly, though, I do a bit of both, with exactly what depending on the book and on my response to it. This latter point is implied in Bird’s statement that:

    In 2020, paying so much attention to books, I took particular notice of the differences in the ‘indexes’I had made at different times, how on each re-reading I had noticed different details.

    Here, she not only shares her reading practice but also comments on reader behaviour, on the fact that each time we read a book we find something new. That can be for various reasons. On subsequent readings we already know the book at some level and so are ready to see more in it; on subsequent readings the world will have changed so the things we notice can also change according to the zeitgeist; and then, of course, the biggie, on subsequent readings, we ourselves have changed so we see the world differently. I love that Bird’s indexes reflect this – and that she saw it.

    But, there’s a downside to all this “defacement”, which Bird also discusses. Writing about discarding books – the how and why – she says, “when I have annotated a book, it is not much use to anybody but myself, so selling it or giving it away are not possible solutions”. I know what she means, though I contest that hers would not be of use to anyone else. Who wouldn’t enjoy owning a book so defaced by her?

    There is, however, a point at which she and I depart. When reading an outsize paperback becomes “too difficult … to manage comfortably” she will attack it “vertically down the spine with an electric carving knife” to divide it into manageable portions. I know some travellers tear out sections of travel guides they no longer need, but librarian-me finds destruction a step too far. Sorry Carmel, I understand, but …

    “oh what a lovely word”

    Like many authors, Carmel Bird loves words. It’s on show in all her work, but in Telltale, it’s front and centre. In her opening chapter, she writes that

    Uncle Remus uses terms such as ‘lippity-clippity’. This is the kind of singing, onomatopoeic language I sometimes invent when writing.

    And, so she does, even in this nonfiction bibliomemoir. Did it come from reading Uncle Remus “all that time ago”, she ponders. Was it “embedded” in her brain, back then, without her “even realising”? Probably.

    Throughout Telltale, Bird discusses words – how they have changed over time (in meaning, for example, or in acceptability), how they look, where they come from, how they sound. As the daughter of a lexicographer, I would be interested in this. As a lover of Jane Austen whose wit and irony I adore, I would be interested in this. And, as one who loves writing that plays well in the mouth and sounds great to the ear, I would be interested in this. If you love words too, this book will be an absolute delight for you.

    Other delights

    As I said when opening this post, I really mustn’t spoil this book for others, so I’ll just add a few other delights:

    • her discussions of the many books and stories she chooses to share – those she found on her shelves that she felt illuminated her life and writing. I’ve mentioned very few of these because, really, this is the thing that most readers will want to discover and enjoy. Get to it … Meanwhile, I will name just two here. One is Dickens’ Bleak House which she writes “might” be her favourite Dickens. It might be mine too. The other is Marjorie Barnard’s “The persimmon tree” which she describes as “extraordinarily powerful”. Barnard’s “The persimmon tree and other stories” is one of the only short story collections I’ve read more than once. I concur!
    • silly little things like the fact that she loves green (as do I) and that she learnt that “lovely” word “tessellated” at the tessellated pavement at Tasmania’s Eaglehawk Neck (as did I).
    • she loves the internet and allowed herself to use it for this book. She was the first fiction writer in Australia to have a website. Like most of us, she prefers printed books, but she also sees the advantage of electronic books (including the ease of searching them – as an index-lover would!)

    Finally, early in the book, Bird discusses memory:

    As is often the case with memory, while some of physical details are clear, the principal element that has been retained is the feeling. Perhaps the feeling is the meaning.

    Yes! This makes sense to me. I can rarely remember plots or denouements, but for the books that are special to me, I can remember how they made me feel – uplifted, melancholic, inspired, distressed, excited, angry, and so on. These feelings are surely associated with what the author intended us to take away, and therefore they must reflect the meaning?

    Here, I will, reluctantly, leave Telltale, but I’ll do so on one of its three epigraphs, the one from her own character:

    ‘memory
    is the carpet-bag
    mire of quag
    filled with light-dark truth-lies
    image innation
    and butterflies’

    CARILLO MEAN,
    Remembrance of Wings Past

    How can you not love this?

    Carmel Bird, Telltale: Reading writing remembering (#BookReview)

    Finally, I have found something to thank COVID for – Carmel Bird’s Telltale. Best described as a bibliomemoir, Telltale may never have been written if Bird had not been locked down with her extensive library. What is a lively mind to do in such a situation? I can think of a few options, but what Bird decided was to revisit the books she’d read since childhood and, through them, look for patterns in her life and, because they are intertwined, in her writing practice. She would reflect on “the working of the imagination, the behaviour of the unconscious mind”.

    Telltale, in other words, is more than a simple chronological run-through of her books, because the reading and writing life is not so easily compartmentalised. She writes that it

    is composed of two different kinds of narrative.  One is warp and one is weft, and I am not sure which is really which. Will the threads hold? What patterns might I work across the surface? Will the metaphors crumble into useless dust? One thread speaks of books read and sometimes of books written. And also of things that happened in my life. The other speaks of a journey of the heart, a pilgrimage through a patchy history of the world, becoming a poetic thread that runs through the whole narrative.

    A complex book then, but one told in such a personal, confidential come-with-me voice, that it reads like a lovely long conversation with an intelligent friend. Like any intelligent conversations, though, it requires the participants to be on their toes, to be ready for twists and turns, for surprising connections and conclusions, to be both confronted and delighted. Bird heralds this in her opening sentence:

    As a child at the end of World War Two, I was introduced to the concept of the Trickster in literature.

    That trickster was Brer Rabbit, whom I also remember from my childhood, but I was of a more prosaic mind than Bird, who has proven to be a bit of a trickster herself. Yes, the dictionary uses words like “dishonest”, “cunning”, and “deceptive” to describe “trickster”, but the trickster in literature, as Wikipedia explains, “is a character in a story … who exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and defy conventional behavior”. This is how I see Carmel Bird as a writer. The surface can look quite simple, but underneath there is usually something else going on. You only have to check out the epigraphs to her books, which frequently include bon-mots “written” by her own character, Carillo Mean. It’s apposite, then, that she starts her book with a “trickster”. It tells us to be ready for – well, anything.

    So, Telltale. It looks like a bibliomemoir – a book about her reading and writing life – but as she explains in the excerpt above, it also encompasses “a patchy history of the world” as it has affected or appeared to her. To unite it all, she crafts her tale around a narrative heart, a loved book, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Louis Rey. She wants to write about it but can’t find it. This injects a mystery: will she find it? It also introduces a potential conflict: will she break the rule she set for herself to not buy books and only use those on her (clearly extensive) shelves. As the memoir progresses, we become party to her increasing concern about where it is and what to do.

    Why of all the books, you might be asking, The bridge of San Luis Rey? But, that might be for me to know and you to find out.

    “to move the heart and illuminate the mind”

    Late in Telltale, Bird mentions reading Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The fly” when she was fifteen. She writes:

    I suddenly saw how the surface narrative and the narratives and meanings below the surface could dance together with an electrifying elegance to move the heart and illuminate the mind. This was my first conscious lesson in style and structure.

    See! It’s a lesson Bird clearly took to heart, and which is on display in all the works of hers I’ve reviewed. (As for “move and heart and illuminate the mind” – who could want more from reading?) Earlier in the book, she refers to another aspect of her style: “the pleasure I take in moving (drifting, spinning, flicking) from one topic to another”. This pleasure, she suggests, could have come from her father’s six-volume Harmonsworth’s household encyclopedia. Again, we see this approach in Telltale. It’s one of the things I love about Bird’s writing. It can be challenging, of course, but it is exciting to be so challenged – and to thus be respected as a reader.

    Anyhow, the point is that while on the surface Bird seems to move or flick from topic to topic, her books are invariably held together by framing ideas and motifs. Here, it’s not only the search for The bridge of San Luis Rey, but two other narratives, which she draws together towards the end of the book. One concerns a childhood family picnic to Cataract Gorge in 1945, and the other, the gathering of American planes for the rarely-remembered firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945. Woven through these narratives is another, Bird’s growing awareness of the devastating dispossession of Australia’s First Nations people, starting from her acceptance, as a Tasmanian-born child, of their “extinction” in her state.

    These are the main narratives that make up the aforementioned “patchy history”, and I fear this may be sounding disjointed. In fact, however, the “threads” hold, because the relationship between this “patchy history” and the books she has read and written is strong. Not only are there the obvious and expected connections between the “history” and her reading and writing, but there are also two recurring motifs that are real, historical, and literary – bridges, which can symbolise “fragile communication and union”, and peacocks which can signify “eternal life”.

    Telltale is a delicious and revelatory read, and I’m not doing it justice. I’ve not, for example, touched on the quirky, often poetic, tapered chapter ends, or the neat segues between chapters. Nor have I said much about the writing which can turn from seriously descriptive or philosophical to whimsical or poetical in a paragraph. And nor have I shared the reflections about reading and writing, about truth and meaning, about words and language, that I specifically noted down to share, because, frankly, there are too many. There may be another post in this.

    I took some time to read this book, and I’m not sorry. To read Bird, if you haven’t realised already, is to agree to join her on a sometimes merry, sometimes macabre dance. If we do, what we find is a compassionate heart that, despite it all, believes in love and calls us to hope, as that peacock that has accompanied us throughout darts and dances across the sky.

    Lisa also enjoyed this book.

    Carmel Bird
    Telltale: Reading writing remembering
    Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2022
    274pp.
    ISBN: 9781925760927

    (Review copy courtesy the author)

    Kim Vanessa Scott, Growing up … Katherine style (#BookReview)

    Growing up .. Katherine style is the second self-published book I have reviewed from this Katherine-based artist and writer, the first being her book about some of Katherine’s historical housing, Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956. There are a few reasons why I have broken my no-self-published-books rule. One is that both books had some Northern Territory government sponsorship, which gives them some authority. Another is that this book speaks closely to my own experience of childhood that I couldn’t resist sharing them. Moreover, the book is being sold by established outlets like The Bookshop Darwin and the Katherine Museum. Finally, Scott used a desktop publisher/designer to ensure the book looks good – and it does.

    So, with all that out of the way, I’ll get to the content, and why it appeals to me. Scott was born in the small outback Northern Territory town of Katherine in the 1960s, while I was born in a slightly bigger but still rural country town in Queensland in the 1950s. The first 14 years of my life were spent in Queensland, and over half of those in country towns, the last three being in the outback mining town of Mount Isa. From there I went to Sydney, where, although I enjoyed my high school and university days, I never really felt home. I left as soon as I finished my studies for Australia’s “bush capital”, Canberra, which has always felt like home. However, I’m getting off-track, so back to the book.

    Growing up … Katherine style is both written and illustrated by Scott. It takes the form of a series of little illustrated vignettes from Scott’s life, each comprising an image accompanied by a short piece of text commenting or reflecting on the image. Scott’s art is delightful, bright but not garish, with strong outlines and a somewhat naive aesthetic suited to the childhood theme.

    The vignettes take us from her babyhood in 1961 to Cyclone Tracy in 1974. Ending on this event is inspired because the cyclone, which occurred in Darwin a bit north of Katherine, was life-changing for the Northern Territory – and because, coincidentally, Scott would have been entering puberty by then, making it a good time at which to end a book about her childhood. Scott told the Katherine Times, linked below, that the book was at least partly inspired by the catastrophic Katherine flood of 1998 which

    took away all our images and a lot of our family history, so I tried to think of a way to record the childhood without the images.

    In the book’s introduction, she explains further that the “objects” she chose to illustrate her childhood “had many layers of meaning”. They demonstrate, she says, the way she “interacted with them on an emotional, physical and spiritual level”. What I so enjoyed is that many of them mirror memorable times in my own life – the family’s first car and tv, the importance of the radio, her first plane ride, not to mention those horrible sanitary belts we had to wear for our periods! There are also those little events from childhood that can remind us all of our own misdemeanours and accidents. Take for example, “Mulberries”, in which she describes finding a sixpence and carrying it in her mouth while running. The only trouble is that she then climbs a mulberry tree and puts mulberries in her mouth too:

    I had my mouth full of fruit and the coin when I accidentally tipped upside down and swallowed the lot. Rather than tell Mum, I decided to just die.

    Don’t you remember times like that? Anyhow, “fortunately”, she writes, “I woke up the next morning …”

    I flagged many vignettes to share with you, like “Nursery Rhymes” in which she shares her “Little Miss Muffet” mondegreen. How many of us had those in our childhood (and, I have to admit in my case, beyond.) There’s another on “Slide nights” which tickled my fancy because last night we dined with two other couples and we had an impromptu slide night of both couples’ recent, separate holidays to the Kimberleys. The technology might have been different – thumb drives to the smart TV – but the impact was the same. Scott writes that:

    I miss this form of entertainment where we built our oral family history with images.

    There’s the reference to family history again.

    In another blast from the past for me, she writes in “My first real jewels” of the “bluebird lockets earrings” that were given to her and her sister as their first piece of “grown-up, real jewellery”. As she writes, “they were considered a charm”, and oh, how I had wanted some bluebirds too. One birthday I thought I had been given a bluebird bracelet, but when I looked more closely, the little charms were blue angels. Not the same! I was most disappointed. I could go on but you are surely getting the drift. This book offers both a lovely trip down memory-lane (for most baby-boomers) and an engaging picture of childhood in a different place and time to now.

    The book ends on Cyclone Tracy, as I’ve already said. Scott writes that “the path to self-government started on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1974. The warning sound on the radio is burnt into my psyche”.

    You can hear an interview with Kim Scott on the ABC Radio Darwin website, and read an article on the book’s publication in the Katherine Times. The Times also advises that the illustrations were put on exhibition at Katherine’s Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts & Culture Centre. Scott is described as a local Katherine artist who enjoys “showcasing all facets of life in the NT through visual arts, poetry and story telling.”

    I love histories told through objects. Scott has shared her childhood in a way that captures her personal experience while also speaking to the universal. Delightful.

    Kim Vanessa Scott
    Growing up … Katherine style
    Katherine: Kim Vanessa Scott, 2022 (with sponsorship by the Northern Territory Government)
    82pp.
    ISBN: 9781642045444

    (Copy received from the author via a mutual friend.)

    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.

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

    (Review copy courtesy Scribe.)