Bill curates: Dymphna Cusack’s A window in the dark

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. During the latter part of January we will look at some of Sue’s older posts which have relevance to my Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan, 2021

Dymphna Cusack was a central writer of the Gen 3 period. I (Bill) recently reviewed her Say no to death (1951) which with its focus on TB gives us some perspective on the plagues like Covid-19 which regularly sweep around the world. Here, in a post from 2013, Sue reviews Cusack’s memoir of her years as a teacher, written in the 1940s but published posthumously.


My original post titled: Dymphna Cusack, A window in the dark

Dymphna Cusack‘s A window in the dark has been glaring at me from my TBR pile for many years now. Not being able to stand it any longer, I decided to sneak it in before my next reading group book, Michelle de Kretser‘s Questions of travel. Posthumously published by the National Library of Australia, A window in the dark is Cusack’s chronicle of her teaching years, spanning 1922 to 1943.

For those who haven’t heard of her, Dymphna Cusack (1902-1981) is an Australian writer best known for her collaborative novel (with Florence James), Come in spinner (1951), and Caddie, the story of a barmaid (1953), which was made into a successful feature film in 1976. According to Debra Adelaide‘s comprehensive introduction, Cusack was not interested in writing her autobiography but, in the mid-1970s, three decades after she finished teaching, she decided to write about this part of her life. While much has changed since 1975/6 when she wrote it (let alone 1944 where the story ends), A window in the dark – “my job was opening a window in the dark for the minds entrusted me” – is an interesting read. It is not, though, a typical writer’s memoir; its focus really is teaching and education.

The book is well produced with an excellent introduction and explanation of its genesis by Debra Adelaide (though I would have loved an index). It was prepared from the version included with her papers held by the National Library of Australia. This version is probably the final draft, but Adelaide believes that Cusack would have done more work on it, had it found a publisher. Certainly, it does have some rough edges, but not enough to spoil the content nor to prevent our getting some sense of Cusack as a person, as a writer, and of course as a teacher.

Cusack tells the story of her years as a teacher chronologically, starting with university and her decision to accept a bonded Teachers College Scholarship. However, a number of themes run through the book and I’m going to frame the rest of this post through some of them.

Format: Photograph Notes: Dymphna Cusack (1902...

“The sum total of my years of teaching in Broken Hill and Goulburn was the conviction that the high school curriculum was insane”

Cusack decided very early in her career that the curriculum she was required to teach was unsuitable for all but the minority who planned to go on to university. She rails, in particular, against the teaching of ancient languages (Latin) and against the focus on British history and English (as in from England) literature (both only to the end of the nineteenth century, what’s more). She criticises educational practice which relied heavily on examinations and argues against dependence on IQ assessment for identifying capable students. She is disgusted by corporal punishment. She does become a bit repetitive, as she moves from school to school, but that simply reinforces her passion for relevant education and humane methods. Being personally interested in local and contemporary history, she’s distressed that students weren’t taught about their own places. Students in Broken Hill were taught nothing about that city’s origins, nor its geology and botany. Students in Parkes learnt nothing about William Farrer and his pioneering work with wheat. And so on … Students learnt, well, I’ll let her tell you:

It was the same in every country town I lived in. An essential part of our history was ignored, whether massacres of whites by blacks or blacks by whites, while we got bogged down in the Hundred Years’ War or the Thirty Years’ War or the Seven Years’ War – all taught with no reference whatever to the basic economic causes underlying them.

She was happiest when, for various reasons, she was given non-examination classes to teach. Then she could teach what she thought was useful. A playwright herself, she was renowned for her drama classes, and the school plays she produced.

“I look so middle-class; it’s my nose”

Despite her ongoing frustrations (not to mention chronic health issues), she had, you can see from this quote, a sense of humour. Cusack belonged to that wonderful cohort of left-leaning writers in early to mid-twentieth century Australia, a cohort which included Miles Franklin (with whom she collaborated on books), Flora Eldershaw and Frank Dalby Davison.  She had a finely honed moral and social conscience, and was acutely aware of injustice. She was not above using her “middle-class” look to get a hearing on issues important to her. She was distressed that Australia, which, by the 1850s was

politically and socially the most advanced country in the world … should by the middle twenties be bogged down into a morass of social and sectarian bigotry and educational conservatism.

Cusack became convinced of the “wickedness of our economic system”, which could not fund milk for children of unemployed parents but could, somehow, find the “money for everything for war”. She abhorred the power those with money had over others. She became unpopular with the Department of Education for her outspokenness on social and economic justice issues, and was particularly critical of the treatment of “that much-maligned creature, the woman teacher”.

“What we want is the warmth, the humanity, the feeling for Newcastle that is inherent in everything you write about …”

So said BHP’s Newcastle manager Keith Butler to Cusack in 1943 as he offered to pay for a novel about Newcastle and the steelworks. Not surprisingly, Cusack would have none of it. She did, however, write her novel, titled Southern steel (1953), and it was, apparently, a positive portrayal. Cusack wrote throughout her teaching career – mostly plays, many of which were performed on the ABC but only some of which have ever been published. She tackled tricky-for-her-times issues such as racism, workers conditions’ and war. Her second novel, Jungfrau (1936), which explored young women, their sexuality and abortion, was runner-up in the Bulletin’s S. H. Prior memorial prize. It was shocking for its time.

“… I found in my teaching life teachers are sublime optimists – why, I never knew.”

And yet, she must have known, for she stuck to teaching through years of ill-health and poor treatment by those in power. She did it, partly of course to support herself, but partly too because she loved her students. She was still receiving thankyou letters from them in her last years. That surely says something.

Why, though, read a book written in the mid-1970s about education in the 1920s-40s? It is not, after all, a memoir, so there are gaps in the story of her life – particularly in terms of her significant relationships. And while she mentions some of the plays and novels she wrote during the time, she does this mostly in relation to something happening in her teaching life. Moreover, it’s not particularly interesting in terms of form. That is, she doesn’t play, as some writers do when writing non-fiction, with narrative style or voice or perspective. Yet, there are reasons for reading it. It works as social history and a history of education. It provides insight into the development of her political philosophy and social values. It shows off her skills as a writer, particularly her ability to evoke people and place. And, for all its seriousness, it contains many entertaining anecdotes.

I’m so glad I finally read what turned out to be a fascinating book about (and by) a compassionate, funny and feisty woman whose intelligence is displayed on every page. Would that every child had teachers like this.

Dymphna Cusack
A window in the dark
Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1991
ISBN: 9780642105141


Dymphna Cusack was an interesting woman who was passionate about economic fairness and social justice. For that reason, she fits in very well with the wonderful cohort of women writers who were active, particularly in the 1920s to 40s, such as Katharine Susannah Prichard, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, to name a few. I’m glad Bill chose this post to bring up the rear of “my” contributions to his AWW Gen 3 Week.

We’d love to know whether you’ve read any of Cusack’s novels or other writings, and what you think?

Wendy Scarfe and Allan Scarfe, A mouthful of petals: Three years in an Indian Village (#BookReview)

Husband and wife writers, Wendy and Allan Sharfe, first published A mouthful of petals, the story of their three years in the remote Indian village of Sokhodeora, in 1967. It is not, however, their only book. Wendy Scarfe has written poetry and several novels, two of which I’ve reviewed here, Hunger town and The day they shot Edward, while her late husband, Allan, also wrote some novels and short stories. Collaboratively, they wrote several books besides A mouthful of petals, including a biography of Indian independence activist Jayaprakash Narayan.

It was Jayaprakash, or JP as he was known, who invited the Scarfes to return to Sokhodeora in 1960, after their 6-month volunteering stint, because he believed serving India was in their hearts. Their service would, he wrote, be “of great value to us and would add to that international good-will and understanding that are so badly needed”. In their opening chapter, the Scarfes write poetically of the place that was to be their home for three years:

Sokhodeora is a dot that is part of the plain: beautiful, serene, full of a sense of continuity with the very beginnings of human civilisation.

But to enter the narrow, zigzag alleys between the congested houses is to lose much of the impression of beauty and to realise the antiquity of man’s anxiety, poverty and misery.

Their role was to be education-related, though on their arrival JP admitted that “frankly” he didn’t know “what specific, clear-cut work” to give them! Ah, the days before KPIs! (Or, more likely, as the Scarfes say, the difference between Western and Eastern world views.) The big picture, the ideal, was that education was needed, and that the villagers needed to see that education was about more than gaining Government employment, which, of course, most villagers would never do.

And so, the Scarfes set about developing their own goals and schedule of work, regularly calibrating with the supportive JP. Uppermost was starting a school for children and night classes for adults. However, they also responded to the practical reality of village life which was characterised by extreme poverty, which in turn meant problems like hunger and poor health. How can children learn, for example, if they are not reasonably nourished? When Jayaprakash comments on the villagers’ apathy, Wendy replies that she believed it was “nutritional”:

People can’t have physical and mental vitality on two meals of rice and pulse a day. A huge proportion of village women suffer from anaemia and they must be just dragging themselves around.

Here is where we realise that aid work like this requires not just the necessary professional skills – in this case, teaching – but resourcefulness and entrepreneurship. The Scarfes, for example, discovered the existence of a supply of powdered milk, and developed a program for its distribution. They wrote many appeals for foodstuffs, eventually landing a winner with the American Meals for Millions Foundation, which provided an awful-sounding but highly nutritional product called “Mysore Multi-Purpose Food”. Again, they were heavily involved in distribution and teaching how to use it. They looked at other issues too, including the provision of toilets, family planning, the building of a classroom, and so on. All this is macro-level. They also worked at the micro-level, supporting individual villagers in all sorts of ways, especially in obtaining the medical help and pharmaceuticals they needed. It’s no wonder that, as this edition’s Publisher’s Note says, this book served, for years, “as a primer for intending field workers”.

None of this was easy of course, and the challenge was exacerbated not only by the usual infrastructure problems – such as transport – but also by cultural and personal issues, particularly the challenge of engaging the villagers in an environment characterised by caste prejudice, gender inequality and inter-family quarrelling.

A mouthful of petals, then, has plenty of interesting content, but I would also like to comment on the writing. It’s a collaborative book, but what voice do you choose to write a book involving both authors’ lives? Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, in their memoir The drums go bang (my review), used first person plural when writing about joint experiences, and third person when writing about the experience of one of them. The Scarfes took a different approach, narrating the book in first person from Allan’s point of view, with Wendy spoken of in third person. It works, but I rather like Park and Niland’s approach.

Overall, the writing is straightforward, as it has to be to impart all the information it does, but there are lovely flourishes all the same, like the description of Sokhodeora I cited early in this post. The book is also enhanced by the people populating it. Not only are we given some insight into JP, but the Scarfes tell stories about several villagers, including the initially apprehensive but willing Mahadev who works for them from the start and the ultimately tragic Kesurwa whom they choose to train as their kindergarten teacher. These people give life to the bigger picture being told.

Now, when I read a book like this, by which I mean a book that is about a different place and time – after all, we are talking India of 60 years ago – I think about its relevance (beyond any intrinsic interest in the subject matter) to my place and time. This book provided a few such points, one being the importance of education. There’s literacy, of course, but the Sharfes specifically discuss the value of understanding cause-and-effect, of the ability to draw logical or useful conclusions from observation and experience – regarding pain and illness for example – and how this lack impeded village and villagers’ development. This made me think, rightly or wrongly, of what has been happening in the USA recently where there seems to be just that lack of ability in some of the populace. A failure of education?

Then there’s the big point: the idea of having global responsibility for each other. The Scarfes write:

We are all responsible for the human condition and those who are educated are responsible to those who are not.

I like the use here of “responsible to” not “for“. It shifts this idea of responsibility from a patriarchal notion to something more cooperative or service-oriented.

A mouthful of petals is a passionate book that still offers much to think about. It is well worth reading.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed and reviewed this book.

Challenge logo

Wendy Scarfe and Allan Scarfe
A mouthful of petals: Three years in an Indian village
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2020 (rev. ed. with Epilogue; orig. ed. 1967)
ISBN: 9781743056844

Review copy courtesy author and Wakefield Press.

John Kinsella, Displaced: A rural life (#BookReview)

John Kinsella, Displaced

I haven’t talked about reading synchronicities for some time, but when I started reading John Kinsella’s memoir, Displaced, I couldn’t help but think of the book I had just finished, Gay Lynch’s historical novel Unsettled (my review). Both have one word titles which play with opposites; in both cases, those opposites refer to physical meanings and more abstract, intellectual, social and/or emotional ones; and, in both, these meanings draw significantly from the colonial act of settling Australia and displacing its original inhabitants. I enjoy such wordplay that forces us to consider multiple, and sometimes conflicting meanings because it encourages a deeper engagement with the ideas being explored.

Notwithstanding this, reading Displaced was a labour of love, because it is a demanding, and often confronting read. However, I wanted to know about this man who is one of Australia’s leading contemporary poets, so I persevered. My assessment? If you are interested in how one might live life as ethically as possible with regard to justice and the exploitation – of First Nations people and the environment – that is encompassed in the long tail of colonialism, Kinsella’s book is a good place to start.

This leads me, as I’m wont to do, to a consideration of form or genre. Displaced is characterised in promotions as a memoir, but I see it more as a manifesto with memoir elements. Events in Kinsella’s life underpin the book, including his stints in Ohio, Schull and Cambridge, but they are not the focus. Instead, they are used to explicate and exemplify his ethical beliefs and, more, to explore the paradoxes we all live with. These paradoxes provide the book’s main thread. They are expressed in such terms as “belonging and unbelonging”, finding a meaning for “home” that recognises Indigenous “dispossession” and doesn’t encompass the exploitative ideas of “ownership”, and feeling “displaced” while very definitely being in a place. He characterises this as “the ethics of presence”. It’s difficult to get your head around while also being very simple really. In other words, the idea is simple, but the living of it, not so!

Two-thirds through the book, Kinsella talks about conducting peace readings, and says that:

A poet has a job to do – art in itself is meaningless if it does not jolt us into self and collective action.

He then describes a sculpture in the British Museum comprising bits of AK-47s welded together. “The artwork,” he says, “jolts one out of apathy, if not out of complicity”.

For Kinsella then, art is not just for art’s sake. And so, here, this work of art, his “memoir”, has a very specific goal, to raise our consciousness regarding the lives we are living and how colonialism, and the accompanying capitalism, continue to damage both colonisers and colonised. He calls himself an “anarchist”, but not one who subscribes to chaos and disorder. His anarchism, he says, has

the social angle, it has the respect for individual difference. I do not attempt to tell people what to believe, but I do attempt to draw attention to the damage being done.

So now, let me return to my opening comment regarding the title and its multiple meanings. Early in the book, Kinsella talks about growing up in the Western Australian wheatbelt, and about the paradoxical, hypocritical love of nature and place he espoused. “Something didn’t add up”, he says, between the way he “felt about the world” and the way he “acted in it”, his actions drawing from “outdoorsmen activities and the attendant crisis of masculinity.” The things he did – farming, hunting, and so on – were counter to the things he loved. The book chronicles his realisation that

I was part of a colonial invasion force, and I belonged nowhere. What could I do about it? I wandered, displaced as an addict [literally as well as spiritually], and as someone trying to undo my own identity.

Learning a new way of being (“unbecoming what I was, becoming what I might be”) became his lifelong project, one he shares with his wife, the poet Tracy Ryan, and their son Tim. Kinsella puts this thinking into his work – in his writing (as mentioned above) and in his role as Professor of Literature and Environment at Curtin University. He speaks in the book of trying to create a new way of writing about place, “a system for working through the contradictions of presence, of time and space and catastrophe and catastrophising, of the failure of modernity and the consequences of colonial modes and modalities of presence”. That’s a mouthful, but it explains his wish to find a way of expressing how colonialism has negatively infiltrated our lives physically, spiritually and linguistically.

To explain his beliefs, he wanders between childhood, youth and adulthood, amongst relationships with other writers and thinkers, and between his current home, Jam Tree Gully back in the Wheatbelt, and those places he’s lived in overseas. Because – I think – of this to-and-fro structure, there is a lot of repetition of ideas and experiences, and these repetitions did become a little tedious at times. I get it John, I get it, I felt like saying a few times as I read. The other challenge for Kinsella was to not preach or virtue signal. He does come close, at times, but he makes clear that he understands the nuances – how does someone like him, for example, deal with feral cats or weed pests? “There’s plenty of mea culpa in my life”, he says.

In the end, this earnest, frank book is full of heart and commitment. One of the things I’ve taken away from it is a heightened awareness of how “colonialism” has infiltrated our language. Take, for example, an interpretive sign we recently saw on a bushwalk that described a tree trunk as providing “high rise living”. Or, a Wiradjuri country rural town’s proud sign promoting its “170 years of heritage”. Just 170 years? On its website, the Blayney Shire speaks more on this (colonial) heritage, and then mentions its natural environment and Aboriginal heritage. “Aboriginal relics and artefacts”, it explains, “are primarily protected under the provisions of the National Parks and Wildlife Act, 1974. Listed heritage in the Shire is mainly European in nature”. This sort of demarcation in thinking about heritage needs to change.

We can’t turn back the clock, which Indigenous Australians accept, I believe. However, they want and warrant the respect due any human being, recognition of their sovereignty and of their dispossession, and for us to listen to their wisdom and knowledge.

Kinsella, who believes that “poems can stop bulldozers”, includes many in this book. They make good reading. But I’ll end here on a positive note from halfway through the book:

The land is constantly being rewritten. We don’t have to be stuck with the damage. It can be undone.

John Kinsella
Displaced: A rural life
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2020
ISBN: 9781925760477

Review copy courtesy Transit Lounge, via Scott Eathorne of Quikmark Media

Archie Roach, Tell me why: The story of my life and my music (#BookReview)

Book coverGood things come to those who wait! At least, I hope so, because Lisa has had to wait a long time for a review from me for this year’s Indigenous Literature Week. Finally, though, I finished the main book I chose for this year’s challenge, Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell me why: The story of my life and my music.

Most Australians will know who Archie Roach is, but international readers here may not. A member of the Stolen Generations, Archie Roach is an indigenous Australian singer, songwriter, guitarist, and political activist. The story he tells in his memoir, Tell me why, is not an unusual one in terms of people of his background and generation, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading, because not everyone can tell this story in the way that Roach can. Perhaps this is because he’s a songwriter, or perhaps, more correctly, he’s a songwriter because he can tell stories.

Roach starts his story with a Prologue set in 1970. He is 14 years old, and receives a letter from one of his birth sisters telling him that his birth mother had died. This is a surprise, because his adoptive parents had been told his parents had died in a fire. He then flashes back in Chapter 1 to tell us about his life, as he knew it, up to 1970. This life involved being stolen from his parents, and being placed in two foster homes, one abusive, before being placed, in 1961, with the Melbourne-based Coxes with whom he was still living in 1970. In Chapter 2 he picks up that point in 1970 when he received the letter, and tells his story chronologically from then on, with some flashbacks to fill in his family’s early life as he learns it himself.

Although Roach had had a good life with the Coxes, who had loved him and whom he loved, the discovery that members of his birth family were still alive brought with it a desire to learn who he was, and he left home. He managed to make contact with his family, but before that he was introduced to drinking (having “a charge”) and life on the streets. Not surprisingly, his story, like those of many young indigenous people who have lost contact with their culture and thus with their bearings, involves alcoholism and related illnesses, run-ins with the police, prison, unemployment, and all-round instability. Archie would obtain work, would be appreciated as a worker, but the demons would return and down he’d plummet again. It’s a common cycle.

However, Archie had a couple of big pluses in his corner. There was Ruby Hunter, whom he met while still a teen and who became the love of his life. It’s not that her appearance resulted in a miraculous turnaround. Real life is rarely like that. But she became the supportive base to whom he would return and who, eventually, did provide the stability that enabled him to turn his life around and become the success he now is. The other plus was music, to which he was first introduced by the Coxes, particularly Dad Cox who loved to sing and who gave him his first guitar. While the stories about his drinking life were distressing to read, the story about how music “saved” him, and how he gradually came to realise that he could tell stories through music, was moving and inspiring.

This brings me back to my opening comment that “not everyone can tell this story in the way that Roach can”. The memoir is beautifully constructed, from the Prologue that vividly takes us into the classroom where Roach receives the letter about his mother, to the use of song lyrics, most of them Roach’s own, to introduce each chapter. Roach uses foreshadowing at the end of several chapters to move the story on, such as this at the end of the chapter in which he arrives in Adelaide – “This would be the last hours before finding Ruby Hunter”. And this one at the end of the chapter where Jill Shelton is recommended to him as a manager – “Jill would end up saving my life at a time when I didn’t see there was any point in saving it.”

Roach also mixes up the narrative, commencing some chapters with the next part of the story, while others he introduces with something more reflective. I particularly liked the opening to the chapter in which Ruby dies:

Some people see time as a river with a steady current. Some people say we get in and move with that current, all of us ageing uniformly. I don’t believe that’s true, though. I’ve seen people age years overnight.

It happens to a lot of our people, and it happens to an awful lot of us drinkers. It doesn’t just happen while we’re drinking, either; we could’ve been years off the stuff and then something might change. We might lose a sister or a brother, and suddenly we have age in our face and in our step.

Sometimes it happens for no reason. Someone will be living their life and all of a sudden time will heap years on their shoulders.

Of course, Roach also talks about politics, about Indigenous opposition to the 1988 Bicentenary, about John Howard’s  opposition to a national apology and his criticism of the “black armband view” of Australian history, about Aboriginal deaths in custody, about the stolen generations, and more. It’s all told through the prism of his own personal experience or through his involvement in political action. Most readers will know these issues, but the personal stamp offered by books like this helps keep the issues real and in front of us. Roach, like so many Indigenous people, amazes me by walking that fine line between anger at what has happened to his people and generosity towards the rest of us.

In the end, Roach’s message is an inclusive one. His songs, he has found, speak to non-Indigenous people too, with many telling him that “that’s what happened to me”. Consequently, his songwriting, he says, now “feels more inclusive, more universal” because “it’s about all of us – you can’t write about yourself without including everyone.”

He writes:

For so long we have been divided by ‘isms’ – racism, sexism, fundamentalism, individualism – but when we come back to the place of fire, I believe we will discover there’s far more that connects us than separates us. I believe we will be one humanity again, that we will find release, healing and true freedom.

I love the hope in this but, let’s be clear, Roach is not letting us off the hook. That is, he doesn’t believe we are there yet. He is, though, choosing an aspirational path, and for that I thank him.

ANZ LitLovers logoArchie Roach
Tell me why: The story of my life and my music
London: Simon & Schuster, 2019
ISBN: 9781760850166

Rick Morton, One hundred years of dirt (#BookReview)

Book coverWay back in the early 1970s when I was an undergraduate university student, I did some sociology, and one of our set books was The myth of equality by Tom Roper. It, and the courses around it, have informed ever since my understanding of how our society operates. Morton’s book One hundred years of dirt would have been perfect recommended reading for these studies. At the end of his first chapter he says this:

the single experience of my sister’s road to this point detonates the argument that equality of opportunity is stitched into our nationhood.

One hundred years of dirt, in other words, is not a simple memoir, as it might initially appear, but is, rather, a cry to Australians to see that the ideas, the myths we hold dear, are just that, myths.

But now, back to the beginning. Rick Morton, a thirty-something journalist, grew up tough. Born on a remote outback cattle station to a family of violent men, he experienced more than his share of trauma. Besides the intergenerational violence, he saw, when he was 7 years old, his older brother nearly burn to death and then, while his mother was away with that brother in hospital, saw his father carry on an affair with the governess. Not surprisingly, this caused a family breakdown, resulting in his mother leaving with her three children and no financial support. Poverty was theirs from then on. Morton speaks eloquently of the struggle to make ends meet, making it clear that families like theirs have no time to consider issues of the day, like climate change, when even a mooted $7 Medicare co-payment “could be the difference between eating or not for a person on the poverty line.”

Time, in fact, is an interesting issue – and one that resonated with me, too, as a feminist. Time is a commodity and how we choose to spend it – or are able to spend it – is political. Like hours at the hairdresser for example. (I know I am treading on sensitive toes here, but so be it.) Anyhow, as Morton says, “only some people have the time” to be “woke”. Just “living for so many people in Australia is exhausting“.

So, on the surface, One hundred years of dirt could be seen as your standard misery memoir: Boy from poor and violent background struggles against the odds to make it good as a journalist and successful author, with the help of a loving mother. It is that, superficially, but it’s much more too.

There is a general chronological movement to the story. It starts in the present, when that point quoted above about “equality of opportunity” is made. It then flashes back to the family’s origins on huge cattle properties in southwest Queensland, focusing particularly on grandfather George Morton and his hard, violent ways. From here, Morton moves more or less chronologically through his life, but each chapter is framed around a theme, so the chronology is not exact. The chapters, in fact, could be read as individual essays on their specific topic, such as drug (ice) addiction, mental health, being gay, class, and otherness or outsiderness. For some readers – as some in my bookgroup found I think – this departure from a more typical narrative flow may make the book feel disjointed. However, for me, the clear heralding in the first chapter that One hundred years of dirt was about more than one life had me engaged and ready, perhaps, for anything!

That anything turned out to be a personal exploration of how inequality plays out in contemporary Australia, supported by smatterings of socioeconomic data. Morton is, after all, a journalist, and so he brings his journalistic nose for facts to bear on his and his family’s personal experiences. In doing so, he provides example after example of how out of touch the knowledge class or “commentariat” is with the lives of those at the bottom end of the income stream. He discusses, for example, unpaid internships and the incomprehension that there are people who just can’t afford to take advantage of them. Journalism, which is rife with unpaid internships as a pathway in, has become one of “the most exclusive middle-class professions of the 21st century”. Morton describes the complete ignorance many in the middle-class have about their privilege:

There are those who have had the good fortune to never have felt other than the silkiness of privilege, their bubbles so perfect they cannot feel the gravel underneath.

He also writes:

As a nation, we have convinced ourselves that all of us has the same standing start, but this is neither true for the working class whites from broken families nor for those with black or brown skin. It’s not true for those without a proper education nor for those who were abused.

However, this book is not just bitter medicine. It has a spoonful of sugar. There are some genuinely funny moments – some of them black of course – and there are Morton’s wonderful turns of phrase which illustrate his meaning beautifully. He talks, for example, about working in a workplace surrounded by colleagues from “moderately wealthy and upper class families”:

… my colleagues [whom he did see as “dear friends”] could not fathom the life I had led. There were frequent attempts at empathy but it sounded a lot like people who were reading pre-prepared lines. Imagine a fish turning up to discover her psychologist is a Very Concerned sea eagle.

Love the fish analogy, but ouch, really, ouch! I feel I have a good understanding of inequality of opportunity and the ways in which it underpins disadvantage in Australia, but finding the right language in face-to-face encounters is not easy.

I have probably made this book sound like a sociological thesis or polemic. There is that, but it is still, at heart, a memoir. It’s simply that I have focused on what I see as the book’s main message. However, this message is wrapped up in a story about human beings, and particularly about Rick and his dearly loved mother Deb. He describes her as “the hero of this piece”, the mother who

sees boy as special, tells him he was sent here from that big night sky by beings unknown to report back on what he sees. She invented the aliens because she couldn’t see herself as the protagonist. She outsourced the explanation for her own success as a mother to the aliens out there.

Lovely Deb; thoughtful, provocative Rick. This is a powerful read.

Rick Morton
One hundred years of dirt
Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2018
ISBN: 9780522873153

Anna Goldsworthy, Piano lessons (#BookReview)

Book coverEver since Anna Goldsworthy’s memoir, Piano lessons, was published, I’ve hankered to read it, but somehow never got around to acquiring a copy. So, when I was casting around for our next road trip audiobook and this one popped up serendipitously in Borrowbox, I grabbed the opportunity.

Now, I have to admit that although I did play drums and fife, briefly, in a primary school band, I have never had formal music lessons. Ballet was my thing as a child. However, Mr Gums learnt piano to Grade 7, and I sat in on our kids’ music lessons, especially their piano ones, for years. I loved it, because I learnt so much about music (and music teachers) as a result. I was consequently primed for this book about the author’s piano lessons and her relationship with her Russian-born piano teacher, Mrs Sivan. Being on the Liszt List, that is, someone whose student-teacher lineage reaches back to Liszt, Mrs Sivan initially comes across as formidable, but very soon her warmth and generosity come to the fore.

Essentially, this memoir is a coming-of-age story. It covers Goldsworthy’s life – specifically her piano-playing life – from the age of nine until her mid-late twenties. It is not, however, the traditional coming-of-age story, but her coming-of-age as a musician and, along the way, as a wiser more rounded person. We see Anna coping with the humiliation of failure, when she gets a C in an important piano exam having been used to always getting As. We see the point at which she realises that, if she is to achieve her concert pianist dream, practising for barely two hours a day is not going to cut it. We see the naiveté of a young woman who, not prepared for a journalist’s questions, manages to hurt the people closest to her, learning, in the process, the importance of “humility and gratitude”. And, we see the brilliant pianist and school dux learning that a “perfect score” is “not proof against disaster”.

But, we also hear the wisdom of her piano teacher who doesn’t just teach her the techniques of playing piano, but also the meaning of music, the value and role of the arts and, more, a deeply humane philosophy of life, one that recognises, for example, the value of competition for learning but not for measuring one’s achievement or worth. Indeed, she tells Anna that she is “not teaching piano playing”, she is “teaching philosophy”. It is some years, of course, before Anna stops seeing piano playing as “obstacle courses for fingers” but as something you feel and express.

Goldsworthy describes this piano teacher, Mrs Sivan, as “less a character than a force”, and she conveys this sense largely through reproducing her teacher’s rapid-fire broken English. This might have been worked well in text, but in the audiobook – which was read by Goldsworthy herself – it was frequently difficult to listen to and was sometimes so fast that we missed words. Unfortunately, I don’t have the text to give you an example, but I found one tiny quote on GoodReads. Here is Mrs Sivan telling student Anna about Chopin:

I tell you a secret about Chopin, piano is his best friend. More. He tells piano all his secrets.

Mrs Sivan preceded this by saying that George Sand was not Chopin’s great love, the piano was! One of the real pleasures of this book is the insight provided into several musicians, particularly Bach, Mozart and Chopin, but also Beethoven, Shostakovich and others. Mrs Sivan knows them and their music so well, and impresses upon Anna that musicians must understand the composer and their lives to understand their music. Mozart, for example, “was born with happy of everything”.  I found her adamance about this interesting, because, in the literary arts, there are those who argue that the author’s life is irrelevant and should not be considered at all. I think there’s a place for it.

Piano lessons is not a long book – just 240 pages or so – but the writing and the structuring of the story are so tight that Goldsworthy conveys this coming-of-age to some depth despite the book’s brevity. She does this by never labouring her points, by knowing which stories to tell and how much to tell of them, and by imbuing it all with a light touch. Sometimes you think you are left hanging – “did she win that audition?” – but the answer always comes directly or indirectly a little later.

There is more to this book about music and musicians, about fostering talent, about forging a meaningful life as a musician, and about teaching being “the highest calling”, but not having it on hand, I’ll close here by sharing Mrs Sivan’s words about the arts. She told Goldsworthy that the arts must be “aesthetically and ethically grounded” and that they embody “unlimited flying of imagination”. I like both of these ideas – particularly that about the arts needing to be both aesthetic and ethical. In one sense, I don’t like to think that the arts “should” be anything, but I also believe that being ethical about what we do – whatever that is – is important. I think I would have liked Mrs Sivan.

Lisa also (ANZLitLovers) loved this book.

Challenge logoAnna Goldsworthy
Piano lessons (Audio)
(Read by Anna Goldsworthy)
Bolinda Audio, 2015 (Orig. pub. 2009)
2:23 e-audiobook (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781489020260

Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, The drums go bang! (#BookReview)

Book coverVolume 1 of Ruth Park’s autobiography, A fence around the cuckoo, covers the period of her life up to when she lands in Australia to marry D’Arcy Niland. Not being sure, perhaps, that there’d be a sequel, Park concludes with:

We lived together for twenty-five years less five weeks. We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels, a great deal of shared and companionable literary work, and much love and constancy. Most of all I like to remember laughter.

That autobiography was published in 1992. The drums go bang, written collaboratively by Park and Niland, was published in 1956 and covers the first five or so of these years to just after the publication in 1947 of The harp in the south.

The first thing that struck me was its point of view: it slips astonishingly between third person and first person plural, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. And then the penny dropped, its collaborative nature. When they are talking about one of them, Tiger (Ruth’s nickname) or Evans (D’Arcy’s), third person is used, but when they are talking about them together, first person plural is used. Here is an example about their delayed honeymoon:

We didn’t mind the delay. Tiger was crazy to see Sydney, and besides she wasn’t too keen on going away to the Blue Mountains with a strange man. While Evans was away at the Railway she went around the city on her own …

Once you work out what’s going on, it works very well. However, to understand this particular paragraph, and the “strange man” comment you’ll need to read their story for yourself, as I want to move on to other things. Suffice it to say that this comment, while containing an element of truth, given the way their relationship developed, is also an example of their light, self-deprecating humour. As Park said in her autobiography, “most of all I like to remember laughter”.

The drums go bang is a short and often funny book, but it manages to cover a lot, including their struggles to find accommodation in 1940s Sydney when accommodation was scarce, their decision to go freelance and the resultant struggle to survive, their work in the outback, two pregnancies, their lives in Surry Hills and other Sydney suburbs, and their relationships with a wonderful cast of characters. The aspects which interested me most were of course Surry Hills, because it inspired The harp in the south, the writing life, and the writing itself, which provides such an insight into their skills.

Although they tell it with such humour, Park and Niland are very clear about how difficult the freelance life is. For most of the five years covered by the book they live a hand-to-mouth existence, experiencing poverty at close hand. However, there’s also good advice here for would-be writers. For example, early in the book, Tiger expresses frustration at Evans’s belief that a good story will sell regardless, but even this is told with humour:

He was convinced that if the story were good it must sell. He bailed up an amiable Salvation Army major and tried to persuade him that “The Other Side of Love” was just what was needed for the War Cry. He submitted “The Menace of Money” to the Business Man’s Monthly, and a sentimental animal story to the house magazine at the Abattoirs.

They share their Minor Carta, their manifesto for writers who wish to make a living writing. Its eight articles include some hard learnt truths, such as that you have to “write anything and everything”, you cannot afford to be “snobbish” about your art, and you can’t let rejection slips get you down. They talk about the variability of payment systems for freelance work, unscrupulous writing schools, and the importance of marketing, of needing to “shape it to fit”. They write articles, songs, short stories, radio plays, children’s radio, comedy sketches, and more – anything that might bring in a cheque (and they do it sharing one old typewriter.)

I’d love to share more about their lives, and particularly the characters in it, like Evans’ brother Young Gus, the generous freelance publisher Mr Virtue, and colourful relations like Aunt Nibblestones and Uncle Looshus, but I want to get onto something that is most relevant to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week, their time in Surry Hills and how it inspired The harp in the south. Initially scared by “the place, with its brawling, shrieking life”, abusive drunks and fighting prostitutes, Park started to adapt, and

… began to study the people for what they were, and not what they did. Their true kindness, their generosity and charity filled her with shame. They were so much more genuinely loveable than she had given them credit for being, and she began to understand how the incredible congestion of their lives, the rabbit-warren houses, the inescapable dirt of an area which is built around the big factory chimneys all contributed to their innately lawless, conventionless attitude towards life. She began to understand that in such a place dirt ceases to become important, morals are often impracticable, and privacy is an impossibility.

As it turned out, though, The harp in the south was written, almost, you could say, accidentally. In New Zealand for some needed R&R after the birth of their second child, they are sent a clipping by Uncle Looshus which announces a Sydney Morning Herald competition for a novel, short story and poem. Park tries to convince Niland to write a novel but he refuses, saying he only writes short stories, and tells her to have a go. So, she does, and of course Surry Hills is her inspiration:

… she felt she understood them. She certainly liked them, mostly because in the midst of all their dirt and poverty and fecklessness they contrived to be happy.

She wrote down a sentence that seemed to sum up their philosophy: “I was thinking of how lucky we are”.

That sentence, the last line in the book, was the key that opened the door. From then on the story grew by itself.

This book, published serially in 1947 to both acclaim and vituperation, has become a classic of Australian social realism, albeit, as Paul Genoni says, “tempered with romanticism”. The same could be said of this delightful memoir.

Challenge logoRuth Park and D’Arcy Niland
The drums go bang!
Illustrated by Phil Taylor
Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956
ISBN: None

Jessica White, Hearing Maud (#BookReview)

Book coverHybrid memoir-biographies take many forms. For a start, some are weighted more to biography while others more to memoir. As I wrote in my post on Jessica White’s conversation with Inga Simpson, most of those I’ve read “have been mother-daughter stories, the biography being about the mother and the memoir, the daughter. White’s book is different. The biographical subject is Maud, the deaf daughter of the late nineteenth-early twentieth century writer Rosa Praed (1851-1935)”. However, Bill (The Australian Legend) responded in the comments that “I’m pretty sure Hearing Maud is another mother/ daughter memoir. On two levels”. In a sense he’s right.

I say “in a sense” because Maud is not White’s mother. However, two mother-daughter threads do run through the book, Maud and her author mother Rosa, and Jessica and her mother. But, unlike those more direct mother-daughter memoirs in which the daughter focuses on the mother’s story while also throwing some light on her own life, in White’s book the two mother-daughter stories work in some way as foils for each other, but, more significantly, the focus is on the two daughters’ lives. As with most memoirs – hybrid or otherwise – there is a larger intent behind Hearing Maud than simply telling the story of a life or lives. It involves exploring deafness.

As I reported in the conversation post, White talked about “coming out” as a deaf person. I wrote how “living in the country amongst a large extended family, she’d been, essentially, sheltered from fully experiencing her deafness”. This resulted in her growing up as “a hearing person” albeit a “bad” one! It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she started to think about herself as deaf, and to understand its impact on her life, particularly in her longstanding sense of loneliness and isolation.

Before, however, you start suspecting that this is going to be another misery memoir, let me get to the book. It starts with a Prologue, in which White tells us how she lost most of her hearing around the age of four, due to meningitis (or, more accurately, the treatment for it.) She then says, and it is this idea that underpins her story:

My life came to be defined by what the ancient Greeks termed a pharmakon, that which is a poison and a cure.

She goes on to say that the way the pendulum swings, between these two, depends on the time and culture in which the deaf person lives. For Maud, deafness was “a bane”. It led to her being committed to an asylum at the age of 28 and being left there until she died 39 years later. For White, on the other hand, it led to her becoming a reader and then a writer, because these “assuaged my persistent loneliness and gave me a sense of purpose”. What White goes on to do in her book is provide a mini-history of attitudes to deafness and deaf people over the last century and a half, exploring the ways in which both personal (including family) circumstances and social attitudes and policies can deeply affect the course of a deaf person’s life. Of course, life is a lottery for all of us – we are all affected by time and place, family and culture – but for those with a disability, there are additional layers that further reduce their control over their outcomes. (Interestingly, probably because of when she was born, White doesn’t discuss the whole nomenclature issue. In the early 1980s, for example, it was not acceptable to call people “deaf”, they were “hearing impaired”.)

Now though, I want to talk a bit about the writing. Hearing Maud is White’s third book (I’ve reviewed her second, Entitlement), and it shows. It shows in the novelistic language that brings life to the story. It’s never overdone, but there are scattered images that beautifully convey her feelings, such as this comment after her first real conversation with another deaf person, when she was 32:

Once again I have the sense of something settling into place, like a bird alighting in a tree, its wings relaxing. When I say goodbye and walk back past the sandstone buildings to the bus stop by the lakes, my step is buoyant.

You can feel the emotional release, can’t you.

It also shows in the confident handling of the multiple storylines – hers, and Maud and her mother Rosa’s stories. The stories are told generally chronologically but are interwoven with each other, so we start with White’s childhood ending a little before this book is completed, and similarly we move through Maud’s life. However, there are some backwards movements when something in the life of one raises an issue in the life of another. It does require some concentration from the reader, but the segues are natural and clear. Describing her childhood, for example, White tells of the times she spent in the bush, and how “the solitude was a balm”, enabling her to daydream about the boy on whom she had a crush. This leads her directly to  Rosa Praed – “Whenever I read Rosa’s novels, I reconnect with this heady mix of romance and the bush” – and a discussion of Rosa’s focus on the bush in many of her novels. Similarly, a discussion of the importance of letter-writing to her – being an “unthreatening way … to make connections” – leads to an extended discussion of Maud’s letters, and from that to Maud’s education and the history of deaf education in Europe in the late nineteenth century. There’s a lot of information here, but it’s so well integrated into the narrative that you learn almost despite yourself!

Finally, White’s skill shows in her control of tone. This is not a dry non-fiction work, despite the amount of information it contains, but a story about real people. White’s tone balances the formal (grammatical sentences, endnotes, and so on) with the informal (first person voice, and expressions like “I imagine Maud walking to the museum”). She also conveys her passion for her subject, and sometimes her frustration and anger, but doesn’t let it flow over into diatribe. However, she’s very clear about her intention for the book, as she tells her sister:

‘I’m tired of being taken for granted. I want people to know how hard I’ve worked – and how hard most people with disabilities have to work – to get where I am. I want them to hear Maud’s voice [hearing Maud!] and to know that, although things are much better, deaf people are still expected to act like hearing people. I want them to see how difficult it still is, when it shouldn’t be…’

I hear you Jess, loud and clear!

Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) and Bill (The Australian Legend) have also reviewed this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJessica White
Hearing Maud
Crawley: UWAP, 2019
ISBN: 9781760800383

David Brooks, The grass library (#BookReview)

Book coverOK, I’m going to show my hand here. I love animals – and hate animal cruelty – but I am not vegan. More to the point though, I am cautious about animal rights activists because they can sometimes act out the very violence and cruelty on humans that they condemn for non-human animals. I was, therefore, a little wary when I was offered for review David Brooks’ book, The grass library. However, Brooks, a poet/novelist/essayist/academic/one-time co-editor of Southerly, has enough cred that I decided to take a chance. I’m glad I did – just as I was glad to have read, three years ago, Bidda Jones and Julian Davies’ more targeted animal rights book Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports (my review).

The publisher’s letter accompanying my review copy quoted the Sydney Morning Herald’s description of Brooks as “one of Australia’s most skilled, unusual and versatile writers”. It is the combination of this writing skill, with the thoughts contained within, that makes The grass library such an engaging and provocative read.

Although there is no doubt about the author’s commitment to his cause, The grass library is not an in-your-face polemical book. Instead, it is a thoughtful work in which Brooks, now a committed vegan and animal rights advocate – advocate being, perhaps, a more appropriate word than activist – works through his practical, philosophical and ethical position. And he does so in a way that encourages us to think along, and to wonder about and question our own thoughts, practices and values.

The book is part-memoir, part-reflection. It starts with Brooks’ partner, simply called T in the book, pronouncing that she can’t eat meat anymore. “We’re turning vegetarian”, she says. A week later, that becomes vegan. And so, a big change occurs in their lives, one that takes oyster- and cheese-loving Brooks not too long, in fact, to get used to. Brooks writes, heralding the book’s real subject-matter:

But this book isn’t about veganism, or guilt. If I’d permitted myself a more eighteenth-century subtitle it might have been “An account of three years pf philosophical and un-philosophical transactions with animals in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales”, but ultimately and more simply it’s about discovery and wonder: wonder and wondering.

After a couple of false starts, Brooks and T find themselves, in 2012, living on a small farm in the Blue Mountains, with their recently adopted dog Charlie, and, soon after, two rescue sheep, Henry and Jonathan. Not long after that, a new-born lamb, Orpheus Pumpkin, joins them, and by the end of the book, ram Jason brings the number to four. These sheep and Charlie form the book’s backbone and become (or, should I say in the spirit of the book, are) characters in their own right. Other non-human animals appear too, some briefly, including cicadas, ducklings, a snake, and rats.

What I most enjoyed about this book is the calm, non-histrionic way in which Brooks introduces and ponders on a range of random-sounding but coherent-as-the-book-progresses ideas, such as “dusk anxiety” and “herd music”. “Dusk anxiety” is introduced early on through a twitching that Charlie was exhibiting at that time of day. It’s a sort of mood-change or discombobulation that some humans (and, Brooks believes, some non-human animals like Charlie) feel at that strange twilight, half-and-half time of day. Sounds valid to me. However, it also provides Brooks an opportunity to raise the issue of anthropomorphism. His argument is that anthropomorphism is not a bad thing, that in fact, it is central to empathy. The barbarity we engage in against animals is made possible, he argues, by denying this empathy, by believing “that we are so different from the creatures we live amongst that we cannot know or even hazard how they feel.” To read this book, then, you need to understand (if not accept) this fundamental world-view. Brooks may not know what the non-human animals he writes of feel, but he writes with the assumption that they do feel (and that we may know what they feel).

Another significant idea underpinning the book is that of the binary way we view animals. This idea is one of the most confronting or, at least, challenging in the book:

There are so many old, rusty binaries involved here. […]

We categorise animals, and behave towards them – accord or refuse them protection or sanctuary – depending on whether we see them as wild or tame, feral or domesticated, native or exotic, rare or common, endangered or of least concern, pet or pest, livestock or otherwise …

In most of these cases, he says, one side of the binary will be given a higher “value” (in human terms), with, often, a justification to kill the opposing side. For each animal concerned though it is his/her life!

It’s not for nothing, I think, that the next chapter talks about rats at their farm!

This discussion of binaries is part of a major thread in the book, which is language, and how it “trips” us up, how it “will restrict us, hold us back, if we don’t learn to use it with greater care and respect”. Language is all too often speciesist, he argues. Grammar – the use of “it” for a non-human animal, for example – is violent, for example, or, at least, has the potential for violence.

It’s a book, then, that makes the brain hurt – albeit in a gentle, encouraging way. However, there is beauty in the book too, such as the chapter on “herd music”. This chapter starts in his writing room, his “grass library”, and is inspired by the appearance outside his room of the two sheep when (and only when) he plays music. He ponders this. They are herd animals, but being just two rescue sheep, they have no herd and are thus deprived of, he posits, the music of the herd:

… if music it can be called (but how else to call it?): the sound of hooves shifting in the grass or tapping on stone, the occasional bleat of a lamb, response of its mother, grunt or growl or call of a ewe or a ram, the sound of snipping at grass-blades, coughs, throat-clearings, nudgings, strokings, as one sheep passes another, regurgitations, ruminant chewings, fartings, belches, sounds nearer and further off, all in all a constant, rolling concert, approximated—very distantly resembled, in a bizarre, post-something way— by the muted rhythmical under-music of whatever it is that I might be playing on the stereo system in my cabin, an aural equivalent of warmth, the ghost of companionship.

I share this because I loved this, but also because it provides some insight into the way Brooks thinks (or wonders.)

I can’t say I agree with all that Brooks writes. For example, as vegans, he and T didn’t want to feed their rescue lamb lactose-based lamb powder, so they seek non-animal products like almond milk (which doesn’t, for the record, work). But, but, I say, lambs grow on milk! And then, of course, there are those binaries. Philosophically I take his point, but practically? I need to think about this more.

The grass library, then, can be a confronting read because it challenges us to reconsider some fundamental perspectives and assumptions. However, it is not a difficult read, because not only is it generous, but it is also peppered with engaging stories about life in the mountains and the non-human animals with whom Brooks and T. live. I recommend it.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

David Brooks
The grass library
[Blackheath]: Brandl & Schlesinger
ISBN: 9780648202646

(Review copy courtesy Brandl & Schlesinger)

Ros Collins, Rosa: Memories with licence (#BookReview)

Book coverMemoirs are tricky things. There are readers who love them, readers who hate them, and readers like wishy-washy me who sit in the middle. I sit in the middle because, for a start, I don’t like to say “never” when it comes to reading. I sit in the middle because I couldn’t cope with a steady diet of memoirs, particularly those how-I-got-over-my-[whatever trauma or challenge it was], which is certainly not to say that I don’t admire those memoirists or don’t enjoy some of their fare. And, I sit in the middle because I don’t like formula, because I like books that try to tackle their subject or their form a little differently. So, the memoirs I mostly read are those which play with form or whose subject matter offers something different. Ros Collins’ memoir, Rosa: Memories with licence, does both of these.

First, the subject-matter. Rosa deals with, as the book description says, “Anglo-Australian Jews [who are] often overlooked in fiction and memoir.” Having known many Anglo-Australian Jews through my life, I was interested to read Collins’ discussion of her family’s life, as a contrast to those more directly Holocaust-influenced lives of European Jews we’ve all read about. It’s not easy being Jewish, I believe, regardless of personal or family history, so I was interested to read this story.

Then there’s the form. The subtitle, “memories with licence”, suggests that this is not going to be your usual memoir. For a start, it is told third person about a person called Rosa, which is the name given to the author Ros by “two elderly men from Southern Europe” whom she met on a recent Anzac Day Eve. She goes on to say, in her Introduction, that it is this “Rosa who wanders through the following stories, sometimes fictionally, sometimes autobiographically”, though I hazard to guess it is mostly autobiographical – just told one voice removed! Near the end of the introduction, she says that:

Rosa is much more personal [than her previous family history book, Solly’s girl] – and freely written – and I have taken liberties with the truth. Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say. Memories with licence.

The book has been classified on its back cover as Memoir. And that is how I have read it, as it reads true.

So, why tell it this way? Collins says she wishes “to entertain”. Her aim is not to delve into world history, cataclysmic events, or, even, dystopian futures. She wants, instead to shine a light on lives that may not be well known to many Australians, on Anglo-Australian Jewish lives. Taking a third person voice enables her to tell her story a little more objectively, to comment on what people, in particular Rosa, were, or may have been, thinking and feeling. Third person also enables her to get out of the main subject’s voice and head. It enables her to suggest what others might be thinking, such as Rabbi Szymanowicz:

Rabbi Szymanowicz stopped surreptitiously searching the room for younger people with whom he might more profitably connect, and looked at her. Seldom, if ever, had he met an elderly congregant quite like her; for an eighty-something-year-old Rosa did not come across as a sweetly gentle Miss Marple – more likely to be opinionated and argumentative.

This sort of statement could not be made in the same way in a traditional memoir. A traditional memoirist can not so directly get into the head of another character. A traditional memoirist can only suppose what another character might think (unless they are quoting documented facts from, say, letters). Taking this third person approach gives Collins more licence. She can, for example, “guess” about the relationship between her two grandmothers, two women who were not happy because they lost significant supports, when Rosa’s parents married.

All this could be disconcerting to some readers, but Collins has been honest from the start about what she is doing. Ultimately, the important thing is whether the book rings true and I believe it does. Rosa’s character – her humanity, her sense of her own flaws, her uncertainties, as well as her pride in her achievements – shines through.

Another way in which the book departs from traditional memoir is in its lack of linearity. While there is an overall movement from past to present, Rosa is not told chronologically. Instead, each chapter or “story” takes up a theme through which the story of English-born Rosa (Ros) and Australian-born Al (Ros’s husband Alan) is told. Chapter 4, “Jellied eels”, for example, explores food, Jewish culture, and Rosa’s navigation of it all. Collins explains how, as a child, Rosa had been told what she could and couldn’t eat, but not told why. Her mother expected her to “just accept the traditions” but of course this is not the way to hand down traditions, not, certainly, “to a difficult daughter – full of unnecessary questions”!

Collins also tackles, gently and without polemics, what Israel means (or, might mean) for Anglo-Australian Jews. For those of us who find Israel and the politics of the region highly problematic, it’s useful – though not necessarily convincing – to be reminded that in Israel, as Rosa quotes Golda Meir saying, “nobody has to get up in the morning and worry about what his neighbours think of him. Being a Jew is no problem here.”

Rosa, then, is a warm-hearted, open-minded “memoir” written by an Anglo-Australian Jewish woman for whom being Jewish, as for many I believe, is as much, if not more, about history and heritage as god and religion. In this book, Collins interrogates her family’s past, and her late husband’s story, in order to come to a better understanding of herself, and of what she would like to pass on to the next generation. This book is testament to that soul-searching, and makes good reading for anyone interested in the life-long business of forming identity, Jewish or otherwise.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeRos Collins
Rosa: Memories with licence
Ormond: Hybrid Publishers, 2019
ISBN: 9781925736113