Nigel Featherstone on Christos Tsiolkas’ fearlessness

This week, Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, My heart is a little wild thing, was published, and I plan to attend the launch later this month. In the meantime, it seemed apposite to discuss his essay on Christos Tsiolkas in Reading like an Australian writer. Those of you who have read Nigel’s blog will know that he’s a Tsiolkas fan, so it’s not surprising that he was commissioned to write on him for this anthology. As it happens, I’m a Tsiolkas fan too, so this was one of the essays I was keen to read.

Fearlessness

This essay, though, is a little different to the previous essays I’ve discussed from this anthology, because it’s more about Tsiolkas’ oeuvre than one work.

Early on, Featherstone references Orwell’s essay, “Why I write”, noting that “political purpose” is one of those reasons. Tsiolkas is “one of Australia’s most politically attuned writers of his generation”. It’s relevant to explain here, as Featherstone does, that Tsiolkas is the son of Greek migrants, is gay, and identifies as a socialist and atheist. Given this (and, I would add, given the grittiness of many of his novels), it is “truly remarkable”, says Featherstone, that in our contemporary conservative Australia, Tsiolkas has had significant critical and commercial success.

Featherstone starts at the beginning – with Tsiolkas’ first novel, Loaded (adapted to film as Head on), which was published in 1995. Now, Featherstone is a writer too, of course, so he is particularly interested in exploring Tsiolkas’ craft. To do this, he shares specific excerpts/quotes* which reveal, among other things, why he titled his essay “Fearless”. Tsiolkas is audacious, from the opening paragraph of his first novel.

I mentioned above that Tsiolkas is “gritty”, which is my description of in-your-face writing like Tsiolkas’. Featherstone doesn’t use that word, but it’s what he means when he says that the writing “could come across as crass”. It doesn’t, though, he says, because it feels confident, which is why readers stay with it.

How he makes it feel confident is the thing, isn’t it? It may partly be in the way, as Featherstone puts it, Tsiolkas “pushes his prose towards poetry”, by which he means “the language is doing more than one thing at once. Featherstone also refers to the epigraph for Loaded. I love that, because I do think the epigraph can contain serious clues to a work. Epigraphs are not there for fun (or, if they are, the fun is also part of the meaning!)

Featherstone looks at what emerging writers can learn about writing with audacity (or fearlessness): it requires, he says, writing not just from the brain, but the body (chest, gut and crotch) and it requires caring deeply about the characters (no matter how flawed).

Featherstone also identifies Tsiolkas’ main concerns – “class in Australia, and the power and privilege of whiteness” – and he describes one of Tsiolkas’ “many strengths” as “his ability to explore political concerns through the depiction of the everyday”. This is certainly how I think of The slap and Barracuda . I wrote in my Barracuda post:

“This dissection of worlds, of  “class”, and of anglo-Australia versus immigrant Australia, is an ongoing concern for Tsiolkas. We came across it in his previous novel, The slap (my review), and we see it again here. Tsiolkas is not the only writer exploring this territory, but he’s one of the gutsiest because he’s not afraid to present the ugliness nor does he ignore the greys, the murky areas where “truth” is sometimes hard to find (though he doesn’t use the word “truth”).”

So, I liked that when talking about the short story “Tourists” from Merciless Gods, Featherstone says:

In this relatively simple tale the author reveals the racism that exists at the core of Australia’s masculinity and the violence that courses through the nation’s vernacular.

In fact, I don’t just like this, I love it, because, for me, “the violence that courses through the nation’s vernacular” is the main idea behind The slap. As Featherstone writes, “Tsiolkas is a social critic as much as he is a writer of literary fiction”. True, and it’s not particularly surprising. Some of my favourite literary fiction also encompasses social criticism. (Think Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things or Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip.)

The last work Featherstone looks at is Damascus (my review) and again he starts with the first paragraph, and teases out its power – the precision which which Tsiolkas can convey multiple layers of fear. He see fear as being one of the novel’s themes. The opening of this novel is truly terrifying, but another point Featherstone makes is Tsiolkas’ ability to “contrast the heavy with the light”. (Some readers, I know, struggle to find the light in Tsiolkas’ work, but I’m with Featherstone. It is there.)

Nigel Featherstone perfectly meets the brief of this anthology, which was to share how a writer reads. His essay contains very specific lessons that can be taken from Tsiolkas’ writing. However, in doing this, he also conveys the two prongs that make writing sing for me – fearlessness in style, structure and/or content, and generosity in attitude to tough characters and/or ideas. Tsiolkas epitomises both, and so, I think, does Featherstone.

* Do read the essay to see all the great excerpts.

Nigel Featherstone
“Fearless: On Christos Tsiolkas”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 125-136
ISBN: 9781742236704

David Foster Wallace, How Tracy Austin broke my heart (#Review)

Many readers here, I know, are not the slightest bit interested in sports. You know who you are and I’m not going to out you, but you are welcome to do so in the comments. Meanwhile, this is for the rest of you who enjoy watching sports. For me, watching sports aligns well with being a reader, because sport is all story.

What I mean by this is that a sports event has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is full of character and characters. There’s also setting, and there are themes. Some relate to the characters. Are they the underdog, a star on the rise, someone coming back, an oldie having one last go, the bad boy? But, there can be darker themes too to do with politics, social justice, economics, and so on. I don’t need to elaborate them here.

As a lover and supporter of the arts, however, I certainly appreciate that sport can get more than its fair share of attention and money, but that’s not so much the fault of sport, itself. In the best of all possible worlds all forms of human endeavour deserve support and recognition. Enough, though, of my justification … on to David Foster Wallace.

American author David Foster Wallace was a person of wide interests, one being tennis. Several years ago I posted on his essay “Federer as religious experience”. That essay was very different to this one, but its approach is similar in that Wallace takes us on a journey, as he thinks through the issue in front of him. For this reason, I’m going to re-use a quote I used in my previous post. It’s from Best American essays editor, Robert Atwan, who defines the best essays as being

deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process–reflecting, trying-out, essaying.

Wallace commences his essay by describing his love of tennis and, in particular, of child tennis star Tracy Austin who was born the same year he was. He consequently looked even more forward than usual to reading her sports-memoir. He’s self-deprecating about buying these mass-market books, ‘the sports-star-“with”-somebody autobiography’, saying that he usually hides them “under something more highbrow when I get to the register”.

Unfortunately, Austin’s “breathtakingly insipid autobiography”, being full of cliches and platitudes, might have broken his love of the genre. However, he decides to explore it to see if it might “help us understand both the seduction and the disappointment that seem to be built into the mass-market sports memoir”. He works through the issues, exploring our expectations of them, and why they might compel us. Unlike Wallace, I have never gravitated to these sorts of memoirs, but I can relate to some of the reasons he gives. These athletes are beautiful and inspiring. They make, in fact, “a certain type of genius as carnally discernible as it ever can get”.

So, we want to know them – who they are, how they did it, and how “it feels inside, to be both beautiful and best”. These memoirs, “explicitly or not … make a promise—to let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses”. But, the problem is, they “rarely deliver”.

He uses Austin’s trajectory to exemplify all this, and discusses why her ghostwritten book fails. It’s not only because it is poorly written. It forgets it’s for the reader. Rather, its “primary allegiance” seems to be “family and friends”, with “whole pages … given over to numbing Academy Award-style tributes to parents, siblings, coaches, trainers, and agents, plus little burbles of praise for pretty much every athlete and celebrity she’s ever met”. It also wallows in the cliches, stereotypes and myths that we’d actually hoped it would break open for us. It’s not that we are looking for “dirt”, but we want insight. The only insights we get in Austin’s memoir, Wallace shows, are unwitting ones where she naively exhibits her lack of awareness of reality, such as her protestation that her mother “did not force” her to play tennis at 3. What three-year-old has free choice? There are other, scarier, examples of naïveté, stories that an aware memoirist would tease out from the position of wisdom gained from experience.

There is also what Wallace describes as the Greek-like tragedy of Austin’s career, the fact that her “conspicuous virtue, a relentless workaholic perfectionism that combined with raw talent to make her such a prodigious success, turned out to be also her flaw and bane”. This too is not grappled with in the memoir. The book could have helped expose “the sports myth’s dark side”.

But then, in a very Wallace-ish way, he starts to turn his analysis around. He notes that this “air of robotic banality suffuses not only the sports-memoir genre but also the media rituals” in which top athletes are asked to explain their “techne” in those post-contest interviews. With the Australian Open just over, and the Winter Olympics on, I’m sure you know what he means. We get no insights, just “I stuck to the plan” or “focused on one point at time”, etc.

From here, Wallace starts to look at the issue from a different angle. He can’t believe, given what they achieve, that these athletes are as vapid as they come across. Maybe they achieve the heights they do because these “one ball at a time” cliches are true, that what goes through the athlete’s mind as they stand ready to serve, make the pass, whatever, is, in fact “nothing at all”.

When Tracy Austin accepts the car crash that ended her come-back attempt with “I quickly accepted that there was nothing I could do about it”, maybe this is true:

Is someone stupid or shallow because she can say to herself that there’s nothing she can do about something bad and so she’d better accept it, and thereupon simply accept it with no more interior struggle? Or is that person maybe somehow natively wise and profound, enlightened in the childlike way some saints and monks are enlightened?

This is, for me, the real mystery—whether such a person is an idiot or a mystic or both and/or neither. The only certainty seems to be that such a person does not produce a very good prose memoir.

Maybe, he continues, it is only spectators who are not divinely gifted athletes who can “truly … see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied” while those with the gift are “dumb and blind about it”. Maybe this blindness and dumbness are not the price of the gift but its essence. I see an element of truth here, but the question is, where does this blindness start and end.

David Foster Wallace
“How Tracy Austin broke my heart” (1994)
in Consider the lobster and other stories
New York: Little, Brown and Company
pp. 164-181
ASIN: B00FORA1TO (Kindle edition)

Scanned version available on-line at psu.edu

James Weldon Johnson, Stranger than fiction (#Review)

Several months ago, I bookmarked a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering – as I often do for later use – but, despite its being a very brief offering, I’ve only got to it now. It’s on James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), and was timed, 17 June 2021, to synchronise with the 150th anniversary of his birth.

American readers here may know Johnson, but many of the rest of us probably don’t. Wikipedia describes him as an American writer and civil rights activist, but that hides a wealth of accomplishments. LOA, lists his achievements in a news item. He

  • wrote one novel, The autobiography of an ex-colored man, “which is considered by many critics to be the first modern African American novel and a major inspiration for Harlem Renaissance writers”.
  • was a lawyer, the first African American from his county, or perhaps state, to pass the Florida bar exam.
  • was an educator, and president of the Florida State Teachers Association (for Black teachers).
  • was a songwriter who, with brother Rosamond and friend Bob Cole, wrote dozens of popular songs. Many ended up in Broadway musicals of the early 1900s. They also wrote two songs used for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 campaign. One of these, “Under the bamboo tree,” was a big national hit in 1902 and was later performed by Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis). He and his brother wrote and composed the hymn “Lift every voice and sing,” also known as the “Black national anthem”.
  • was a diplomat, U. S. Consul in Venezuela (1906–1909) and in war-torn Nicaragua (1909–1912).
  • was a journalist at The New York Age, supervising its editorial page and writing a daily column for over ten years.
  • was an activist with the NAACP, who, in his role as field secretary, significantly increased the number of branches and the size of the membership.

LOA’s Story of the Week includes some biographical information that inspired his novel, and the text of his 1915 New York Age editorial which discussed the critical reaction to the novel.

“Stranger than fiction”

When I saw the title of this offering, I expected an essay, perhaps an entertaining one, on that old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction”, but I didn’t the author then. What I got was something far more interesting.

LOA prefaces the essay, as usual, with some explanatory material. In this case, they start with two “dramatic experiences that would inform his writing and activism for the remainder of his life”. One occurred in 1895, when, as an enterprising new teacher (a black man, remember) he asked to visit a white school to see and compare practices. He did so, but apparently a few days later he learnt that his visit “had raised a hullabaloo”. Parents had objected to the presence of a “Black man” in their children’s classrooms. Johnson wrote that “The affair was fomented to such an extent that the board of education felt it necessary to hold a meeting to inquire into the matter and fix the responsibility for my action.” To their credit, the superintendent and the school’s principal stood their ground, and it all blew over.

The second involved his meeting a journalist in a park in 1901, at her request. She wanted to fact-check an article she was writing on the disproportionate damage done to Jacksonville’s Black neighbourhoods by the Great Fire. They were confronted by “eight or ten militiamen in khaki with rifles and bayonets” who had “rushed to the city with a maddening tale of a Negro and a white woman meeting in the woods”. Again, it was resolved, but the ordeal left its mark.

Johnson’s novel, The autobiography of an ex-colored man (1912), which was inspired by experiences like these, has been described as the first fictional memoir by a black person. Set in late nineteenth to early twentieth century America, its protagonist is a young biracial man, known only as the “Ex-Colored Man”. Because of such experiences as witnessing a lynching, he decides to “pass” as white for safety and advancement reasons. The book chronicles his experiences and ambivalent feelings about his decision.

The book did not sell well initially, but sold very well three years later, after, says LOA, Johnson revealed himself as the author and “distributed several thousand copies of a glowing review that had appeared in Munsey’s Magazine“. This brings us, finally, to the essay, “Stranger than fiction”, which was published in 1915 in his daily column in The New York Age, where he was editor.

His aim was to give “a brief overview of the novel’s critical reception” but it was partly inspired, says LOA, by rumours that the estate of a wealthy woman publisher, Miriam (Frank) Leslie, was being contested by her late husband’s relatives on the grounds that she was the daughter of an enslaved women and therefore ‘her relatives had “no heritable blood”‘.

Johnson states at the beginning of his essay, that his book (novel)

produced a wide difference of critical opinion between reviewers on Northern and Southern publications.

Northern reviewers generally accepted the book as a human document, while Southern reviewers pronounced the theme of the story utterly impossible. A few of the Northern reviewers were in doubt as to whether the book was fact or fiction.

For many Northern reviewers, in other words, the work was so “real” they could barely believe it was fiction. (It doesn’t sound that, like Helen Garner’s critics, this bothered them.) Southern critics, on the other hand, asserted that the work was unbelievable because, writes Johnson,

the slightest tinge of African blood is discernible, if not in the complexion, then in some trait or characteristic betraying inferiority. This is, of course, laughable. Seven-tenths of those who read these lines know of one or more persons of colored blood who are “passing.”

As it turned out the Miriam Leslie rumours were unfounded, but Johnson at the time, believed it could have been true, and, if so, was “stranger than any fiction”. Which, ironically, just goes to prove the adage, whether the story was true or not!

Meanwhile, I was interested, though not surprised given how things are still playing out, in the disparity between Northern and Southern critical responses some 50 years or so after Abolition. Not strange at all, unfortunately.

James Weldon Johnson
“Stranger than fiction”
First published: New York Age, 1915
Available: Online at the Library of America

Epiphany in Harrower’s “The fun of the fair”

With Bill’s AWW Gen 4 Week still in play, I hoped I’d find something relevant to share from Reading like an Australian writer. And there was, a discussion by novelist Emily Maguire of a short story by Elizabeth Harrower. The short story, as you can probably guess, is titled “The fun of the fair” and it opens Harrower’s collection, A few days in the country, and other stories (my review).

Epiphany

I love short stories, so love that Maguire chose to explore one in Castles’ anthology. Moreover, I was thrilled to see that her angle was the “epiphany”. I have loved that word since I first came across it. It has such a great sound and look.

In her essay, Maguire briefly discusses its meaning. She starts with its religious origins as “a moment of spiritual or divine revelation”, and then says that, in a literary sense, it describes “a different kind of realisation”. She gives examples from To kill a mockingbird, and from Disney’s Frozen and Dumbo. She doesn’t, I was surprised to see, mention the writer though whom I was introduced to the concept, James Joyce – and his novel A portrait of a young man.

So, I did a browser search to see if my memory was correct, and yes, it was, at least according to Wikipedia:

Author James Joyce first borrowed the religious term “Epiphany” and adopted it into a profane literary context in Stephen Hero (1904-1906), an early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In that manuscript, Stephen Daedalus defines epiphany as “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” Stephen’s epiphanies are moments of heightened poetic perception in the trivial aspects of everyday Dublin life, non-religious and non-mystical in nature. 

Wikipedia says more, including that “Scholars used Joyce’s term to describe a common feature of the modernist novel, with authors as varied as Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, and Katherine Mansfield all featuring these sudden moments of vision as an aspect of the contemporary mind”. And then the penny dropped. I suddenly remembered that Bill had decided to pop Harrower, who straddles his Gen 3 and 4 eras, into Gen 3, which we did last year, because she was “a modernist”.

But now, given the origin of “epiphany” is less important to us than its use and relevance to our reading, let’s get back to Maguire and “The fun of the fair”. Maguire makes a couple of points about epiphanies: they are internal, that is, they come as “a shift within the character”, and “they are not the result of logic or conscious reasoning”.

Indeed, Maguire says they can come “seemingly out of the blue”. In the rest of her essay she provides a close reading to show just how our 10-year-old protagonist’s epiphany comes about. I checked my marginalia for the story, and found that I’d written that the fakeness in the sideshow Janet attended had “shocked her into her own truth”. This is essentially true, but Maguire describes the build-up so eloquently in her analysis. She says that young Janet, who, at the end, “ran, not crying now, but brilliant-eyed” is “experiencing an extreme surge of emotion, so she wouldn’t, and doesn’t, stop to articulate this”. But, she has had a feeling, an epiphany, that we readers see as hopeful, as something that will take her forward into the next stage of her life. I thoroughly enjoyed Maguire’s analysis.

Now, I’ll bring this back to our AWW Gen 3 and 4 discussions. Maguire comments near the beginning of her essay, that ‘sometimes the epiphanic moment is obvious because it’s announced outright with a phrase like “She suddenly realised that”…’ However, she continues,

What this kind of signposting gives us in clarity it may take away in verisimilitude. In real life, a person may experience a powerful feeling or thought that, looking back later, they might call an epiphany. But in the moment itself, the person is probably so busy experiencing the insights or revelation that they don’t pause to note its occurrence.

Elizabeth Harrower, being a realist writer, Maguire says, won’t have her characters exclaim they’ve had an epiphany, but will show us, the readers, that something has changed. She certainly does this with Janet. This made me think of Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain (my review), and Jessie’s epiphany at the end. Jessie is older than Janet, and reflects consciously about life, so her epiphany is more signposted, but elegantly so. Near the end, she sees a garden and finds herself “clamped in the cruel snares of memory”. Memory jolted, she comes to a realisation that, like Janet’s, is a hopeful one. It’s not a guaranteed “happy-ever-after” but the novel closes with a vision of a more positive Jessie than she had been for some time. The power of the epiphany!

I am enjoying this anthology.

Emily Maguire
‘”Not crying now, but brilliant-eyed”: Epiphany in Harrower’s “The fun of the fair”‘
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 233-243
ISBN: 9781742236704

Elizabeth Harrower
“The fun of the fair”
in A few days in the country, and other stories
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015
pp. 1-14
ISBN: 9781925240566

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)

Novel-in-stories, Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air

This is my third post inspired by Reading like an Australian writer, and it involves two First Nations writers, Ellen van Neerven on Tara June Winch’s award-winning debut novel Swallow the air. I chose van Neerven’s essay for my next post, because, coincidentally, I’d just read Winch’s story “Cloud busting” in Flock, an anthology, edited by van Neerven. Are you keeping up? “Cloud busting” is one of the stories in Swallow the air.

Form? What form?

Tara June Winch, Swallow the air

In my review of Swallow the air, I wrote:

The first thing to confront the reader is its form. It looks and even reads a little like a collection of short stories*, but it can be read as a novella. There is a narrative trajectory that takes us from the devastating death of narrator May Gibson’s mother, when May was around 9 years old, to when she’s around 15 years old and has made some sense of her self, her past, her people. May’s mother is Wiradjuri, her father English.

The asterisk pointed to a note at the end of my post, which stated that one story from the novel, the aforementioned “Cloud busting”, had been published separately in Best Australian stories 2006. And, in her essay, van Neerven says that she had used “Cloud busting” with students. Sounds like it could become one of Australia’s popular anthologised stories. This would be a good thing because, also in her essay, van Neerven comments on having had no introduction to “Indigenous-authored books” when she was at school (which, for 31-year-old van Neerven, was not that long ago.) Short stories are an excellent form for introducing school students to great stories and writing, and it would be a good thing to see more diverse stories added to current anthology favourites.

“Cloud busting” is a beautiful story, by the way, because it makes a point about deep loss but also conveys the warmth, trust and generosity that can exist between people.

Anyhow, back to form. Just as I wrote in my post on Swallow the air, van Neerven also comments on the book’s form, noting that “writing relational novels-in-stories” is a “very First Nations practice”. She cites Jeanine Leane’s Purple threads (my review) and Gayle Kennedy’s Me, Antman and Fleabag, as other examples. Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing (my review) fits in here somewhere too, I’d say. I hadn’t really thought about this as being particularly First Nations, as we all know novels from various writers that generate arguments about whether they are novels or short story collections. However, in my experience – and I am generalising a bit – First Nations people can be great story-tellers so it wouldn’t surprise me to find the form of “novel-in-stories” being more common among First Nations writers.

Further discussing this book, in which protagonist May goes on a journey back to Country to find her Wiradjuri origins, van Neerven makes another interesting observation, which is that May’s journey “plays into the reader’s romanticised expectations that a return to Country will bring the story a happy resolution”. But, of course, it’s not that simple. Country has often been too damaged by “past policies and institutionalisations”, as van Neerven puts it, for this to happen, but, she says, May does come to understand something important, which is that Country “lives within her” and her family “allowing her to feel strong in her identity without the shame of not living or growing up on Country”. Of course, it’s not up to me to pronounce on the validity of this way of seeing, but it makes good sense to me.

Anyhow, I’ll leave it, on these two interesting-to-me points, as I don’t want to steal the life from Castle’s book. These essays are all so different, as you’d expect, but this just makes them more worthwhile. You just never know what approach a writer is going to take when talking about another writer, but you do know that it will probably be insightful.

Ellen van Neerven
“Kinship in fiction and the genre blur of Swallow the air as novel in stories”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 7-12
ISBN: 9781742236704

Tara June Winch
“Cloud busting”
in Ellen van Neerven (ed), Flock: First Nations stories then and now
St. Lucia: UQP, 2021
ISBN: 9780702264603 (Kindle)

S-S-S Snake, Kate Jennings’ Snake, that is

I thoroughly enjoyed Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay on Helen Garner’s Cosmo cosmolino (1992) in Reading like an Australian writer. Consequently, I plan, over time, to read and share other essays in this book – at least those discussing books I’ve reviewed here. As it happens, there is an essay by Debra Adelaide on Kate Jennings’ Snake (my review), and it’s the perfect next cab off the rank. Not only have I already posted this year on Erik Jensen’s longer essay on the book in the Writers on writers series, but Snake is a novella, so I’m using this post as a contribution to Cathy’s (746books) Novellas in November. I hope that’s not too cheeky.

I’ll start, though, by introducing Debra Adelaide. A novelist with a few books under her belt, including The women’s pages which I’ve reviewed, she first became known to me through her work on early Australian women writers, her Bibliography of Australian women’s literature, 1795-1990 (1991) and A bright and fiery troop: Australian women writers of the nineteenth century (1988). Like many writers, she also teaches creative writing, and Snake is one of the texts she regularly sets.

So Snake – for those who don’t know – draws from Jennings’ life, and tells the story of a lively, imaginative woman, Irene, who marries a decent but boring man, Rex. It cannot work, and the consequences are dire.

Jensen’s and Adelaide’s essays are very different. This is partly because Jensen’s, being in the Writers on writers series, focuses on the writer, whilst Adelaide’s in Reading like an Australian writer focuses on the reading and writing. Not surprisingly, the approach Adelaide takes is closer to mine – except that her writerly perspective is more astute, centred and expository.

The elastic novella

Early in her essay, Adelaide specifically address its form as a novella, saying that Snake demonstrates “how wonderfully elastic the novella can be”. In Snake‘s case, it is “so elastic that it can almost be prose poetry”. It is also “audaciously” abbreviated. She’s right – this is one spare novel.

Adelaide identifies three main reasons that she sets this text for her students – “its poetic brevity, its ‘experimental’ form, and its intriguing, sometimes maddening, allusions to and quotes from numerous literary and cultural references”.

It is, she says, the perfect set text, because it can be easily read in one night and remembered, but,

Brevity does not mean simplicity: its complex themes ripple out and take their time before finally landing on the muddy shores of our imagination.

This is what makes Snake such a good and memorable read.

The three s’s

Adelaide divides her essay into three main sections, those three s’s in the title: Structure; Serpents; and Scenes, sex and Serena McGarry.

I love discussions of structure, because structure can so often help inform the meaning. When a short novel like Snake has a complex structure, it is worth taking note. Adelaide talks about her own method of writing and wonders about Jennings’ approach. She doesn’t know how Jennings works, but she does say that this novel

opened up my eyes to the possibilities of writing a novel that was straightforward yet clever in structure, that was stripped back to its narrative bones, and yet at the same time managed to be multilayered, dense, poetic and unforgettable.

She discusses the novel’s four-part structure, and explains how, although the book is primarily about the mother Irene, it manages to convey the POVs of all four characters, thus “deftly” delivering a portrait of the whole family. Simultaneoulsy, with its use of second person at the beginning and end, “it offers a powerful sense of everyperson”. I love this analysis. I also enjoyed her further discussion of second person, which accords with some of my assumptions about this voice. One of the points she makes is how second person makes (can make) the reader complicit, which is one of the reasons Madeleine Dickie used it in Red can origami (my post).

Adelaide also briefly discusses an issue that fascinates her, as it does me – “the unlikable character in fiction”. Irene is “remote, ruthless and selfish”, and yet, despite Snake‘s “staccato delivery and disparate parts”, Jennings manages to maintain the focus on Irene “without alienating us from her”.

However, the section I most enjoyed is Adelaide’s discussion of Serpents. She references DH Lawrence’s poem “Snake”, which Jennings quotes from in the novella, and Henry Lawson’s short story “The drover’s wife”. She also references Jensen’s discussion of snakes, because, of course, he discussed them too. The point is that snakes are both metaphorical (the cause of the original fall of humankind, and so on) and actual (a real threat to vulnerable children, dogs and women.)

And so, the heart of Jennings’ Snake lies in, says Adelaide, “the universal fear of the serpent, that potent post-lapsarian symbol of all evil and danger”. All associations with snakes race through our minds, she says, as we read this novel. This is one of the ways a spare novel can lay down meaning on top of meaning.

In the third section, Adelaide discusses Jennings’ “scrupulous clarity”, using a few examples from the novel. One is the murder-suicide of Serena McGarry and her husband. Adelaide explores how much, in less than 100 words, Jennings conveys about Serena, and its implications for Irene. Adelaide makes the point that these “marvellously condensed” scenes “contain entire longer stories within them”. She sometimes uses them as springboards for students to develop their own stories. I would add that this sort of writing can make a book a great reading group book because it encourages readers to think about characters – who they are, why they are who they are, and why the writer has written them this way. Endless discussion can ensue!

Adelaide concludes by saying that Snake is “a novel that replays re-readings well out of proportion to its size”. I second that.

Debra Adelaide
“Structure, serpents and Serena McGarry: Kate Jennings’ Snake
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 219-232
ISBN: 9781742236704

George Orwell, How the poor die (#Review)

“It is a sound instinct that warns people to keep out of hospitals if possible, and especially out of the public wards.” George Orwell may have written this in 1946, in his essay, “How the poor die”, but I can’t help thinking that it is still a sound instinct, something only too vividly confirmed by the experience of COVID-19, world-wide. How many people have contracted COVID-19 in hospital, for a start? How many hospitals have been so over-run that they’ve had patients in corridors, in foyers, in ambulances on ramps, in quickly erected marquee wards, not to mention people on the streets waiting to get in. This isn’t the experience of all patients in all hospitals in all countries, but as far as I can tell one or more of these things has happened in every place that COVID-19 has taken hold. It’s not pretty.

But, I digress. Back to Orwell. The essay was inspired by an experience he had in a public ward of a hospital in Paris in 1929, but why leave it to 1946 to publish? According to Wikipedia, the editor of Orwell’s Collected Works, Peter Davison, suggests that it may have been first written between 1931 and 1936, when Orwell was writing about “the unemployed, tramps and beggars”, and that he reworked it over 1940 to 1941. It was submitted to a journal around then but was rejected, “possibly because readers would have been unwilling to read about ‘how the poor die’ at such a time”. In the end, a section [which section, I wonder?] was retyped and it was published in November 1946.

Orwell’s experiences were awful. He had pneumonia, he says, and was placed in a packed ward – “a long, rather low, ill-lit room … with three rows of beds surprisingly close together” – and treated with cupping and a very painful mustard poultice. This, however, was not the worst of it. He describes the impersonal, disrespectful way in which the patients were treated by the doctors, medical students and nurses, the lack of basic cleanliness and care (with patients, not nurses, for example, often getting bedpans for those who couldn’t do it themselves). That this was going to be the sort of story he’d tell is heralded in the second paragraph where he describes having a bath on admission as “a compulsory routine for all newcomers, apparently, just as in prison or the workhouse”.

Anyhow, Orwell then moves on to death. He suggests that the lonely, ignored death of patient numéro 57, would be seen as “an example of a ‘natural’ death, one of the things you pray for in the Litany”. He considers it might be “better to die violently and not too old”, because, for all the horrors of war, he writes, death via a man-made weapon nowhere near “approaches in cruelty some of the commoner diseases”.

At this point, I was wondering about what hospital experiences Orwell had had, but he goes on to mention a Spanish hospital and an English cottage hospital, both of which he experienced in the 1930s. So, when he argues that the English cottage hospital was superior, he is speaking from experience. I wonder, though, whether a French cottage hospital might have been similarly decent? I don’t know.

Orwell next gives a brief history of hospitals through the nineteenth century, describing how they were places where medical students practised on the poor. He focuses on surgery, which, at that time, was “believed to be no more than a peculiarly gruesome form of sadism”. This apparently inspired a nineteenth century genre (though he doesn’t use that term) of horror-literature “connected with doctors and hospitals”. All you horror lovers will be familiar with this, I’m sure. Doctors in these stories had names like Slasher, Carver and Fillgrave. He also mentions Tennyson’s poem “The Children’s Hospital” (1880) as being part of this anti-surgery literature.

I found all this interesting, but wondered what his point was. A page or so before the end, I thought I found a hint, when, after referencing the improvements brought by anaesthetics and disinfectants, he says

Moreover, national health insurance has partly done away with the idea that a working-class patient is a pauper who deserves little consideration.

And yet … he concludes by saying that, despite improvements, hospitals are still not the best place to die, and that “the dread of hospitals probably still survives among the very poor”. It takes a long time, he implies, for past experiences and history to die out in the collective imagination. Not necessarily a bad thing, I think.

Wikipedia tells us that in 1948, two years after this story was published, and one year before Orwell died, Britain’s National Health Service was established “as publicly-funded medical provision for all”. The person behind it was the Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan, who had once been Orwell’s colleague at the Tribune.

Previous reviews from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, “Confessions of a book reviewer“, “The prevention of literature” and “My country right of left“?

George Orwell
“How the poor die” (orig. 1946, in Now)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 50-64
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.

Bill curates: Mary Church Terrell’s What it means to be coloured …

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. In 2011, when today’s post was first published, Barack Obama was in his first term as President and then Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, was pursuing a scorched earth policy of refusing to even allow Democrat legislation to be debated, with the stated aim of making Obama a one-termer. Obama got a second term, but then there was Trump, and racism in America seemed to take a giant step back into the light, giving new relevance to this talk from 1907.

This is the last Bill Curates post he sent me a few months ago. I intended to publish it then, but life, reading and blogging got busy, and I tucked this away in my drafts folder for another time. I think now is the time to post it and to thank Bill for the wonderful support he gave my blog through my dark year. It was so appreciated. Thank you Bill, you helped save my sanity.

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My original post titled: Mary Church Terrell, What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States

Mary Church Terrell. Public Domain, National Parks Service, via Wikipedia

I heard a radio interview this week with Jane Elliott of the brown-eye-blue-eye experiment fame, and she suggested that racism is still an issue  in the USA (through the efforts of a vocal minority) and is best demonstrated by the determination in certain quarters that Barack Obama will not win a second term*. It’s therefore apposite (perhaps) that my first Library of America post this year be on last week’s offering, “What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States” by Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954). This essay originated, according to LOA’s introductory notes, in a talk Terrell gave at a Washington women’s club in 1906. It was then published anonymously, LOA says, in The Independent, in 1907.

Now, I’d never heard of Terrell, but she sounds like one amazing woman. Not only did she live an impressive-for-the-times long life, but she had significant achievements, including being, it is believed, the first black woman to be appointed to a Board of Education (in 1895). She also helped found the National Association of Colored Women. On a slightly different tack, she was a long-time friend of H.G. Wells. Interesting woman, eh?

I have a few reasons for being interested in this essay, besides Jane Elliott’s comment. I lived in the DC area – in Northern Virginia – for two years in the early-mid 1980s and was surprised by some of my own experiences regarding race there. And, as a teen in the 1960s and early 1970s, I was aware of and fascinated by the Civil Rights movement in the USA. I was surprised but thrilled to hear, late last year, an audio version of John Howard Griffin‘s book, Black like me, that I read and loved back in those days.

But enough background. To the essay… I’ll start by saying that I’m not surprised that it began as a talk, because it seemed to ramble a bit. However, as I read on, some structure did start to appear. She starts by listing the various areas in which she, as a black woman, was (or would have been if she’d tried) discriminated against in the national capital. These include finding a boarding house and a place to eat, being able to use public transport, finding non-menial employment, being able to attend the theatre or a white church, and gaining an education. She introduces her section on transport as follows:

As a colored woman I cannot visit the tomb of the Father of this country, which owns its very existence to the love of freedom in the human heart and which stands for equal opportunity for all, without being forced to sit in the Jim Crow section of an electric car …

The irony here is not subtle – but she’s in the business of education where subtlety would not get her far!

She then returns to many of these issues – and this is where I started to wonder about her structure – but what she does is move from introducing the issues by using herself as an example to exploring each one using real examples of people she knows or has heard of. She describes, for example, how employers might be willing to employ a skilled black person, but are lobbied by other staff and threatened with boycotts by clients and so take the easy path of firing (or not hiring) the black person in favour of a white person. In one case the employer is  a Jew,

… and I felt that it was particularly cruel, unnatural and cold-blooded for the representative of one oppressed and persecuted race to deal so harshly and unjustly with a member of another.

You can guess why, in 1907, this was published anonymously!

Anyhow, I won’t repeat all the examples she provides to demonstrate the extent of prejudice at play, because you can read the essay yourself. I will simply end with her conclusion:

… surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep.

Some 100 or so years later, the US sees itself as the leader of the free world and yet it seems that this chasm is still rather wide. What are the chances that it will completely close one day?

* Please note that this is not a holier-than-thou post. We Aussies have our own problems with racism and prejudice, and so I am not about to throw stones at anyone else.

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I love that Bill decided to choose a non-Australian post for this BC. It’s so depressing to think that no improvements seem to have been made in the decade since I wrote this – there, or I fear in most countries. Certainly, statistics coming out here in Australia are showing no improvement in important measures, like life expectancy and incarceration. Indeed there’s been some sliding. This is not good enough.

Thoughts?

Stan Grant, On Thomas Keneally (Writers on writers) (#BookReview)

Book cover for Stan Grant, On Thomas Keneally

Stan Grant’s On Thomas Keneally is the second I’ve read in Black Inc’s Writers on writers series, Erik Jensen’s On Kate Jennings (my review) being the first. As I wrote in that post, the series involves leading authors reflecting “on an Australian writer who has inspired and influenced them”. Hmm … the way Keneally inspired and influenced Grant is not perhaps what the series editors envisaged, but certainly his essay meets some of the other goals: it is “provocative” and it absolutely starts “a fresh conversation between past and present.”

Most Australians will know immediately why Grant chose Keneally, but for everyone else, it’s this. In 1972, Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was published. It is historical fiction based on the life of Jimmy Governor, an Indigenous man who was executed in 1901 for murdering a white family. Keneally is on record as saying he was wrong to have written the book from an Indigenous person’s perspective, but he did, and the book is out there (along with its film adaptation by Fred Schepisi).

That’s Keneally, but what about Stan Grant? Of Wiradjuri and Irish heritage, he is no stranger to this blog. He’s an erudite, thoughtful man, always worth listening to, but, here’s the thing. I find it difficult, with this book, to be a white Australian discussing a First Nations Australian writing about a white Australian who wrote a novel about a First Nations Australian. The politics are just so complicated. I’ll do my best, but will just focus on a few ideas. At 86 pages it is a short piece so, if you are interested, I recommend you read it yourself.

If you have ever listened to Grant, you will know that his thinking is deeply informed by history and philosophy, and so it is here. He is also palpably angry, and pulls no punches. He writes, just over half way through the essay that

This entire essay is about writing back to the white gaze. I need to write back to the white author who would steal my soul. I must prove I exist before I can exist.

Grant starts his essay by reminding us of Australia’s history and how “in a generation or two, my people were nearly extinguished.” He introduces us to Jimmy Governor, who was executed just three weeks after Federation. Jimmy becomes the lynchpin for his argument, because he, “that grotesque murderer”, is also, says Grant, “the memory of a wound. He is a scar on our history that runs like a fault line between black and white.” He is “a spectre that will not let us bury our history.”

The problem is, argues Grant, that the real Jimmy is nothing like Keneally’s Jimmie:

Keneally’s caricature of a self-loathing Jim­mie Blacksmith is a lost opportunity to explore the complex ways that Aboriginal people … were pushing against a white world that would not accept them for who they were; that would not see them as equal; that, in truth, would not see them as human.

But, of course Keneally’s novel is historical fiction, and, historical fiction, as most of us realise, says as much about the time it was written as about the time in which it is set. In Keneally’s case, The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was written in 1972, a particular time in Australian history, Grant recognises, “a time of anti-Vietnam protests, the election of the Whitlam government and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy”. Grant continues:

Keneally was writing a protest story for a protest era; he needed Jimmie Blacksmith to be the freedom fighter that Jimmy Governor never was. Jimmy was a man who wanted respect. He bridled against injustice, yes, but this was a crime of anger, not an act of war.

Grant though wants something more. He wants exploration and understanding of how history, how Australia, has negated First Nations Australians’ very beings. He refers to Jacques Derrida’s coinage of

‘hauntology’, to describe how the traces of our past – our ghosts – throw shadows on our world.

Grant believes that “the West thinks it can vanquish history; that the past can be entombed”. I don’t personally ascribe to that. It’s not rational, to me. But I can see how the course of Western “progress” does in fact manifest that way of seeing, and it leaves people – like First Nations Australians – in its wake. This, really, is the theme of Grant’s essay.

However, at times Grant lost me. He says Christos Tsiolkas is “copping out” when he says that it is not for white Australians to write “a foundation story for the first peoples of this country”. Grant suggests Tsiolkas can, and that he could “look to the First Peoples to enter our tradition; to understand that story and his place in it before he writes a single word about what it is to be an ‘Australian'”.

I’m uncertain about how a white Australian can do this right now, but that is probably my lack of imagination. Regardless, I feel that Grant is refusing to recognise the respect behind Tsiolkas’ statement. It’s a respect many of us feel when we contemplate writing about First Nations Australians. We don’t want to presume we know what we can never understand. Grant says it himself, late in the book:

No one who has not lived through our interminable loss could capture what it is to be Indigenous in Australia.

In the last part of the essay, Grant discusses other Australian writers. Besides Tsiolkas, these include Patrick White, Joan Lindsay, Randolph Stowe, from the past, and contemporary Indigenous writers like Tara June Winch and Bruce Pascoe. His thoughts are often surprising. He clearly approves Eleanor Dark who “knew that blackness hovers over everything that is written in this country”.

The final part of essay reads like a manifesto. Grant states exactly what he will and won’t do and be. But, he also says he is glad Keneally wrote his book because it has stayed with him for forty years. In it, he felt “the weight of my history”. The results weren’t always positive, but the book has, I think he’s saying, kept him thinking.

And he says this:

Like me, Thomas Keneally made his own pilgrimage to the old Darlinghurst Gaol. Standing near where the real Jimmy Governor was hanged, he said he was sorry for “assuming an aboriginal voice”. He should have sought permission, he said. “We can enter other cultures as long as we don’t rip them off, as long as we don’t loot and plunder,” he said. I don’t think we can police our imaginations. I don’t think we need to ask permission. Australian writers have never done this and, frankly, I see them in my country more clearly because of it. It is like the debate about Australia Day; why move the date if it will only hide the truth.

I will leave you with that.

(My third post for Lisa’s 2021 ILW Week.)

Stan Grant
On Thomas Keneally: Writers on writers
Carlton: Black Inc, 2021
90pp.
ISBN: 9781760642327