Skip to content

Stella Prize 2019 Shortlist announced

March 8, 2019

As you probably know, the Stella Prize is the award I particularly like to follow, though I don’t always post on the Longlist and the Shortlist as I am this year. The Longlist was announced on 7 February (my post), and the shortlist was announced, today, International Women’s Day, as has, appropriately, become tradition.

Here is the shortlist:

What an interesting list – and one for which I’ve already read two, and am currently reading a third. This year there are two, not one, non-fiction works on the list, out of the five on the longlist.

Louise Swinn, the 2019 Judging Panel Chair, says that:

The six finalists on the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist explode the myth of the death of the book, and they are a hearty response to the under-representation of women’s work in awards. This is an incredibly diverse knot of books, with broad subjects showing that identity is shaped across many continents and informed by many cultures. Non-fiction and fiction works stray from their formal constraints as authors give authentic voices to those who are otherwise under-represented. The books on this shortlist inform and entertain, and while they speak absolutely to our moment, their insights are timeless

Anyhow, what do I think about the list? Well, it is an intriguing one – and from what I’ve heard and/or read myself the list encompasses quite a variety of concerns and styles, and is not, probably, what you’d call conventional! Whether you agree with the judges choices or not, I like this.

The winner receives $50,000, and each shortlisted author receives $3000, as well as a three-week writing retreat on the Victorian coast. It’s a lovely generous prize. The winner will be announced on 9 April.

Now, I’ll get back to my reading … but if you have any comments on the list, I’d love to hear them.

Maria Edgeworth, Leonora (#BookReview)

March 6, 2019

My Jane Austen group decided to start the year by discussing one of Austen’s precursors, not to mention favourite writers, Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849). Edgeworth was born eight years before Austen and lived much longer than Austen’s not quite 42 years – lucky her! She was also prolific, so we had plenty to choose from. According to Wikipedia, she was “during the period 1800–1814 (when Walter Scott‘s Waverley was published) … the most celebrated and successful living English novelist.” Australian academic Dale Spender supports this in her Mothers of the novel*, writing that:

If ever there was a period in the history of letters when women unquestionably led the way it was in the last quarter of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century when the only challenges to the pre-eminence of Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth came from other women – like Elizabeth Inchbald and Ann Radcliffe.

So, Edgeworth is well worth looking at, and my group gave it a good shot. Some books were read by more than one member, and some members read more than one book, but I was the only one to read Leonora. In case you are interested, here are the books we read:

  • Letters for literary ladies (1795)
  • Castle Rackrent (1800)
  • Belinda (1801)
  • Leonora (1806)
  • The absentee (part of Tales of a fashionable life) (1812)
  • Harrington (1817)
  • Helen (1834)

Now, Leonora

Its plot is essentially this: kind, newly married, well-to-do Leonora invites to her English home, Olivia, who had been exiled to France because of her unconventional, shall we say, behaviour in marriage. This was a time when divorce was shocking and required “guilt”. Sensation-seeking Olivia’s ideas about marriage are romantic:

I married early, in the fond expectation of meeting a heart suited to my own. Cruelly disappointed, I found—merely a husband.

Poor Olivia!

Maria Edgeworth, LeonoraIn Leonora, Edgeworth leaves aside her Anglo-Irish themes for an English-French one. She pits English common-sense, through Lady Leonora guided by her mother the Duchess, against French “sensibility”,  through Olivia, an English woman who behaves like a French “coquette” under the guidance of her friend Gabrielle. The novel anticipates Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility (1811), but while Marianne’s “sensibility” can be seen as teenage silliness and idealism, Olivia’s is self-centred, lacking in morality – and, unlike Marianne, she’s unlikely to change. The book critiques this sort of over-dramatic, over-blown behaviour, and makes a case for steady love based on early passion developing into deep respect and friendship!

Leonora, it must be said, does not exhibit the subtlety nor the realism that makes Austen so special. The characters tend to the black-and-white, and the discussion of sense versus sensibility lacks the nuance that Austen brings to it. Austen’s characters are more “rounded”, with sensible Elinor also capable of feeling, and emotional Marianne not being completely devoid of sense. In Leonora, sense and sensibility are presented very much as dichotomies, though Leonora is shown to have strong feelings in addition to sense, which works, of course, to her advantage in the end. Despite this lack of subtlety, the book is worth reading, for several reasons.

To start with, it’s an epistolary novel, a form which, Wikipedia says, has been around since the 15th/16th centuries. I don’t always like these novels, mainly because the letter form can break the narrative flow. I did find it a little challenging at first to work out who was who – until sorting that out became part of the fun. Given there’s no one authorial voice, it also took me a little while to work out which character/s, if any, Edgeworth, was aligning with. Was she, an Irish-sympathiser by-and-large, supporting British “sense” or French “sensibility”? However, the form provided Edgeworth with a neat way of presenting multiple first person points of view. It gave a freshness to the narrative, and enabled her to easily present different perspectives and characters. (By their own mouths shall they be known!)

Of course, I enjoyed the sense versus sensibility theme, not only because of the Austen comparison, but also because Edgeworth aligns them with national characteristics. Leonora was published during the Napoleonic Wars when England (the United Kingdom) was fearful of French invasion. It’s not surprising then that anything “French” was viewed askance. Leonora’s mother writes to her that a

taste for the elegant profligacy of French gallantry was, I remember, introduced into this country before the destruction of the French monarchy. Since that time, some sentimental writers and pretended philosophers of our own and foreign countries have endeavoured to confound all our ideas of morality.

Sensibility, then, is aligned with France and lack of morality – and, of course, vice versa for sense and England.

There is also some commentary on fiction and the novel, and that always interests me. Austen is, of course, famous for it in Northanger Abbey. (Indeed, one of the novels she references in her defence of the novel is Edgeworth’s Belinda.) Here, for example, is Leonora’s response to her mother, who had Olivia tagged at the outset. Leonora’s mother criticises Gothic novels, which Olivia reads: “they must have scènes and a coup de théâtre; and ranting, and raving, and stabbing, and drowning, and poisoning; for with them there is no love without murder”. Sensible Leonora has a more generous take:

Many people read ordinary novels as others take snuff, merely from habit, from the want of petty excitation; and not, as you suppose, from the want of exorbitant or improper stimulus. Those who are unhappy have recourse to any trifling amusement that can change the course of their thoughts. I do not justify Olivia for having chosen such comforters as certain novels, but I pity her and impute this choice to want of fortitude, not to depravity of taste. Before she married, a strict injunction was laid upon her not to read any book that was called a novel: this raised in her mind a sort of perverse curiosity. By making any books or opinions contraband, the desire to read and circulate them is increased.

Haha, I love the comment on the effect of banning books! Anyhow, interestingly, Olivia’s mentor Gabrielle, who later in the novel urges more dastardly plotting, tells her that such novels do not provide good advice for life:

Permit me to tell you, that you have been a little spoiled by sentimental novels, which are good only to talk of when one must show sensibility, but destructive as rules of action.

(And she goes on to say that “Love has been with you the sole end of love; whereas it ought to be the beginning of power.”)

I’ve been pretty brief here – really?, you say! – because each of the points I’ve touched upon could make a post in themselves. Leonora is not a subtle book, but I enjoyed reading it, partly for its place in literary history and culture, partly for its commentaries, and partly because it has a liveliness that I found engaging despite myself.

* Bill (The Australian Legend) is making a study of Mothers of the novel, starting here.)

Maria Edgeworth
Library of Alexandria, 2012 (Orig. pub. 1806)
ASIN: B0073UNBJC (Kindle ed.)
Available online at Project Gutenberg

Monday musings on Australian literature: Eight writers to look out for (2017)

March 4, 2019

Back in December 2017 The Guardian Australia ran an article titled “Eight new Australian writers you should read (according to those who know)”. As the title implies, it lists eight emerging Australia writers to look out for. It’s a serendipitous list compiled by their asking “industry insiders – publishers, editors, festival directors – for their pick of the new cream of the literary crop”. It is therefore not comprehensive nor “scientific” in its creation … but it does provide an interesting guide. I should explain though that these are not all novelists as most lists of emerging writers tend to include.

Given over a year has passed since that list was published, I though it might be fun to see where these writers are now. I haven’t heard of some of them, so this involved a little research. For each writer, I’ll share something from the Guardian, and add some updating commentary.

Luke Carman (recommended by Geordie Williamson, Island)

At the time of this recommendation, Carman had published An elegant young man (Giramondo) and
Getting square in a jerking circle (Meanjin).

Luke Carman, Intimate antipathiesWilliamson writes of An elegant young man:

… has more smarts, more sincere eloquence, more comic savagery, more unrepentant auto-evaluation, than any other title published in this country. The prose may sprawl in gloriously untidy ways but the mind that animates it is succinct, and brutally so. This is not fiction for the reading classes.

Carman was named as a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novel in 2014. Since 2017, he has appeared in various of Australia’s literary journals, and, most excitingly, his next book Intimate Antipathies is due to be published in June this year. I say excitingly, even though I haven’t read him yet, because it’s a fascinating sounding collection of essays, and I do love a good essay.

Claire G Coleman (recommended by Zoe Pollock, Brisbane Writers’ Festival)

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusColeman’s first novel, Terra nullius (my review), was published in 2017.

Pollock says:

Coleman, like so many of our Indigenous writers, demonstrates how acutely our history – most specifically, dispossession and colonisation – is with us in our present day and is not beyond becoming our future. Coleman, a south coast Noongar woman from Western Australia, goes to the heart of Australia’s challenge as a nation – how to universalise the experience of Indigenous people, so that it is something all Australians can understand.

Terra nullius created quite a buzz through 2017 and 2018, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2018. Coleman’s second novel, The old lie, will be published later this year by Hachette.

Shastra Deo (recommended by Mindy Gill, Peril)

Deo’s publications at the time of The Guardian article were The agonist (UQP), and गुम; or, Lexical gaps (Cordite).

Gill writes that her debut collection, The agonist,

… confirms her place among Australia’s most exciting poetic voices. She writes in persona – a difficult thing to pull off – using the corporeal to explore the human animal in all its beauty and violence. I am in admiration of her work and look forward to watching her star continue to rise.

Gill was certainly on the money with her comments on The agonist, given it won the prestigious ALS Gold Medal in 2018 – quite a feat for a debut work.

Fury (recommend by Amy Middleton, Archer)

Fury’s writings include the following articles Extracting queerness from a narrative of suffering (Archer), Fury against the plebiscite (Overland), and Love and anger: How popular culture sells aggression as romance (Kill Your Darlings).

Middleton writes that

Accessibility is what sets Fury’s writing apart. They are a Melbourne-based writer, spoken word performer, poet and comic artist, with a passion for making complex topics such as oppression, queerness, gender identity, and even love, digestible, illuminating and fun to read (where appropriate!)

Now this one intrigued me, because I only came across Fury a couple of weeks ago – as the writer of an article on Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby in the current Metro magazine, “Australia’s oldest film and media periodical.” On their website, Fury announces that they started working on their first book in 2018, an “experimental graphic novel memoir called I Don’t understand how emotions work.”

Caitlin Maling (recommended by Catherine Noske, Westerly)

Maling’s poetry published by 2017 includes Conversations I’ve never had (Fremantle Press), Border crossing (Fremantle Press), Diego’s head (Cordite).

Noske says that Maling

has a huge list of awards and fellowships to her name, and she currently holds a Marten bequest. With these successes, she is gaining plenty of attention as a poet. But I also love her criticism. … she publishes in academic circles as well as regularly producing essays and reviews.

The awards keep coming. In mid-2018 she was awarded the Patricia Hackett Prize for a “creative non-fiction piece”.

Eddie Paterson (recommended by Marieke Hardy, Melbourne Writers’ Festival)

Paterson’s poetry collections published by 2017 include We will not pay (Overland), Sheep poems (Cordite) and led zeppelin (Red Room Poetry).

Hardy feels it’s unusual to nominate a poet, but that

when a writer such as Eddie Paterson falls across one’s radar the thrilling potential can’t be ignored. …

What’s interesting to me about Eddie’s writing is the visual aspect…

Paterson’s collection, redactor, was shortlisted for the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry. The judges described it as “a hilarious, politically alive vivid experiment”. But Paterson is not only a poet, but a playwright/scriptwriter and is working on some commissions at the moment.

Peter Polites (recommended by Michaela McGuire, Sydney Writers’ Festival)

Peter Polites, The pillarsBy 2017 Polites had published two books: Down the Hume (Hachette) and Public spaces: Mind Street virus (The Lifted Brow).

McGuire says:

… Peter is a true original: he’s celebrated for writing dark realism in the tradition of the early works of Christos Tsiolkas and Luke Davies, but I think he’s funnier than either of them. … A first generation Greek Australian, Peter’s writing examines the borders of society, both geographical and imagined, and the intersections between queer and ethnic identity. He’s one of the most intelligent writers I’ve ever read…

Polites’ second novel, The pillars, is due for publication in the middle of this year, ie. 2019.

Ellen van Neerven (recommended by Sam Cooney, The Lifted Brow)

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light, book coverLast but by no means least is the versatile Ellen van Neerven. By 2017, van Neerven had published Heat and light (UQP) (my review), Comfort food (UQP) and Expert (Overland).

Cooney praises both van Neerven’s writing and the positive role she plays among writers. He says that her debut Heat and light (which I also admired)

is an extraordinary work of linked fictions. For me, the central piece of the book, Water, did what the very best writing can do: after reading it, the world around me was different, never to be quite the same again.

Van Neerven has appeared several times here. On her website, she reports that her play swim featured at the Yellamundie First Peoples Playwriting Festival in January 2019, and that she is also working on a novel.

This is a nicely diverse list, including indigenous writers and queer writers, poets, novelists and essayists, women and men, writers with immigrant backgrounds, and so on.

Do you look out for emerging writers, and if so, are there any you’d love to introduce to us here?

Six degrees of separation, FROM The arsonist TO …

March 2, 2019

Our ever-creative meme-leader Kate has chosen well for this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme (which, as you probably know by now, you can find more about if you click on her blog name: booksaremyfavouriteandbest).

Chloe Hooper, The ArsonistI said she’s chosen well – even though it’s a book I haven’t read – because it’s been longlisted for this year’s Stella Prize, because I do have it on my TBR, and because everyone I know who has read it so far has liked it. The book is Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist. It’s a work of creative non-fiction, and chronicles the investigation into the man behind Victoria’s horrific Black Saturday fires back in 2009.

Karenlee Thompson, Flame tipAs usual, the starting book got my creative juices flowing. There were several options, the most obvious being to Chloe Hooper’s powerful book, The tall man. However, I decided to choose another obvious link, Karenlee Thompson’s short fiction collection Flame tip (my review). The stories in this book are all inspired by Tasmania’s terrible bushfires of 1967.

Jane Rawson, A wrong turn at the office of unmade listsWhere to next? With two books about bushfires in Australia, I must say that my thoughts turned to climate change, and although I’ve mentioned this book in Six Degrees before I couldn’t go past Jane Rawson’s A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review). This novel opens with its protagonist Caddy living rough, having lost her husband and home in a heatwave-induced fire a couple of years previously. It’s a powerful, genre-bending novel. But, I think that’s enough of fires, don’t you?

Sara Dowse SchemetimeSo, my next book links on setting. Rawson’s book is set in two places – 2030s Melbourne and 1990s California – San Francisco, to be exact. Now, Sara Dowse’s Schemetime (my review) is also set in California, but Los Angeles. This little shift down the road, though, seems apposite given this week was Oscars week, and that her main character is an Australian filmmaker wanting to make it big in Hollywood.

Suzanne Edgar, The love processionNow, Sara Dowse was a member of the famed Canberra Seven. Another writer in this group, and whom I’ve not mentioned to date in Six Degrees, is the poet Suzanne Edgar whose collection The love procession I reviewed some years back. It’s a gorgeous collection of poems about all sorts of love, romantic and otherwise. The title of this collection was inspired by a Renaissance painting, “Love procession” (attributed to Marco del Buono and Giovanni di Apollonio, from the 1440s.)

FL Smalls 7: Carmel Bird's Fair Game

Another book whose title was inspired by a work of art (and whose cover also features that work of art) is Carmel Bird’s Fair game (my review). Her art work is an 1832 lithograph by Alfred Ducôte. Its full title is “E-migration, or a flight of fair game”. This is a small, witty, but serious book about the 200 young women who were sent from England to Van Diemen’s Land in 1832 on the Princess Royal with the purpose of becoming wives and servants in a society where men significantly outnumbered women

Marion Halligan Valley of graceMy final link could be inspired by that history, focusing perhaps on women and misogyny, but instead I’m going back to the image. Bird writes in her book that the image had fascinated her ever since it was sent to her as a postcard by Lucy Halligan – who happens to be Marion Halligan’s daughter. This, together with the fact that she’s another member of the Canberra Seven, and is also a friend of Carmel Bird’s, makes Halligan the perfect choice for my final link. The book is Marion Halligan’s Valley of Grace (my review). I can’t think of a better book to end a chain that started with tragedy than this one about love and children set in that beautiful city, Paris.

Somehow, I’ve included only women writers this month – and all Australian ones at that – but I stand unrepentant! We spent most of our time in Australia, with a couple of forays to the USA, until, finally, in the last book we made it to Europe. There has, though, been variety in the writing, with the books covering both fiction and non-fiction, novels and short stories, and even poetry!!

Now, over to you: Have you read The arsonist? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

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

February 28, 2019

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

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

“a stranger in my own land”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“two divided worlds”

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

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

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

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

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

Then concludes with a hope that she

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

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

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

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

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAnita Heiss (ed.)
Growing up Aboriginal in Australia
Carlton: Black Inc, 2018
ISBN: 9781863959810

Monday musings on Australian literature: 1950s prose-poets criticised

February 25, 2019

Randolph Stow, To the islandsSerendipitously, while trawling Trove for something else recently, I came across a fascinating article in the Tribune about the winners of the first two Miles Franklin Awards. The article was written by Jack Beasley in July 1959, and the two winners were Patrick White’s Voss (1957), and Randolph Stow’s To the islands (1958), two books which are now regarded as significant Australian classics. Jack Beasley wouldn’t have agreed!

So, who was Jack Beasley? Born in 1921, he was interested in the arts, was closely associated with the Australasian Book Society, and at one stage had his own publishing company. He wrote several books, including a memoir and a couple of books on Katharine Susannah Prichard. He was also a member, for many years, of the Communist Party of Australia. The Tribune, for those of you who don’t know, was the Party’s official newspaper. This background is relevant to his criticism of White and Stow’s wins.

Patrick White, VossHe commences his article by stating that Randolph Stow’s winning the award has created quite a lot of discussion, particularly since it followed Patrick White’s winning for Voss the year before:

The two authors are the leading exponents of the so-called “prose-poetry” school, very fashionable today in literary circles attached to the big publishing houses.

He quotes Sidney J. Baker, whom he describes as a Sydney Morning Herald authority. Baker

regards their work as a “new type, of novel … distinguished by strength and sincerity and blowing away traditional debris like a cool wind after sizzling heat.” It should be added that among the “traditional debris” blown away are the traditions for which Miles Franklin herself so firmly stood.

Hmm, so the award should only be for writers who write in the same style as Miles Franklin?

Anyhow, Beasley writes that Franklin “believed that literature drew its ideas from life and attachment to native soil, and she wrote with a vigorous, entertaining prose”:

Her major work, ‘”All That Swagger” is notable for Danny Delacy and his “brave Joanna,” Irish immigrants who go through life undaunted by its buffetings and rejoicing in its happinesses.

In sorry contrast are the morbid heroes of Messrs. White and Stow, who flee from life and society in search of some individual haven.

To Beasley, prose-poetry “is a fad of style, a pretentious juggling of words and grammar”. He quotes from both White and Stow to prove his point, and then argues that while this “obscure” style is new in Australia, it “emerged many years ago in bourgeois culture”. He names “Joyce, Proust, Virginia Woolf and the extreme case, Gertrude Stein” as exponents of the style.

“Individual haven” and “Bourgeois culture” give away his leanings. He discusses To the islands:

According to some reviewers, “To the Islands” shows a warm sympathy for the Aborigines. This is partly true, but an even warmer sympathy is shown for the missionaries and whatever might be the personal motivation of individual missionaries, history has shown that the missions have played their part in the destruction of tribal life and the continuing ordeal of the Aboriginal people.

This is of course true, but what becomes increasingly clear is that Beasley’s main criticism is in fact less the style than the content of White and Stow’s work. The criticism focuses very much on the fact that their focus is the “individual” which is not part of Communist ethos. He describes White and Stow as being “closely bound to the capitalist class”, and writes that their protagonists, Voss and Heriot,

are nothing more than the bourgeois intellectuals, or more correctly a personification of the crisis of the intellectuals, desperately reaching for a sanctuary. They feel the sands shifting beneath them but are still unable because of their individualism to accept the new ideas that are emerging.

He believes intellectuals need to grasp new ways of thinking:

Only by coming to the working class and taking their part in the struggles led by this class for a better life, only by ceasing to believe in the omniscience of the lonely individual and learning in life of the inexhaustible strength of collective ideas, can the intellectuals have a future.

The socialist countries show again and again that there is no hostile contradiction there between the intellectuals and the proletariat and the Australian workers have always welcomed those who joined their cause.

Only at the end of his article does he return, somewhat off-handedly, to the style issue:

It is not suggested that Miles Franklin would have supported all of the views stated above [that is, his political views], but both the misanthropic themes and the literary quality of the two prizewinners are at variance with her view of life and literary standard.

It might have ended there but, intriguingly, a few weeks later, a letter in response appeared in the same paper – by author Alan Marshall. He thought the article was the “best analysis” he’d read of this new trend, but he takes issue with a couple of points. One is Beasley’s generalisation about “intellectuals”, his tarring them all with the same brush, but the other is his use of the term of “prose poets”.

Marshall writes:

What is wrong with prose poetry? The works of Katharine Prichard are full of it; Turgenev was a master at it; Gorky often delighted in it; Sholokhov’s works feature it. It can lift prose to its highest level and be an inspiration to mankind. In the hands of the writers I have mentioned it not only appeals to the highest emotions but to the reason as well.

Patrick White and Stow are not Prose Poets.

They are obscurantists juggling words to obscure sense in an effort, to create a sense of profundity. They believe readers have little faith in their judgement; that readers praise what they cannot understand for fear of being regarded as incapable of appreciating good writing.

Ouch … “obscurantists”, not “prose poets”.

I’m leaving it here. I’m sharing this because I like hearing the arguments and ideas of another time, and testing them against our own (with the benefit of time). Marshall’s criticism of authors writing obscurely to create profundity is often trotted out. But, clearly, his and Beasley’s assessments of White and Stow have not stood the test of time, thank goodness.

Neil H Atkinson, The last wild west (#BookReview)

February 22, 2019

In one of those strange synchronicities, I attended an event, a few hours after finishing Neil H Atkinson’s The last wild west, that gave me the perfect opening for my post. This event was the launch of the VR film, Carriberrie, at the National Film and Sound Archive. Speaking at the launch, indigenous woman and participant in the production, Delta Kay, referred to being approached by the non-indigenous filmmaker Dominic Allen about making the film. Most non-indigenous people, she said, come to their community and “want, want, want” but Allen was offering to “give”, in a spirit of true reconciliation. This spirit of “giving” to indigenous people was as far from Atkinson’s experience as you could get.

Neil H Atkinson, The last wild westAtkinson’s memoir –The last wild west: A saga of Northern Territory cattle stations, racial violence, wild horses and the supernatural: A true story – chronicles the time, 1977-1980, he spent working at a Northern Territory cattle station. He went there in a state of disillusionment and despair, having been refused shared custody of his children after his divorce. His aim was to transform himself, to become a man the judge would see as stable and reliable, to become, in other words, a person “like other people, who were trusted and respected”. He did transform himself, but not quite in the way he’d expected. He had felt that in the Northern Territory he could work hard and prove himself a man. In no way did he think that he would become involved in brutal racial conflict and that the “manhood” he sought would encompass a new understanding of humanity.

I’ve read novels about white brutality towards indigenous people in Australia – such as Thea Astley’s A kindness cup – and I’ve read histories and other nonfiction books, like Chloe Hooper’s The tall man, which tell this story. However, I haven’t read a memoir this charged on the subject. The physical and psychological brutality conveyed here is truly confronting – and what makes it worse is that, much as we’d prefer it be otherwise, it’s not surprising or unbelievable.

But, why write it now? Atkinson’s experience happened 40 years ago, and progress has surely been made (as suggested by projects like Carriberrie.) Atkinson answers this in his Introduction:

I wanted to hold up a mirror; otherwise it is too easy for people to say: “That was then, and  our society isn’t like that anymore.” I wanted to ask if things had changed as much as people thought they had.

This is a question for each reader to consider. I would certainly hope that the sort of brutality described in this book is no more, but I really can’t be sure. However, I do know – we all know – that we still have a long way to go before true equality is achieved. For that reason – because we all know about slippery slopes – Atkinson’s book is relevant, and worth reading.

“an alien in his own homeland”

And now, I’d better give you some sense of what Atkinson’s experience was. Self-described as timid and insecure, Atkinson, with no cattle station experience, decides that the Northern Territory is the place to remake himself. Serendipitously, while en route, he meets two truckies who give him the names of a pub, of a man who visits that pub and of the station he works for. They advise him not to admit his lack of experience but to “wing it”. They also tell him that “blacks are treated worse ‘n shit”, that they “should get more credit and be paid more”, and, most critically, that “there’s a hell’va lot of bad blood between whites and blacks right now.” This was post-Wave Hill, a landmark for indigenous land rights that heralded a time of change in the outback. White owners and bosses felt threatened, and, while the tide might have been changing, indigenous people were still deemed inferior and had little or no power.

Atkinson’s story is one of being caught between these two worlds. While he starts off having little regard for indigenous people and their rights, early describing himself as having “little sympathy for the blacks”, he is a sensitive person. He soon experiences the brutal machismo of the men in charge – to greenhorn men like himself, to the indigenous workers and their families, and to the cattle. Indeed, his descriptions of the treatment of the cattle by the station workers and managers conveys such barbarity that you are prepared for anything.

To write this memoir, Atkinson draws from the diaries he kept at the time, in which he recorded experiences “as they occurred, the same day or shortly after, and using as far as practical, people’s own words”. The result is that the dialogue and descriptions feel fresh and authentic. He is a good story-teller, telling his story chronologically, and building up slowly to the event which – well, I won’t spoil it. He shares this journey with an almost ego-less honesty, admitting that, even two-thirds of the way through his time in the Territory, even after seeing much brutality, he was still thinking “It was an Aboriginal problem, not mine.” His intellect, his historical understanding, in other words, lagged behind his humanity. Emotionally, he started aligning himself increasingly with the indigenous workers, but he continued to do his darndest to avoid becoming involved in the conflict, to avoid even recognising that the indigenous people’s struggles for voice, dignity, and land, was an “Australian” problem not just an “Aboriginal” one. This attitude is, to a degree, understandable, given the power and control wielded by the white station foreman and his henchmen.

Atkinson’s writing is highly evocative. Initially, I found it almost over-blown – too many adjectives I was thinking. But, as I got into the story, I became mesmerised by his voice, by his way of imbuing feeling into what he was seeing and experiencing. This is not the spare writing of modern writers – but it feels right for Atkinson. Certainly, it conveys an inner response to the situation he found himself in:

Dawn knocked with such blinding clarity, its beams should have scarred the door and windows with clutching fingers of blazing red and yellow, as if I should just hurry over and embrace the new day because of its arrogant promise of purity and renewal.

[and, on Sno, his indigenous co-worker]

I then watched him walk away, a black man with a black shadow cast over the baked red earth of a past filled with pain.

Now, I’ve discussed here many times that issue concerning white people telling black stories. This is not, ostensibly, a problem here, because this is Atkinson’s memoir of his experience. It involves sharing his understanding of indigenous people’s culture, particularly of their attitude to place (“country” is not used here – was not used, I think, so much back in the 1970s) and of their spirituality. Mostly, he quotes their words to him, or his interpretation of their words. It can be a fine line.

As I often say in my posts, there is so much more to this book, so many issues and ideas that I haven’t touched upon, but I’m going to close with two ideas Atkinson discusses in the book, ideas which get to the nub of why this book is worth reading. One concerns his understanding of the history wars:

Such wars are as much about morality as about facts, because we choose the way we frame the national drama: either to regard the dispossession of the people as an injustice that needs addressing, or not. There is no neutral body of facts to which to appeal to answer the basic question. We all have to answer for ourselves. Every Australian has to exercise historical judgement. (p. 149)

And the other, in a sense, frames this:

Most ignorance is ignorance you choose. We don’t know because we don’t want to know. Our will decides how and upon what subjects we use our intelligence, direct our interest. Those who don’t detect any meaning in the Aboriginal world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their opinion that the black world should be meaningless, so it is. (p. 194)

I don’t usually like to use book review clichés, but The last wild west is, I must say, provocative in the best meaning of the word.

Neil H. Atkinson
The last wild west: A saga of Northern Territory cattle stations, racial violence, wild horses and the supernatural: A true story
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers
ISBN: 9781925272918

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)