PREFACE AND DISCLOSURE: As some of you know Son Gums is a primary school teacher. One of the programs he likes to run with his class is “the Passion Project”. Part of the theory behind this project is that kids don’t always get to do in class the things that really interest them so, over one 10-week term in the school-year, each student chooses a project s/he is passionate about to work on. Some time is allocated in class each week, and the rest is done at home. At the end of term, the students present what they’ve produced or created, which I understand can (and has) included games, computer programs, websites, artworks, live or animated films/videos, novels and cookbooks. This year, one girl wrote, illustrated and then published on Amazon a book of ten poems. I have bought and read the book and been given permission to write about it here.
NOW, THE FUN PART, THE BOOK: I titled my brief Amazon comment/review, “Edward Lear watch out”, because this gorgeous little (in size, not value) book reveals a lively, cheeky mind just like, I imagine, Edward Lear’s was. And like Edward Lear, Leah (hmm, I didn’t notice that homophone until now) is both writer and illustrator. Her ten silly poems are written in a variety of styles, including Lear’s favourite, the limerick.
The first two poems are not limericks, however, but 8-line rhyming couplets about her parents. They reminded me of when our children (one being, of course, Leah’s teacher) were growing up and showing an interest in writing. I decided then that I needed to let go of my ego and be prepared for my less endearing qualities to be revealed to all. Leah’s parents have clearly realised they must do the same, if they are to encourage her talent. Mum gets away with it this time, but Dad doesn’t come out quite so well:
You’re very handsome and oh so cool
Even though you sleep and drool.
Lucky Mum eh?
Several of the poems are about animals and their adventures, usually involving food. “Lightning”, with its nicely controlled a-b-c-b rhyme, tells of the secret behind this horse’s speed (“All his speed and fastness/Was due to eating sauerkraut”)! Isaac the dog, on the other hand, finds that he needs to be a little careful about what he decides to “bite, bite, bite”. Like many of the poems, “Isaac” also uses the a-b-c-b rhyming pattern, but here Leah changes the form a little by ending most of the stanzas with the refrain “bite, bite, bite”. This use of a refrain comprising repeated words enhances the poem’s mood of silliness, but Leah also has the confidence to break the pattern in the middle of the poem, before taking it up again, to provide a needed change of pace. She’s not afraid, in other words, to mix it up a bit.
Most of the poems are narrative, and tell humorous little stories, as you’d expect of the nonsense verse tradition within which Leah is writing. “Carolina Reaper”, for example, tells of a birthday girl who ignores the advice of a Mexican restaurant waiter, to her detriment, while the two delightful “Turbo Turtle” poems play with the commonly held assumption that turtles are slow.
Turbo Turtle, Turbo Turtle
How fast can you go?
Compared to me a cheetah
Is oh so very slow.
(from “Turbo Turtle”)
Occasionally the rhythm falters, but this is offset by the sure sense of story, the cheeky sense of humour, a clever use of language, not to mention the delightful illustrations. And anyhow, what can you expect when you have to write, illustrate and publish a book in ten weeks! Ten silly poems by a ten year old is not only an entertaining read but an impressive achievement. If you have a mind to support young authors, and you have a Kindle (or the Kindle app on your tablet), you might like to buy a copy for yourself at the Amazon link below. At AUD1.31, it’s a steal.
Available at Amazon (Kindle only) for the amazing price of AUD1.31
I have never played this #6Degrees “meme” before but when Kate (BookasAreMyFavouriteAndBest) announced that Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely loud and incredibly close (her response) would be the October starter, I knew I had to do it. Read on to see why …
I have read Extremely loud and incredibly close and as I recollect I enjoyed it. I don’t remember the details now, but I did think that Foer managed well that fine line between warmth and sentimentality. However, the book is memorable to me for another reason, which stems from the fact that one of my online reading groups discussed it. A member of that group had great trouble with the title. It is, after all, not only a bit of a mouthful, but rather abstract, with nothing that you can particularly hang your memory on. Anyhow, in one email my online-bookgroup friend described it as “Foer’s Amazingly and Suddenly (I’m sorry I can’t keep that title straight)”. Every time I think of Foer, I think of her and smile! Hello, Susan!
And this makes me think of other books with long or hard to remember titles. One I’ve reviewed here is Andrew O’Hagan’s The life and opinions of Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe (my review). This book entertained me at the time because of the way it plays with reality, art and the imagination. Maf, the dog, suggests that “we are what we imagine we are: reality itself is the true fiction.” I love this paradoxical way of viewing ourselves, of seeing the artifice in “reality”. However, the point is that while I usually remember Foer’s title, I always have trouble with this one. I had to do a keyword search on my blog to get it exactly. All I knew was that it had “dog” and “Marilyn” in it!
But now, where to go? I could move to a book whose cover design comprises mostly words. There are a few of those around. But I really can’t go past another “life and opinions” book, Laurence Sterne’s The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman. It’s been many a decade since I read this book – back in my university days – but its tongue-in-cheek-take-the-reader-along-for-a-ride style, its purporting to be what it isn’t, that is, a biography, was an eye-opener to my young literature-student self. It also introduced me to the picaresque style of novel. This is a style I always look a bit askance at, and yet usually enjoy when I get down to it, because it tends to be satirical – and I’m never averse to a bit of satire.
An Aussie example of the picaresque – though it’s not set in Australia – is Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America (my review). The object of Carey’s satire, that “great American experiment, democracy”, seems rather apposite given the current presidential race shenanigans. Donald Trump represents the very values and attitudes – the unquestioning belief in capitalism – which Carey satirises. Another issue Carey questions in this novel is whether “high” art and “total” democracy are mutually exclusive? Do you let the majority decide what art they will support and fund? If or when you do, what art will they choose, he ponders.
Art, the making of it, is also one of Steve Toltz’s targets in his satirical novel Quicksand (my review) but his angle is slightly different. Part of it is the way people plunder the lives of others to make art, and part is an exploration of why we make art. Is life easier with or without art is one of his questions. Protagonist Liam at one stage desires a life “unencumbered by art” whereas art teacher Morell suggests we make art to understand who we are and why we’re here. In the end, though, like many good satires, there’s no simple answer.
But, shock, horror, my first five books are all by men, even though women writers comprise well over 50% of my reading. How did this happen? I’m not sure, but I can’t end without one woman writer! Debra Adelaide’s protagonist, Dove, in The women’s pages (my review) is, like Liam in Quicksand, writing a novel – but Adelaide’s is not a satirical novel. It’s a more personal drama about the urge to write fiction, about how fiction might illuminate life’s meanings, and about how we tell and use stories.
I’ve come a long way from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely loud and incredibly close, a 9/11 story, and yet not so far really, because both books – Foer’s and Adelaide’s – are about grief and loss, and both, one indirectly the other directly, are about how art might play a role in resolving the tragedies that confront us. That seems to make a rather nice circle, albeit comprising 6° not 360°!
Last week’s Monday Musings discussed my high school history book, Nation and people, published in 1967. I don’t plan to labour this book, but I would like to share its chapter on the Arts.
The authors, Brian Hodge and Allen Whitehurst, dedicate 8 pages to “The Arts” which is pretty good, I think, for a school history book. The chapter is divided into sections: Slow growth of Australian culture; Poetry; Drama; The novel; Music; and Painting. There are gaps here – nothing on film or sculpture, for example – but what can you do in 8 pages after all!
They start by arguing that “a distinctive Australian cultural tradition has been slow to grow”. Now, before you jump at me and say “But, but, but, what about indigenous culture?”, they do mention this, albeit with the paternalism that was typical of the time:
True culture is probably the product of a deep and intimate relationship with one’s country, something that occurs over centuries. The original owners of the land, the aborigines, certainly evolved an individual culture that was part of the spiritual core of their existence. Although nothing was written they formulated their legends to explain to the young the marvels of the universe, they composed and sang their simple and sometimes haunting melodies, they carved in primitive fashion, they danced superbly.
There’s a lot that’s wrong with this statement from our 21st century eyes, but at least they recognise the “original owners” and the fact that culture comes from “a deep and intimate relationship with one’s country”. They then go on to describe how the early settlers tended to rely on “the old culture” and that even the balladists telling stories about the new land used “the tunes of their forefathers”. However, they say, “a vigorous development in all the arts” happened after the second world war “coinciding with remarkable economic progress”. Government increased its patronage of the arts, and “in Sydney”, they write, “there is being constructed an Opera House which architectural histories describe as a major achievement of architecture in the twentieth century”. It sure was.
I’m just going to briefly share their points on poetry and the novel, given these are the topics most relevant to my blog. Regarding poetry, they point particularly to Judith Wright and AD Hope whose poetry “has been distinguished by a vigour and their imagery noted for its immediacy of impact”. How I wish I could be so succinct! Seriously though, I like their assessment of Wright, that she has “perhaps more poignantly than any other poet”
expressed the nation’s new-found spiritual awareness of its past … Her poetry is the deep expression of the feelings of women: to love, to old age, to decay, to the past, to war, to the future. JB Priestley, prominent English novelist, dramatist and critic, has claimed that Judith Wright is one of the best poets writing in English today.
How fabulous, even though their reference to “the feelings of women” does sound a little reductive?
As for AD Hope, he too, they say, has “been highly acclaimed by overseas critics”. See that cultural cringe? Clearly, the fact that overseas critics praise Wright and Hope proves their worth! Anyhow, they describe him as “a satirist concerned with Man and his frailties.” (Note the uppercase Man to imply both genders but they can’t avoid the “his”). They quote Hope as describing “Australia as a place ‘where second-hand Europeans pullulate timidly on the edge of alien shores’.” They also say:
In no way does he resemble Wright. Rather he has consciously tried to lead Australian poetry away from a preoccupation with its environment, a savage reaction to the school of Australian poetry that concentrated on gum trees, koalas, kookaburras, kangaroos and boomerangs. His satire has an acidity, a near tragic note and a technical mastery new to Australian poetry.
They name a few other poets, including Douglas Stewart (a favourite from my schooldays), David Campbell, and Gwen Harwood whom they describe as “perhaps one of the most promising contemporaries … whose poetry is deeply personal, with original and compelling imagery”. They were right. She did become important, and one of Australia’s most significant poetry prizes is named for her.
I’d like to talk about drama, music and painting, but I don’t have the time and energy for that right now, so I’ll move onto “the novel”, which, interestingly, receives far less space than poetry and drama.
They start by saying that “during the 1930s Australian novelists tended to concentrate on the family saga, digging into Australia’s past to reveal the rise of egalitarianism.” They name Miles Franklin’s All that swagger (1933) and the unknown-to-me Landtakers (1934) by Brian Penton. They say that their novels are about pioneers who, as they “gained wealth … seemed to die spiritually.” We can read Landtakers at Project Gutenberg Australia. I’m surprised that they don’t mention works by Katharine Susannah Prichard, M. Barnard Eldershaw, and the other women who made quite a splash in the 1920s-40s. Some of their work was in this “pioneer” mould, but some also turned to the urban landscape, particularly Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw.
Anyhow, they go on to say that “the writing of historical novels of this pattern continued in the 1940s” but that developments occurred in the 1950s, heralded particularly by Patrick White’s Voss in 1957. They quote an unnamed critic saying:
White has opened up in a startling way the range of Australian fiction, not only by his experiments in form and language (which are sufficiently striking in themselves) but by conceiving and acting out the dramas of his characters in an imaginative world with one more dimension than our novelists have genuinely recognised as existing.
Fascinating, but a little mystifying. “One more dimension”. Is that the telepathic communication experience between Voss and Laura? And “genuinely recognised”? What does that exactly mean? However, I do like their suggestion that the result has been “a turning away from the violence of nature to a deeper study of man himself, with his depths of hidden passion and violence”. They quote Xavier Herbert, Morris West and Hal Porter as writing books reflecting this development.
Points to ponder
At the end of each chapter, Hodge and Whitehurst include some discussion questions. I can’t resist sharing those for this chapter:
Do you consider the Arts important for man? Why?
Do you think the Arts could be an important source for historians? Why?
Which of the Arts are most important in your family?
Do you believe future generations of Australians will regret the enormous expense of the Sydney Opera House?
Do you think Australians yet regard culture as an integral part of their existence
You don’t have to answer them all!
I rather liked this statement from Mike Ladd’s collection Invisible mending, even though I’m not totally sure what he means! Does he mean freely available, that is, we don’t have to pay to access it? Or does he mean it frees the spirit, takes us away from ourselves? Either way, he has a point, though perhaps “best” might be arguable in the first sense.
But now, that ongoing conundrum: how to review a collection, particularly a rather strange collection comprising poetry, short stories, memoir, essays and photographs, too. The two common choices are to summarise the range of the stories – like, you know, the stories take us from Adelaide to Japan to Chile and tell us about broken relationships, environmental destruction and living with dementia – or to pick a few stories (as I did with Cassie Flanagan Willanski’s Here where we live) and discuss them. Neither approach is completely satisfactory, but what can you do?
Overall, I enjoyed the collection, though I did have a couple of quibbles, which I’ll get out of the way now, before I talk about what interested me. One of these quibbles relates to a pet hate, the use of “utilise” rather than “use”. In “Gaudi and the light”, Ladd writes that Gaudi “utilised spirals, honeycombs, the planoid surfaces of magnolia leaves”. There are some who argue that “utilise” adds another layer to “use”, meaning “put to good purpose”, but unfortunately its over-use spoils any special meaning it “might” have for me. Also in “Gaudi and the light” is this sentence:
There had always been an aestheticism within him: his reverence of nature combined with an early drive towards utopian socialism, ongoing vegetarianism and a sometimes dangerous tendency to fast.
He goes on to talk about Gaudi embracing “a Franciscan concept of holy poverty”. Did he mean “aestheticism” or “asceticism”? Actually, my quibbles are all in this story, because my third one is surely a typo: “in the shadows was an agonising crucifixion figure, the body a taught bow”. Taut, methinks? Maybe this story was rushed, which is a bit of a shame because Gaudi’s life is intriguing and Ladd reminded me of the wonderful time we had seeing his work and learning about him when we visited Barcelona three years ago.
There is a lot in this collection to enjoy, including, for me, learning about pantun poetry. I know about Japanese haiku and tanka, but had never heard of “pantun”. Ladd discusses them in his travel essay, “Pantuns in the orchard” which describes his stay in Malaysia with his wife who was working on an art project. There are different types of pantuns he tells us but his favourite is the “tunggal” which comprises four iambic lines with an abab rhyme. Like haiku, pantun is strict about content as well as form: the first two lines “draw their imagery from the outside world” while the last two lines “turn inward toward human relationships and psychology”. Ladd includes a collection of his, in the piece called “A book of hours at Rimbun Dahan”. I’ll share a couple that tickled me:
I start the great four-bladed ceiling fan.
Seconds later, a gecko drops to the floor,
stunned. Yes, the world’s like that,
We all hang on as long as we can.
Under the mosquito net, settling to sleep
you feel safe from the world’s attacks.
Then you hear the needling, invisible whine
of that one mosquito inside the net: the mind.
These don’t have the traditional rhyme pattern, but they work for me.
Superficially, the book looks like a disparate collection, in form and content, but running underneath are some recurring ideas addressing contemporary concerns (such as human rights at home and abroad, and the environment) and family (including the dementia-related death of his father, and the return of a travelling son). The story “A neighbour’s photo” tells of the loneliness and uncertainty of a 14-year-old Sudanese who has migrated to Australia with his 18-year-old brother. In the poem “Learn to speak our language”, the narrator turns the statement on its head by suggesting the complainer might learn Kauna or Pitjanjatjarra. Sometimes the politics is more stark, as in the short “Gasoline flowers” in which four self-immolators, starting with Mohamed Bouazizi, are likened to flowers.
Nearly halfway through the book is a little series of pieces about health, the narrator’s own experience in hospital and his father’s with dementia. He captures well that eerie world – a hospital – in “The edge of the lake”. He describes the strange camaraderie that can occur in a hospital ward as four men experience their illness. He writes of his experience of surgery:
Though my legs are cut to blazes, I’m enjoying myself. I feel cradled, it all makes glowing sense to me: the hospital system with its rituals and meals and machines, its steel surface and pecking orders.
I know what he means. It’s a weird, weird world – with its own time and laws – and yet it can feel cocooning, with the outside world far away. Sadder though are the pieces about his father, the man with dementia who is “aghast at the rate the world is leaving him” (“My father at the clothesline”).
One of the longest pieces in the book is “Traffik”. It features the unnamed Student and Middleman, as well as a named Japanese man, Morii, and is about the illegal smuggling of orang-utans. I don’t think I’ve read a fiction piece on this topic before. I liked the complexity of Ladd’s story, the careful way he develops it and the fact that our Student smuggler and orang-utan buying Morii are not simplistic stereotypes of the “parts” they play.
Two other pieces I particularly enjoyed were the story about indigenous pensioner “Ken” and the memoir “Gaps” about parents catching up with their son who has returned from a trip to Columbia. I loved the wordplay on gaps – generation gap, the gaps in knowledge you experience when you return from being away for awhile, and gaps in the hearts of people who may never know that their family members drowned on the Siev X.
There was more that I enjoyed too, including the pointed “Skiing in Dubai” and the satirical “Radio News”, but I’ll finish here.
The back cover describes the collection as “based loosely on the ideas of scarring and healing”. As you can probably tell from the pieces I’ve shared, it is certainly about that. However, it is also about the business of being an artist, and so I’ll close with the last lines of the poem “Back again”:
Our magpie (we call it ours)
tries its run of notes, falters, and repeats;
like our writing and art careers.
Well, perhaps there was the odd falter in this collection but that didn’t stop me being impressed by the versatility and passion of Mike Ladd, and enjoying my time with him. Oh, and it has a beautiful cover, too.
(with photographs by Cathy Brooks)
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2016
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)
Just when you thought that there couldn’t possibly be another angle to writing about World War 2, up comes another book that does just that, like, for example, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning All the light we cannot see. I had, of course, heard of it, but it wasn’t high on my reading agenda until it was chosen as my reading group’s September book. I wasn’t sorry we chose it, because I do, in fact, like World War 2 stories, and Doerr’s turned out to be an engaging one – warm, generous but not sentimental, and highly readable despite its alternating time-frames, locations and characters.
I’ve read several and reviewed some World War 2 novels and memoirs. Many have been about Jews and the Holocaust, such as Imre Kertesz’s Fateless, Hans Bergner’s Between sea and sky, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief, and two memoirs, Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother and Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister. A couple have been about the fighters, such as Alan Gould’s The lakewoman and Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north. Some have drawn on the perspectives of children and young people – Zusak’s The book thief, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river and, of course, Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl. Doerr’s book fits into this group, but is different again. Zusak’s and Hegi’s girls are non-Jewish Germans, and Anne Frank is of course a Jewish girl in Amsterdam. These books focus on the Holocaust. Doerr’s does not. His interest is the personal experience of his young people – a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, born around 1928, and an orphan German boy, Werner, born around 1927. Their stories – Marie-Laure’s birth in Paris and flight with her father to Saint-Malo after Paris is occupied, and Werner’s childhood and youth in Germany followed by his war experience in Russia, Central Europe and France – are told in parallel until they inevitably meet.
Marie-Laure and Werner are nicely realised characters. They are ordinary young people trying to make a life for themselves in terrible times, but are extraordinary too. Marie-Laure’s childhood-onset blindness makes her initially helpless but she becomes a resourceful and imaginative young girl. Werner, the orphan, is a clever boy who develops a fascination with radios and things electrical. This leads him to a particular role in the war – tracking down partisan-resistance transmitters – that is different from most “soldier” stories.
All the light we cannot see is a big book. It has a wide, but not unwieldy, cast of characters, and a complex structure comprising two chronological sequences, within each of which the stories of our two young people alternate. This might sound difficult or confusing to read, but Doerr handles it well.
I’m not going to write a thorough review of this. Being a top-selling prize-winner, it has been reviewed widely. Instead, I’d like to share some of its themes, or ideas, because these are what interests me most. Before that though, I want to raise one issue. One review I read and some in my reading group expressed irritation at Doerr’s use of American idiom (such as people going “to the bathroom in their pants”). For some reason this sort of issue rarely worries me. Does that make me a bad reader? Perhaps. But it’s difficult, I think, to write in the language of another place and time, and when writers try to do it, it can feel forced. Some manage it (like Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang) and some compromise by relying on some well-placed words from an era. Generally, I’m happy for the author to use contemporary-to-them expression.
What you could be (Volkheimer to Werner)
What interests me most as a reader is not whether authors get these sorts of details right but questions like why is the author writing this, why has the author structured the story this way, what does the imagery mean, and so on. It is to the first of these that I’ll turn now. The novel’s overall subject matter is the obvious one – the tragedy of war, the way war destroys people’s lives – but within this are some interesting ideas.
One relates to logic and reason. Early in the novel, Marie-Laure’s locksmith father believes (or, perhaps, wants to believe) in logic:
Walk the paths of logic. Every outcome has its cause, and every predicament has its solution. Every lock its key.
This idea is reiterated in the book Marie-Laure is given by her father, Verne’s Twenty thousand leagues under the sea:
Logic, reason, pure science: these, Aronnax insists, are the proper ways to pursue a mystery. Not fables and fairy tales.
The opposing view, however, is put by Werner late in the war when he is tracking resistance transmitters:
Everybody, he is learning, likes to hear themselves talk. Hubris, like the oldest stories. They raise the antenna too high, broadcast for too many minutes, assume the world offers safety and rationality when of course it does not.
Logic and reason may work well enough in “normal” life, but during war they can stand for very little.
Somewhat related to this are the discussions about curses and luck. A major plot line concerns an ancient gem, the Sea of Flames diamond, which is said to carry a curse. It’s surely not by chance (ha-ha) that Doerr hides this stone behind the 13th door in the museum, and that his novel has 13 sections! Anyhow, here is Marie-Laure’s father on curses and luck. There are, he says:
no such things as curses. There is luck, maybe, bad or good. A slight inclination of each day toward success or failure. But no curses.
Stones are just stones and rain is just rain and misfortune is just bad luck.
Later though, when her father has been arrested and Marie-Laure is scared and alone, she conducts an imaginary conversation with him:
You will survive, ma chérie.
How can you know?
Because of the diamond in your coat pocket. Because I left it here to protect you.
All it has done is put me in more danger.
Then why hasn’t the house been hit? Why hasn’t it caught fire?
It’s a rock, Papa. A pebble. There is only luck, bad or good. Chance and physics. Remember?
You are alive.
In almost every story I’ve read about war – fiction and non-fiction – luck has played a significant role. It’s one of the things that makes war so scary. You cannot expect reason to prevail.
Finally, related to these two ideas is that of choice:
Frederick [Werner’s friend at Schulpforta, the Nazi training school] said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices …
Frederick, in fact, chose to exercise his choice by refusing to follow orders and he suffered the consequences, while Werner did as he was told – at school and later in the field (“they do as they’re told”) and suffered the consequences in a different way. Late in the novel, Werner meets Marie-Laure:
He says, “You are very brave.”
She lowers the bucket. “What is your name?”
He tells her. She says, “When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
These and similar discussions thread through the book. They remind us that in war survival is largely a matter of “luck”, that reason and logic will only get you so far when you confront the chaos of war, and that, perhaps paradoxically, you do have choices even if they are between two unappealing alternatives. The ultimate tragedy is that war destroys “what you could be” – all those talents, all those dreams, are subsumed into the business of survival.
This is not a perfect book. It’s a bit sprawling, trying to do a lot with imagery that I haven’t been able to completely untangle. And I wonder about the necessity of the final decades-later chapters. However, it is a page-turning read and produced a lively discussion in my bookgroup. I’m glad I read it.
All the light we cannot see
London: Fourth Estate, 2014
ISBN: 9780007548682 (eBook)
Do you keep your old textbooks? I do, though am now starting to move them on. But some I still can’t part with, one being my high school history text. Called Nation and people: An introduction to Australia in a changing world, and first published in 1967, it was written by Brian Hodge and Allen Whitehurst who were teachers at East Sydney Technical High School. I decided for today’s Monday Musings to have a little look at what my teenage self learnt from it …
I was tickled because some of what I saw, looking at it now, had connections with my future – though, of course, I didn’t know it then. First is the fact that I went to high school in Sydney, and the teachers who wrote it were in Sydney, but the front cover is an image of Canberra, the city I moved to for my first professional job after finishing university, and where I live today. The other is that the first book listed in the student’s bibliography at the back is “F. Whyte, William Morris Hughes: His life and times“. F. Whyte (actually William Farmer Whyte), a journalist, was the grandfather of the man I married. This biography was his magnum opus. I have no idea why it is listed first though. The list is not alphabetical by author or title, and Billy Hughes was not our first Prime Minister so there’s not an obvious chronological reason. The order is quite idiosyncratic to my librarian eyes!
What is history?
These, however, aren’t what I really want to share, entertaining though they are to me. I was interested, for example, in the Preface. The authors say that
students should be encouraged to look for themes. It is important … that they understand the nature of a particular topic they are studying and why they are studying it.
In other words, history is not about dates but ideas and trends. Now, my two favourite high school teachers were my history teacher (Mrs Reynolds) and the librarian (Miss Reeve). It was the late 196os, a time of increasing interest in rights for indigenous Australians, of the Civil Rights movement in the US, and when anti-Apartheid activism was becoming stronger. These two teachers – seen as “red” by more conservative parents – encouraged us to think about what we’d now call social justice. I loved them, because for them history was a living thing about themes, ideas and values.
Of course, in looking at this book now, I particularly wanted to see what it told us about indigenous Australians, because this was an issue we felt strongly about. There are a few references to Aborigines, as indigenous Australians were called then, but there is also a 10-page section devoted to them. It starts with some quotes – from the Constitution (1901), “A Crown Lands Commissioner to Governor La Trobe in 1840”, and writer Marjorie Barnard (from her history of 1962) – followed by their introduction:
During the nineteenth century, the white settlers of Australia extended their frontiers and finally won a continent from its former black owners. The pattern was a similar one to other regions in the world where the white civilisation had made contact with coloured races which were less powerful and culturally different. Lands had been conquered, the stability of the conquered society shattered and the coloured peoples exploited.
They talk about early contact – from seventeenth century sealers to the later farmers – and their poor treatment of indigenous people. They note that “few whites made any effort to understand” cultural differences. They describe conflict between white and black people, in which killing occurred on both sides, but in their view:
Too often in Australian history in the nineteenth century good relations were destroyed by the low standard of settler and the low standard of police.
Next, they say
After the white man had won the land, his [this was before 1970s feminism!] attitude changed. The black man became regarded as a useful stockman who could perform important duties in areas of harsh environment where white labour was scarce and expensive. Thus an extensive cheap labour force was set up for the cattle stations …
They go on to discuss other aspects of black-white history in Australia: missionaries and paternalism, and then assimilation. In 1967, a referendum was passed which amended Australia’s Constitution “to allow aborigines to be included in the census”. Hodge and Whitehurst include a photo of some “Young Australians” sitting at desks. The caption reads: “Now these young Queenslanders will be counted. But will they count?” Good question.
This section ends by suggesting that “integration” is starting to be seen as a better policy than “assimilation”, but
This means, of course, that Australians would have to accept the fact that their society is multi-racial and multi-cultured, and that two cultures would live side by side with complete equality.
Those words – “would have to accept” – suggest, don’t you think, an uncertainty that Australians would indeed accept this. Around 50 years have passed since this was written, and progress has been made but “complete equality”? Nope. How very depressing it all is.
Finally, the authors provide a list of additional reading at the end – where I found F. Whyte – but they say “the reading list in this text is recommended as a manageable one”. They don’t think students “should or could read all the books listed, but … are thoroughly capable of looking at quite a number of them.” They tell students not “to become a slave to one or two general texts, even if they are concise and interesting” and not to “attempt to wade though volumes that are recommended as reference books”. Instead, they say:
Perhaps your most profitable course at this stage of your study of History would be to enter into the spirit of the course through biography. This plan of action you will find very profitable in your study of Australian development. Through reading biographies you will gain a feeling for History and insight into the spirit and problems of each decade.
How sensible is that? Don’t make students read dry recitations of historical events and facts. Better to read books that will bring history alive. Those they recommend at the end include biographies and fiction, such as George Johnston’s My brother Jack, Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia and, interestingly, Alan Paton’s Cry the beloved country.
Looking at this book, I can see the origins of my ideas about what history is and what it means. Thank you Messrs Hodge and Whitehurst, and thank you too Mrs Reynolds and Miss Reeve. You have not been forgotten.
Do you have teachers and classes that have made a lasting impression on you and your way of thinking?
“Write what you know” is the advice commonly given to new authors – and it’s something Cassie Flanagan Willanski, author of Here where we live, seems to accept. Set in South Australia, where Willanski lives, this debut collection of short stories reflects her two main interests, creative writing and the environment. The book won Wakefield Press’s Unpublished Manuscript Award a couple of years ago, and I can see why.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened the book. Adelaide author and creative writing teacher Brian Castro is quoted on the front cover as saying “I was moved and I was haunted” and on the back “Her stories are as spare and understated as the harsh landscape she describes…” I’d concur. Her stories are not your typical short story. That is, they don’t have tight little plots, nor do they have shock (or even just surprising) endings. They are more like slices-of-life, or like chapters of a novel, in the way they tease out moments in people’s lives that you can imagine continuing into a larger story. And yet, they are complete in themselves and absolutely satisfying.
However, there is more to these stories than “just” slices of life. Willanski writes in her author’s note that they were written as part of her Master of Arts degree, in which she explored “the ways white Australians have written about (and for) Indigenous people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries”. She introduces the notion of “Indigenous invisibility” which she describes as “ignoring Indigenous Australian people’s current existence, and mourning them as extinct”. She then talks about the issue we’ve discussed here before noting that as white writers became aware of this “Indigenous invisibility” they started to “write about them as characters in their books”. She says she has tried to reflect in her stories the various attitudes she found in her research. I found them authentic and sensitive, but the real judges of whether she’s been successful are indigenous people, aren’t they? There’s a reference to indigenous elder and activist Sue Haseldine in her acknowledgements, which may suggest some acceptance?
There are nine stories in the collection, three told first person, and the rest third person, except for the last and longest story which has two alternating voices, one third, the other second. Her protagonists include a young girl, a young male teacher, a 70-something woman, and a woman grieving for her late female partner. A few stories are connected, but this is not critical to appreciating the collection. Several of the stories, Willanski says in her author’s note, were inspired by real events but in each her imagination has created something new and fictional. Some of these real events are matters of history, such as the Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy and the Maria shipwreck, while others draw from personal experiences.
Despite the historical inspiration behind some stories, they are all set in contemporary South Australia. The first two are told first person: “This is my daughter’s country” opens the first (“My good thing”) and “The night my husband told me he was going to leave me we were in the middle of a heatwave” starts the second (“Drought core”). Straightaway we are introduced to Willanski’s nicely controlled, pensive tone, and her ongoing themes: family relationships, indigenous issues, the environment and climate change.
The first story is told in the voice of a white woman who has an indigenous husband and a daughter. They are going back to country to clean rockholes. No-one is named – “this is my daughter”, “this is my husband”, “my daughter’s grandmother” – which gives the story a universal, almost mythical sense. There are hints of challenges – subtle references to the Stolen Generations and to environmentally destructive tourism – but it’s a short, warmhearted story about the drive to connect with land and people, and sets up the collection nicely.
I can’t describe every story so I’ll jump to the fourth one, “Stuff white people like”. It is lightly, self-mockingly satirical. It tells the story of a young couple, Oliver and Clay, visiting Ceduna where Oliver is considering a job as a “Nature School Teacher”. They are both earnest, Oliver particularly so, in wanting to understand and relate to indigenous people, so they decide to attend a “healing ceremony” for “‘Maralinga, climate change, feral animals, you name it,’ said the principal vaguely.” It’s an uncomfortable experience, and Oliver doesn’t know how to react to the event which isn’t what he expected. He doesn’t want to be “like the other white people” but how should he be? Clay is able to go with the flow a bit, but not Oliver. Later, on their trip home, she is able to laugh, and take the jokes in the book Stuff white people like, while Oliver is “crippled with self-awareness”. He can’t quite match Clay’s insight. She reads from the book about white people “knowing what’s best” for others:
“Do you think I’m like that?”
“‘Cos you’re excited to get to work with Aboriginal kids? No!” She stopped for a minute, trying to piece together her thoughts. “Well, I mean–” she said and stopped again.
“What?” said Oliver.
“Well it’s just that Aboriginal people already know about having school outside.”
“I know,” said Oliver. “What’s your point?”
Clay looked at him again, then said, almost irritably, “Well, you’re taking something they’ve been doing for thousands of years and putting the white seal of approval on it.”
“But the missionaries took it away,” said Oliver.
He didn’t say it, but it was implied, and they didn’t know what to do with the implication. Oliver would be giving it back.
I love this on so many grounds – the personal and the political, the desire and the discomfort, the sincerity and uncertainty. These underpin the collection.
There’s only one story in which Willanski speaks “for” or “in the voice of” indigenous people, “Oak trees in the desert”. It’s about the First International Woman Against Radioactive Racism Conference, held in Monument Valley, Utah. This is a fictional conference, but “radioactive racism” is “real” and the aforementioned Sue Haseldine is active in this area.
Willanski opens the story with an indigenous Australian woman introducing herself at the conference. It’s a strong story, with the first-person voices of various First Nation conference attendees interspersed with the third-person story of white Australian woman, 76-year-old Bev, whose late husband had worked at Maralinga and had contracted cancer. There’s also a young white woman activist-organiser providing, again, a light satirical touch. Like many of the stories, it’s very personal but also has a big political message. (I also enjoyed it because I love Australia’s desert oaks, and I’ve driven in the stunning Monument Valley.)
This is getting long so I’ll end with the last story, “Some yellow flowers”, which contrasts a mature love, through the grieving Jean whose partner Nancy has died, with the young love of two teenagers, Loretta and Jackson. This story brings together several of the collection’s themes, including developing and maintaining loving relationships, climate change and caring for the environment, and indigenous-settler relationships. There is a big storm – one of those one-hundred-years storms that are occurring more frequently these days:
The roof shrieks and the sea spray pelts against the front verandah. The separation between land and water, sea and sky, past and present and living and dead becomes more obviously a figment of daytime imagination.
Dreams are had, stories are told, relationships are resolved – not simplistically, but with a sense of continuum.
This is the sort of writing I like: undramatic, understated, reflective stories about ordinary people coping with breakups, death, new relationships, but overlaid with a strong set of values and contemporary concerns, in this case encompassing the intertwined issue of respecting indigenous people and caring for our country. While not always comfortable reading, it’s a hopeful book – and I like that too.
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)