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Monday musings on Australian literature: Queensland Writers Centre

October 2, 2017

Today’s Monday Musings is the fourth in my little series on our writers centres, and it’s to Queensland I’m turning this time, partly because next month GenreCon will be held at the State Library of Queensland. But, more on that later in the post. First, I’ll introduce the Centre.

The Queensland Writers Centre was founded in 1990, as a membership organisation, with “the aim of nurturing Queensland literature and building a community of writers”. On its About page, they say:

… we love stories. We love the writers who tell the stories and the readers who give them life. We love the way they help us to understand and connect with those around us and gain a greater understanding of ourselves.

QWC … supports, celebrates and showcases Queensland writers and writing in all its forms. We work with our members and partners to promote a vibrant and diverse writing community across Queensland.

Like all writers centres they offer a wide range of programs, including workshops, seminars and online courses, magazine and newsletter, mentorship and manuscript assessment program (aka The Writer’s Surgery), and fellowships and prizes. Here though, as in previous posts, I’ll highlight a few programs that particularly caught my attention.

(I was going to start with their Regional Events, which seemed worth promoting, but when I clicked on the Regional Events link, I was taken to an Events page for July to December 2017, which seems to have only one event outside Brisbane, “Thriller Writing with James Phelan” in Townsville. That was a little disappointing, but I know these Centres run on minimal funding, and servicing a physically large state would be a challenge.)


In fact, following from the paragraph above, the About page lists a number of activities under What we do which all link to the Events page. These activities are:

  • Regional Events
  • In Conversation Events
  • Salons and Reading Events

Over the second half of 2017, their events include, in addition to the above mentioned James Phelan on Thriller Writing:

  • a panel (“in conversation”) with Jane Harper (whose book The dry has been one of this year’s big publishing successes) and Matthew Condon;
  • a seminar on writing about music and musicians;
  • a four-part course for beginners on developing narratives;
  • workshops for intermediate and established writers, such as one on public speaking and another on editing (given by Melina Marchetta); and
  • workshops on other topics such as speechwriting, writing romance fiction, writing media releases.

A diverse program don’t you think?

if:book Australia (The Future of the Book)

This is a QWC initiative which:

explores new forms of digital literature and investigates the changing relationship between writer and reader.

It’s not, as you might think, about eBooks. The medium is not the point. Instead it’s about the interaction or relationships forged between writing and reading, and looks at such topics as “the purpose of the book”, “new forms” that can expand how stories “are discovered and shared”, interactions between old and new technologies, and “what changes when we change the book”. The program extends beyond Queensland, and links internationally with programs in the USA and UK.

If this sounds a bit mystifying, the following examples of their projects should help:

Rod Howard, A forger's tale

Rod Howard’s book on Henry Savery

  • the tweets of Henry Savery (probably Australia’s first novelist, about whom I wrote a couple of years ago) in the Rumours of Death project: a live Twitter feed by Christopher Currie, undertaken during the 2105 Brisbane Writers Festival. You can read the tweets at the link above. (Such as, “I will be most interested to see how the Australian literary landscape has changed since I founded it some 184 years ago. “)
  • lost in track changes: the title provides a hint. Five writers (Cate Kennedy, Ryan O’Neill, Krissy Kneen, Robert Hoge and Fiona Capp) were asked “to create a short piece of memoir, a vignette” each of which was then “passed onto another author within the group” who then had to transform the piece into something else, with if:book tracking the changes! You can download the ebook version from the link above.
  • Writing Black: new Indigenous writing from Australia: an interactive book using the iBooks platform, edited by Ellen van Neerven, and including writing, photography, audiovisual, and twitter fiction, from such creators as Bruce Pascoe, Tony Birch, Tara June Winch, Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Sylvia Nakachi, Siv Parker and Marie Munkara (several of whom I’ve reviewed here, in traditional formats!) You can download Writing Black from iBooks.
  • Memory makes us: ever thought of writing as performance? Well, this is it, but it’s “distinct from other performative aspects of literature: this isn’t a reading of a prepared work, nor is it freestyle poetry. It’s improvisation not with speech but with text and the tools of contemporary writing: keyboard and cut-and-paste.” This “event” has involved several North American and Australian writers, including Paddy O’Reilly, Marie Munkara, Angela Meyer and Maxine Beneba Clarke (all of whom you’ll find on my blog). if:books says that “For most readers, Memory Makes Us is a web site. For festival visitors, it’s a live event. We have also taken it to print. But none of these individual ‘formats’ capture the whole project.”

I love all this – I mean, I love the exploration. I can’t imagine these forms will replace traditional reading but, like most new media, some might stick around as an alternative form. In the meantime, the process must surely help both creators and readers/consumers break “normal” patterns, and that can only be good for literature.


I wrote about GenreCon in 2013. It’s actually called AWM GenreCon, AWM being the Australian Writer’s Marketplace which I understand is managed by the Queensland Writers Centre. GenreCon is a three-day biennial conference comprising panels, talks and workshops with Australian and international genre fiction writers, editors and agents – across all genres. It also offers one-on-one pitching sessions.

This year’s conference runs from 1oth to 12th November, at the State Library of Queensland. The “special guest” is Australian Garth Nix, and one of the international guests is Fiji-born New Zealand writer Nalini Singh. (I had to laugh because the brief bio names her books but not her genre, which apparently we should know. Unfortunately I don’t! Oh dear. Ah, Wikipedia tells me she writes paranormal romance.) Other Australian speakers include debut author and Noongar woman Claire Coleman, award-winning crime writer Emma Viskic, and award-winning fantasy author Angela Slatter, all of whose names I do know I’m happy to say.

… and that’s about it for another clearly active and inspiring Writers Centre.

Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Vol. 2

September 30, 2017

Jane Austen, PersuasionI recently posted my thoughts on Volume 1 of Persuasion, which I read for my Jane Austen group’s slow reading of the novel. This post, obviously, is on the second (and last) volume. As before, I’ll be focusing on reflections from this read rather than writing a traditional review. And, again, just in case you need a refresher on the plot or characters, please check Wikipedia.


… and Self-interest

Last meeting, my Jane Austen group discussed Lady Russell’s advice to Anne. Some found it wanting while others felt she was justified in recommending that 19-year-old Anne reject Captain Wentworth’s proposal. In Volume 2, we get to question Lady Russell’s judgement again, when she sees Mr Elliot as a good suitor for Anne.

So, we have a conundrum. She’s Anne’s friend and supporter, but she’s also a member of the aristocracy, which is not presented positively in the book, and her judgement is suspect. What are we to make of her?

At the end of the novel, Lady Russell is treated well. Is this because her advice, poor though it is (in hindsight, particularly), doesn’t stem from self-interest? Here is Austen wrapping up Lady Russell at the end:

There is a quickness of perception in some, a nicety in the discernment of character, a natural penetration, in short, which no experience in others can equal, and Lady Russell had been less gifted in this part of understanding than her young friend. But she was a very good woman, and if her second object was to be sensible and well-judging, her first was to see Anne happy.

If we agree that Lady Russell is redeemed because her focus was Anne’s happiness, not self-interest, where does this leave Mrs Smith? She was prepared not to share with Anne her knowledge of Mr Elliot’s character, her reason being:

After listening to this full description of Mr. Elliot, Anne could not but express some surprise at Mrs. Smith’s having spoken of him so favourably in the beginning of their conversation. “She had seemed to recommend and praise him!” “My dear,” was Mrs. Smith’s reply, “there was nothing else to be done. I considered your marrying him as certain, though he might not yet have made the offer, and I could no more speak the truth of him, than if he had been your husband. My heart bled for you, as I talked of happiness.

But, given her hopes for Anne interceding on her behalf with Mr Elliot, is there not some self-interest in her decision not to influence Anne? Mrs Smith’s situation was dire in a way that Lady Russell’s was not, but … Anyhow, she too is treated well in the novel’s wrapping up.

What this says to me is that while Austen gently satirises groups (such as the aristocracy) or ideas (such as persuasion/influence/advice-giving), she is not black-and-white about it. She understands humanity – and would like us to, too!

… or, being persuadable

Last post I commented on Anne’s wondering whether Captain Wentworth, after Louisa’s accident at Lyme, might have realised “that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character.” Well, in the resolution, we discover that he did!

There, he had learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind.

Meanwhile, Anne tells him that, despite the pain it caused, her 19-year-old self was right to listen to Lady Russell:

I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. To me, she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice. It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides.

This last sentence reminds me of that “good spirit” narrator in The museum of modern love (my review) who said in the opening paragraph, “It’s a human condition to admire hindsight. I always thought foresight was so much more useful”. If only Anne knew, eh, what the event would decide?

Anne Elliot, Fanny Price and Elinor

Jane Austen fans love to consider her characters, to discuss who is the worst villain or the best hero, or whether character X is like character Y, and so on. So, when my Jane Austen group discussed this volume, one member hesitatingly suggested that Anne Elliot could be seen as a mature Fanny Price (Mansfield Park). Yes, I said, I had the same thought! Not so some other members of the group, but here’s the thing. Both Anne and Fanny resist pressure or encouragement to marry people they don’t love, both have strong moral codes, both nearly lose their “love” to rivals, both are relied upon by their families to provide nurturing and support. There are differences. Anne, with her “higher” social position, has more power and agency than Fanny, the poor cousin, but a couple of could see a distinct similarity.

Another member responded that she saw a likeness to Elinor (Sense and sensibility). There is some argument for that too. Elinor is also a steady, moral character who is relied on by her family, and she too nearly loses her “love” to another. And, like Anne and Fanny, Elinor does not need to learn lessons the way Marianne (Sense and sensibility), Elizabeth (Pride and prejudice), Emma (Emma), and Catherine (Northanger Abbey) do. But she doesn’t have to contend with pressure from others the way Anne and Fanny do, which is why I’d see a closer connection between Anne and Fanny.

The Navy

Anne and Captain Wentworth, Ch 20

Anne and Captain Wentworth in front of her “formidable” family (CE Brock, Public Domain)

I said in my Volume 1 post that I’d talk about the Navy in this post, but I’ve ended up talking about other things. However, it’s worth mentioning that in Persuasion, Jane Austen, who had two Naval brothers, presents the Navy positively, as family-oriented men whose values draw more from having good relationships with their families and their “brother” officers  than from status/position. Here is Anne watching Admiral and Mrs Croft in Bath:

They brought with them their country habit of being almost always together. He was ordered to walk to keep off the gout, and Mrs. Croft seemed to go shares with him in everything, and to walk for her life to do him good. Anne saw them wherever she went. …  Knowing their feelings as she did, it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could, delighted to fancy she understood what they might be talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral’s hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe their eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little knot of the navy, Mrs. Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her.

This continues her feelings from late Volume 1 when the visiting party in Lyme had spent time with Captain Wentworth and his naval friends. She saw their hospitality, their lack of “the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display” that typified her circle. “These would have been all my friends,” she thinks, and the idea lowers her spirits. It’s surely no coincidence that in this novel Austen presents some of the worst of the aristocracy with its focus on appearance and position against the best of the Navy with, as Louisa notices, “their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness”.

And then there’s the last line of the novel:

She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.

What does this mean, besides the point that being married into the Navy means you will always have the worry of war? Many have discussed the meaning of “more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance”, with some believing that it is Austen suggesting a new world in which the professional classes, the middle class, represented here by the Navy, is gaining ascendance in English life.

What do you think?

Heather Rose, The museum of modern love (#BookReview)

September 27, 2017

Heather Rose, The museum of modern loveAs I neared the end of Heather Rose’s Stella Prize-winning novel The museum of modern love, I slowed down. I wanted, of course, to know how it was going to resolve, but I wanted to savour it too. It doesn’t seem right to rush the end of thoughtful books like this.

But, I have to admit that I was initially hesitant about reading the book, as I am about any book inspired by a person or work I don’t know. I fear missing something important. However, I did want to read it and my reading group scheduled it. The die was cast. Then, as I was about to start reading, Brother Gums sent me a link to the documentary Marina Abramović: The artist is present about her and the performance piece which inspired this novel. I was set! As it turned out, I think Rose’s writing is evocative enough that it wasn’t necessary to have seen the film, but it did add a layer to the experience.

So, what is The museum of modern love about – besides love, that is? Its centre is performance artist Marina Abramović’s 75-day piece, The Artist is Present, which she performed at MoMA in the spring of 2010, to accompany a large retrospective exhibition of her work. The piece involved her sitting, still, quiet, at a table all day, 6 days a week (MoMA is closed Tuesdays), with gallery attendees invited to take turns to sit opposite her and share a gaze. It was an astonishing success, with, by the end, people camping out overnight to get the chance to sit. Many attended for days just to watch, creating, as Rose describes it, quite a community of spectators. In the end, over 850,000 people attended, with 1,545 people sitting (including Rose). (All are recorded at flickr.)

Anyhow, from this premise, Rose weaves an engaging, thoughtful story about art and love. It has two main narrative strands, telling the real Marina Abramović’s story and that of an attendee, the fictional musician Arky Levin, whose life is stalling, partly due to a restraining order made by his now-unresponsive terminally-ill wife that he not visit her. Interspersed with these, enriching the exploration of the themes, are smaller stories of other attendees, and family and/or friends of the protagonists. It’s narrated by a mysterious third person voice, who starts the novel with

He was not my first musician, Arky Levin. Nor my least successful. Mostly by his age potential is squandered or realised. But this is not a story of potential. It is a story of convergence.

This is a very particular omniscient narrator, some sort of artist’s muse who self-describes late in the novel as a “good spirit, whim … House elf to the artists of paint, music, body, voice, form, word”, one whose job is sometimes just “to wake things up”. This could be cutesy or forced, but it isn’t because Rose doesn’t overdo it. Mostly the story progresses without the intrusion of this narrator, so that when s/he appears we pay attention.

The moral conundrum at the novel’s heart is – is art enough or is love more important? It’s explored primarily through Levin, whose friends suggest he should appeal Lydia’s court order.

I know you’re going to say that she wanted you to do this; she wanted you to make music. But is that enough?

Music, it sounded feeble suddenly in the face of the yawning gap between life before Christmas and life these past four months. (p. 158)

So what does Levin do? Continue to live his increasingly lonely life making music, or follow his heart?

Levin’s story is off-set against other stories, notably that of Jane Miller, a friendly, recently widowed art teacher visiting New York from Georgia. She is lonely, like Levin, missing her husband “achingly, gapingly, excruciatingly. Her body hadn’t regulated itself to solitude.” She becomes one of the mesmerised watchers, but she also connects with others in the crowd, including Levin and Brittika, a PhD student from the Netherlands who is writing her thesis on Marina. Jane forms a natural link between the two themes of love and art.

What, then, is art?

The first time Jane attends the performance, she overhears people in the crowd questioning what the show is about, asking what is art, in fact. There are, of course, the naysayers, the ones who say that “art is irrelevant. If everything goes to crap, it won’t be art that saves us”. But Jane thinks differently, and turns to the man next to her who is, you guessed it, Levin, and says

I think art saves people all the time … I know art has saved me on several occasions.

As the novel progresses, various claims are made for art. Our muse, speaking particularly for artists, believes that “pain is the stone that art sharpens itself on time after time” and that “artists run their fingers over the fabric of eternity”. Marina’s art teacher says to her 16-year-old self that  “Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart”, which causes Marina to consider that “Art … could be something unimaginable”. At one point Marina is reported as saying “I am only interested in art that can change the ideology of society”.

Jane, the viewer, though, has her own epiphany:

And maybe this was art, she thought, having spent years trying to define it and pin it to the line like a shirt on a windy day. There you are, art! You capture moments at the heart of life.

But, I think it is art critic Healayas who makes the clearest, simplest point when she says during a discussion about Marina’s performance:

She simply invites us to participate … It may be therapeutic and spiritual, but it is also social and political. It is multi-layered. It is why we love art, why we study art, why we invest ourselves in art.

… and what has love got to do with it?

Everything, if art, as all this suggests, is about humanity.

Let’s look specifically at Levin. It would be easy to criticise him, as his friends and daughter gently do, for being passive. But, we do get the sense that Lydia encouraged his passivity in their life together, that she liked to be in control, not in a control-freak way but in that way that super-competent people can do. Moreover, Lydia made her order out of love for him, to let him continue creating his art, rather than look after her which she didn’t believe was in him. So, what’s Levin to do? How does he reconcile his love against hers?

The resolution when it comes is triggered by art, by Marina’s performance. And this, as Jane believes art can do, probably saves him. I say probably because Rose, clever writer that she is, leaves the ending uncertain. As she and Levin realise,

the best ideas come from a place with a sign on the door saying I don’t know.

This is an inspired and inspiring book that leaves you pondering. I’ve only touched the surface.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked the novel.

aww2017 badgeHeather Rose
The museum of modern love
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781760291860

Monday musings on Australian literature: Memorable Australian characters

September 25, 2017
Image on screen as we waited for Kim Scott

Image on screen as we waited for Kim Scott

The inspiration for today’s somewhat fun post, came from something more serious, Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew lecture that I attended last week. As I was waiting in the National Library’s gorgeous theatre waiting for the lecture to start, I found myself thinking about Bobby in Scott’s novel That deadman dance. What I realised was that Bobby is still vivid in my mind, years after I read the book – and I started to think about other similarly vivid characters…

Because, I don’t know about you, but I have read many books over the years. Some have been forgotten, some I remember generally, and some in more detail for one reason or another. Those reasons can vary – they can be the emotion that was engendered in me, or the ideas the book inspired me to think about, or the language delighted me, or, even, the plot surprised me, but there’s only a few for which that reason is very specifically a character. I thought it would be fun to share those – and for you to share back. Of course, as this is my Australian literature post, I’ll be focusing on Aussie books only. In other words, you won’t find Darcy or Elizabeth here! You, though, don’t have to be similarly constrained, so go for it. Bring out your Atticus Finches and Emma Bovarys. Let’s see what happens.

I have another proviso for this post, besides my characters having to be from Australian books, and that’s that I have to have read the books at least five years ago. Otherwise, I’m not sure I could say they’ve stood the test of time. My earliest favourite character comes from my pre-teen reading.

I noticed something interesting as I was compiling this list: not only do the characters vary in terms of age, gender, role/position, etc., they also fall into types like “my favourite pioneer character” or “child character” and so on. There’s very little duplication of these categories.

I am a bit nervous about this post, because I know I’ll omit some memorable characters that have slipped my mind (briefly!), exposing my shallowness, but I’ve decided to screw my courage to the you know what, and jump in. Oh, and one final point before I do: while these characters come from books I’ve loved, those books won’t necessarily be among my top books, particularly now, years later (though some will be).

So, here is my list, presented alphabetically by the character’s first name!

  • Bobby Wabalanginy, from Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (published 2010, read and reviewed 2011) is a luminous, unforgettable First Contact character whose generosity of spirit is knocked back again and again by the colonial settlers. He represents all that could have been good and positive in our first indigenous-settler relationships in this country.

We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything of ours. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours.

  • The drover’s wife, from Henry Lawson’s short story “The drover’s wife”. As far as I remember, she doesn’t have a name, but stands for the archetypal 19th century pioneer woman who had to face the terrors of the bush alone while her husband was, well, droving. She, like the rest of her ilk, had to become “used to the loneliness”.
  • Joe Harman and Jean Paget, from Nevil Shute’s A town like Alice, survived much, particularly being POWs during World War 2, before finally realising their love for each other. Yes, they are my favourite romantic couple from my adolescence, and I had to share them here.
  • Judy Woolcot, from Ethel Turner’s Seven little Australians, is, in a way, Australia’s version of America’s Beth (from Louisa May Alcott’s Little women). She’s the tragic character of our childhood. However, where Beth was a sweet town-living girl, Judy was a courageous, feisty tomboy from the bush.
  • Patrick White, VossSybylla Melvyn, from Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career, has to be in the list of any Aussie female reader. How can she not be, with her independent spirit and her refusal to let a handsome, wealthy man distract her from her dream of a “brilliant career”.
  • Voss, from Patrick White’s Voss, was inspired by Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt and his expedition into the Australian outback in the 1840s. He’s tragic, mythic, romantic, and I first fell for him, and thus also for Patrick White, in my teens.
  • Weekly, from Elizabeth Jolley’s The newspaper of Claremont St, is a working class woman, a cleaner in fact (hence her “name”). She works steadily towards a dream that she will not give up, not for any anything.

And I think I’ll leave it there. I could go into families – like Tim Winton’s Lambs and Pickles (Cloudstreet) and Ruth Park’s Darcys (The harp in the south) but that would be diluting the theme which I don’t want to do. I’m aware that this is not at all representative of my favourite authors, but that’s because I love them for other reasons.

And now, over to you. Who are your most memorable characters?

Stephen Orr, Datsunland (#BookReview)

September 24, 2017

Stephen Orr, DatsunlandTwo things I loved about Stephen Orr’s novel The hands (my review) were its evocation of men, boys and their relationships, and its rural setting. And this is also why I liked Datsunland, his recent short story collection comprising thirteen short stories and a novellaIt’s a no-holds-barred exploration of the lives of boys and men. It is not a pretty book, but it feels real, even where it pushes extremes.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) interviewed Orr in one of her early Meet an Australian Author Series of posts. Answering her question about who inspired him to write, he said

I became convinced the human psyche was the only thing really worth worrying about, so I’ve been working at it ever since.

This is true of these stories in which men confront their dreams and hopes, their strivings to achieve these, and their frequent failures. Take, for example, the first story, “Dr Singh’s despair”, which is about an Indian doctor from the Punjab who obtains a visa to work in rural Australia. We are desperate for doctors in rural/outback areas and he seeks a better life for his family. Unfortunately, his welcome – to Coober Pedy, which would be a challenge for anyone – is less than ideal. Indeed, we could call it non-existent. Not surprisingly, Dr Singh does not last and returns home, “disappointed … [but] at least happy”. This is the first story in the collection … worth considering, that ordering of the stories!

The stories in this collection are loosely linked. Most are set in rural or suburban South Australia; all focus on men (though women do appear); and many reference, sometimes so briefly you could miss it, a particular school, the Christian Brothers’ Lindisfarne College. The characters never cross into each other’s stories, however. It’s more that the school represents a certain conservative or inward-looking value or attitude – which makes this a good time to introduce the second story, though I promise to not describe every story in the collection! Titled “The shot-put”, it is set on a farm in 1919, just after World War 1, and concerns a couple whose son, a school shot-put champion, is being publicly listed on a Cowards’ List and has therefore been removed from his school’s – the aforementioned college – Honour Board. It’s another story of hopes (and in this case promise) unfulfilled – and more, of lack of compassion.

Lack of compassion is, in fact, one of the underlying themes of the collection. Had Dr Singh in the first story, for example, been shown some compassion, he may have stayed. In the fourth story, “A descriptive list of the birds native to Shearwater, Australia” a new wife begins to realise that what she’d hoped might be compassion in her husband was something entirely different, and in the fifth story there’s something creepy in Brother Vellacott’s caring for Miss Mary. It all, though, comes to a head halfway through the collection, in “Akdal Ghost”, the seventh story. It’s about a preacher, Pastor Fletcher, who should be compassionate, right? He hires a commercial video producer to make a video showing people what will happen if they don’t “find God”. It features the Akdal Ghost, which I had to look up in Wikipedia, and is absolutely shocking, though, as in several of the stories, Orr does not play it fully out. Much more effective to leave it to the reader’s imagination!

Religon is another motif that runs through the collection, and is behind some of the most violent stories. Besides “Akdal Ghost”, there’s “Confirmation” in which a massacre in 1976 Ireland is set against the hopefulness of a son’s confirmation, and “The Syphilis Museum” about a man preparing for the end of the world. One gets the impression that Orr is not a fan of religion.

And, so the stories continue. Some are more poignant, such as “The Barmera Drive-in” about a 45-year-old man who buys an old, long defunct, drive-in, thinking (hoping) he can reclaim his childhood and in so doing make the (or his) world a better place, and “The Shack” about an aging father who needs to decide what to do about his “retarded” son.

Most of the stories focus on adults, but a few feature children, including the 9-year-old boy lost in the hull of ship under construction (“The One-eyed Merchant”) and the 6-year-old boy trapped with a neglectful mother and an abusive step-father (“The Adult World Opera”). The final, titular story, “Datsunland’, which appeared in last year’s Griffith Review IV novella edition, also features a child, though in this case a teenager.

At 100 pages, “Datsunland” concludes the collection beautifully, continuing the melancholic tone but containing just that little bit of hope to leave us not completely discouraged as we turn the last page. It concerns teen-aged Charlie Price, his widowed father Damien, who sells second-hand cars at Datsunland, and his Lindisfarne College guitar teacher, William Dutton. The story opens with William Dutton, a struggling musician who finds teaching, particularly at that “poor cousin of elite schools” Lindisfarne, stultifying. He hates the narrow focus on assessment and performance, on trivialities, such as the proper wearing of socks, on rules that squash motivation and creativity.

Meanwhile, Damien knows his son is bright, has potential, but becomes increasingly concerned about the relationship developing between Charlie and William. The story leads us on, keeping us, along with Damien, unsettled, exploring the awful challenge faced by teachers in today’s fearful environment. What are the boundaries between teacher and student, and where are they crossed? How can a teacher nurture, safely?

Now, more often than not, reviewers describe short story collections as uneven, which is probably not totally unreasonable, because how can every story have equal punch for every reader. So, I’m not going to go there. I don’t think it particularly helps and, anyhow, I’ve seen reviews of collections where different reviewers identify very different stories as the best or the weakest. It’s so subjective, particularly given short stories can range from quiet slices of life to plot-driven-tales-with-twists. If you are a plot-twist lover, can you equally love the quieter story? I’ll simply conclude by saying that in Datsunland, we, like William Dutton, find ourselves “caught in the middle of multiple truths” – and what uncomfortable truths they mostly are. It’s a provocative read, but a good one.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) reviewed the novella and the collection. The collection has also been reviewed by French blogger Emma (bookaroundthecorner) and Carmel Bird (The Newtown Review of Books) whose insightful analysis of the language and style is well worth reading.

Stephen Orr
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743054758

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

A paradox of empowerment: Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew Lecture

September 22, 2017
Kim Scott and the whale's eye

Kim Scott and the whale’s eye

Why was Raimond Gaita’s Seymour Biography Lecture booked out, but not Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew Lecture*. Both lectures, held at the National Library of Australia, are endowed by generous benefactors and are free. Don’t get me wrong. I love that Gaita was booked out, but so should double Miles-Franklin-winner Noongar-author Kim Scott have been. His novel, That deadman dance (my review), is a pivotal book in terms of our understanding of first contact and therefore important to reconciliation. I had to see him in person.

Scott’s lecture, titled “A paradox of empowerment”, was described on the National Library page as being about “how reclaiming Aboriginal language and story may offer a narrative of shared history and contribute to social transformation.” And this is exactly what he spoke about, based on his Noongar project.

The evening started with a Welcome to Country by local Ngunnawal elder Tyrone Bell, who explained the tradition behind this practice. It led beautifully into Kim Scott’s talk, which he said was fundamentally about reclaiming Aboriginal language and story.

Looking through a whale's eye

Looking through a whale’s eye

Scott started by explaining the picture on the screen beside him. It’s from a story about a Noongar man entering a whale. He chose it because it represents the idea of seeing things differently. (You could tell he’s a novelist by the way he framed his lecture around imagery to convey his ideas!) For example, is this a porthole? Or are we looking through an eye, or even with the eye, this latter suggesting that the Noongar man has become the whale, has been transformed. This possibility of transformation was the underlying theme of his lecture.

Before he continued though, Scott offered some provisos. He likes, he said, to be particular, to start with the local (which approach also appeals to me). However, he is often criticised, he confided, for being somewhat diffident, hesitant, by which I understood him to mean for not being out there on the political hustings. He’s hesitant, he said for a few reasons:

  • the project – a small community-based language revitalisation project – is insecure. Funding and resources are uncertain, people with the needed knowledge are passing away, and the project is not connected to any institutional infrastructure.
  • it is a regional, provincial activity that may not be relevant elsewhere, although he suspects it is, because the reality is that some of most substantial renaissance work has originated in regional projects.
  • the project produces books – which give status, provide focus, can be used by schools – but books can be accessed widely, which could result in non-Aboriginal people learning the language before its owners do. This would continue the disempowerment the project aims to overturn.

Outside the circle

And here, Scott the novelist turned to again to metaphor. He quoted Governor Phillip who, having been welcomed into Port Jackson by the local people, found their curiosity problematic. He wrote:

‘As their curiosity made them very troublesome when we were preparing our Dinner, I made a circle round us; there was little difficulty in making them understand that they were not to come within it, and they then sat down very quiet.’

Scott used this circle motif as a metaphor for the ongoing exclusion of indigenous people by the settlers. The circle marked a power relationship, an exclusion, that became a defining feature of Aboriginal people’s identity. And yet, he said, researchers like Bill Gammage (The biggest estate on earth) and Tony Swain (A place for strangers) are starting to identify what lay outside this circle – knowledge and skills, an active not passive relationship with the land – that the settlers could have learnt from. This knowledge is still outside the circle, he said.

Noongar language (Daisy Bates)

Noongar language (recorded by Daisy Bates)

He provided specific examples – many of which he used, in fact, in That deadman dance – of the Noongar’s documented sophisticated, positive response to the first settlers in Western Australia. But still, they were kept outside the circle. He shared, as an example of the Noongar’s open-minded, lively response, a Noongar story recorded by Daisy Bates, which incorporated the name of the new colony’s town, King George Town, into their language.

Changing this circle is, he said, vital to healing. He believes that through projects like his, together with the research of people like Gammage and Swain, things are beginning to change, that Aboriginal culture is starting to be recognised, appreciated, rather than denigrated.

Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project

And so he got to the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project, a local language revitalisation project that is occurring outside the circle. His argument is that over time, since first contact, Governor Phillip’s original circle expanded, and the world outside it became increasingly impoverished. The Wirlomin language project believes that by recovering language, and the stories that go with it, the circle can be changed.

Proven benefits to social and personal wellbeing emanating from strong attachment to Indigenous cultural traditions. (Kral and Falk 2004, Anderson and Kowal 2012, and others).

He described the project – what it uses, what it produces, and how the knowledge is shared. I won’t detail that here, as you can learn much of it at the website. But I will share his teasing out decisions made, and their political implications. For example, when Kayang (Hazel) Brown took people to a special place in country, told its stories, and then re-covered the marks, her aim was not to practise the same attitude of exclusion, but to establish a protocol of respectful, negotiated relationships for sharing knowledge.

Another example concerned an event the group was organising to present books in language that they’d produced. He said that his view, “as the sophisticated man in the group” was to only invite Noongar, but Aunty Hazel (Kayang Brown) said they should invite some of the local non-Aboriginal people. Scott questioned why, given these people had controlled and spoiled their land, but Kayang responded, regarding one particular person, that “we grew up with him”. So he was invited, was given a copy of the stories, and responded positively, and emotionally. Scott learnt, through this experience, the paradox of empowerment through giving, and what can be achieved by moving into the circle.

All these, he concluded, open up possibilities of healing and transformation, with giving and sharing being the major denominations in the currency of identity and belonging.

This was a wonderful lecture, given by a man who emanated dignity, humility and grace. It was deceptively simple, but the thinking behind it was generous and sophisticated. You had to be there!

Ray Mathew Lecture
National Library of Australia
21 September 2017

* The Ray Mathew Lecture was established in 2009, through The Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust, created by Eva Kollsman to support and promote Australian writing. The lecture is named for the Australian poet and playwright, Ray Mathew (1929–2002), who left Australia in the late 1960s, and never returned. He spent most of the remainder of his life living in the New York apartment of his patrons, Eva and Paul Kollsman.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookswapping

September 18, 2017
Old books

Old books (Courtesy: OCAL @

Last week I wrote a Monday Musings about bookselling for/by charities. As I was writing it, I realised that there was another way of acquiring books that is worth writing about – book swap arrangements. Not surprisingly, it came up in comments on that post, so is clearly something of interest to many readers. It’s an area that I’m aware of – how could you not be – but not one I use with any regularity, so I’ve enjoyed researching it beyond my limited knowledge. I’m sure commenters will add even more information, for which I thank you in advance!

Book swapping as an informal activity is practised by most readers in some form or another. We share books – sometimes lending them to be returned, other times asking for the book to be passed on. It may not always be exactly one-to-one, but something more informal where we press loved books on each other as we read them. A little bit more formal is that practice in places like youth hostels where travellers leave a book behind that they’ve read, in a communal bookcase, and take one in its place. I still have a book that I picked up that way back in the 1970s. It’s Mordecai Richler’s Shovelling trouble. I love it – and the memories it carries.

In other words, book swapping as I’m describing it here is a pretty loose activity. It happens in multitudinous ways, ranging from the highly informal to the very controlled, from sharing books locally (in just a street, for example) to sharing across and between nations. Some swapping is simply about ensuring we always have something to read – what I’d call reader-to-reader sharing – while other schemes have bigger literary and social justice goals. These aims and styles aren’t always mutually exclusive, but the emphasis tends to fall more into one camp than another, if that makes sense. The activities I list here all fall into the somewhat organised end of the spectrum.


BookCrossing is the first big “organised” system that I came across – and that was back in the early 2000s when I found a book in my workplace cafe. Wikipedia describes it as “the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.” It started in the USA but has become a huge international community, supported by a website and social media platforms.

Markus Zusah, The book thiefAustralia is 7th on the list of the world’s top 10 bookcrossing country according to the BookCrossing website, which is not bad given our size (unless that was measured per capita).   (If you are interested, the top three countries are USA, Germany, United Kingdom.) I won’t say more about this, but if you’ve never heard of it do check out their website. It’s rather fun to see the list of recently released, recently caught, most travelled and most wished for books. I loved seeing, when I checked, that the top book in “the most wished for” list was Markus Zusak’s The book thief (my review).

The Great Book Swap

Coordinated by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, the Great Book Swap is a very different kettle of fish. Its aim is to raise money for the Foundation. The idea is for organisations – workplaces, schools, any group at all – to host a book swap, which this year was on Wednesday 6 September. (But, really, you could do it any time. The ILF won’t reject your money). The principle is that people swap books for a gold coin donation. That is, participants bring a book (or books along) and for the right to take a book or book/s away, pay a gold coin donation. So, you get a book to read and the Foundation gets some money. In 2016, the ILF raised $160,000. The money is used to buy books to send to remote indigenous communities.

ILF Ambassador, children’s author Andy Griffiths, describes it thus:

The Great Book Swap is a win-win. Not only does it help raise money to improve literacy levels in remote communities, but the excitement and fun…helps improve literacy levels in your community or organisation…

The Little Big Book Swap

Another literacy focused event is the Little Big Book Swap run by The Little Big Book Club at Raising Literacy Australia. It runs along the same lines as the Great Book Swap, with money going “to support literacy programs and resources for SA families”. Raising Literacy Australia seems to be an Australia-wide organisation, with its vision being “Enriching Australian lives and building communities through literacy”, but this Little Big Book Swap, currently anyhow, says the money is for South Australian families. Hmm … maybe this is just a start of a program they plan to expand.

Street Libraries/Little Free Libraries

You’ve all heard, I’m sure, about street libraries. They are neighborhood book exchanges where passers-by can take a book to read or leave a book for others to find. The Little Free Library is one manifestation of these. It started in the USA in 2009. According to Wikipedia, there were 50,000 registered libraries world-wide. I bet there are many more that are not registered. In Australia, we have an organisation called . I love their description of what they do:

Street Libraries are a beautiful home for books, planted in your front yard. They are accessible from the street, and are an invitation to share the joys of reading with your neighbours.

Street Libraries are a window into the mind of a community; books come and go; no-one needs to check them in or out. People can simply reach in and take what interests them; when they are done, they can return them to the Street Library network, or pass them on to friends.

If anyone has a book or two that they think others would enjoy, they can just pop it into any Street Library they happen to be walking past.

They are a symbol of trust and hope – a tiny vestibule of literary happiness.

“A tiny vestibule of literary happiness”. I mean, what more could you want? You can register your library on the site, which enables others to find you. You can build your own little library, or you can buy a kit from the website. According to the website, there are 9 in my city. (I should have gone out and photographed one today, shouldn’t I?) The one closest to me is Books for the World (and it just so happens that one of my ACT-litblogger mentees is involved in it!) Another is the Mighty Fine Book Swap in Brisbane. Click on these links to see gorgeous pics, and read about them.


These are some of the “big” initiatives, but I know there are all sorts of book swap arrangements around (including the hostel ones I mentioned in my introduction). Commenter Jeanne on last week’s Monday Musings wrote that

Recently Mildura Library has started a new venture: provide a book swap at Mildura Airport: Are there any other airports that have something similar?

Are there? Anyhow, what a lovely initiative. It’s called, delightfully, Books on the Fly. Being a small regional airport, Mildura Airport does not, I’m guessing, have a bookshop in the terminal, so this provides a lovely service for air-travellers.

Do you use – or contribute to – any book swap arrangements? I’d love to hear about them, whether or not I’ve mentioned them here already.