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Monday musings on Australian literature: Allen & Unwin’s House of Books

July 27, 2020

I have written a few posts over the years on the publishing of Australian classics, including one in 2014 in which I mentioned Allen & Unwin’s Australian Classics series. That series seems to have disappeared, but the publisher does have another initiative, House of Books.

Here is what Allen & Unwin say about this series (or, imprint):

The House of Books aims to bring Australia’s cultural and literary heritage to a broad audience by creating affordable print and ebook editions of the nation’s most significant and enduring writers and their work. The fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry of generations of Australian writers published before the advent of ebooks will now be available to new readers, alongside a selection of more recently published books.

The House of Books is an eloquent collection of Australia’s finest literary achievements, and the digital revolution is helping bring us all closer to the books and writers of Australia’s literary tradition.

The House of Books makes accessible a library of authors and their books at affordable prices to a whole new readership. Some books have long been out of print, some have recently slipped into oblivion but the House of Books should be the first stop for all readers of Australian fiction and non-fiction.

I can’t find out much about the history of all this, because the books listed on their House of Books page all seem to have been “published” over 2012, 2 years before I wrote my post referencing the now apparently defunct Australian Classics series in 2014. Does “House of Books” now include rebadged “Australian Classics”. Seems likely.

What makes this imprint interesting is that it uses a slightly different publishing model. All books, they say, “will be available simultaneously as ebooks and print editions (using POD  – print on demand technology)”. This means, of course, that bookshops don’t have to carry expensive stock of book titles likely to have low throughput.

So, I decided to test out whether these books – around 90 of them and all, as far as my random checks can tell, published eight years ago now – are still available. First, I went to Readings (online), because it is mentioned on the page as a source. I searched for a few of the titles and they all said “This item is not currently in-stock, but it’s available to order online.” So, I ordered a Thea Astley print version, and, well, so far, so good! I haven’t got it yet, but, fingers crossed it will arrive.

Book coverI then checked Booktopia, which is also listed on the page as a source. I searched for Eleanor Dark’s Prelude to Christopher. They provided this message: “This product is printed on demand when you place your order, and is not refundable if you change your mind or are unhappy with the contents. Please only order if you are certain this is the correct product, or contact our customer service team for more information”. Readings didn’t say this, but I’m presuming their copy will be POD too.

The prices seem to range mostly from $14.99 to $19.99, though some are more expensive.

House of Books books

But now, what you’ve been waiting for – if you haven’t clicked on the link above already – that is, something about the books available. They are listed in a strange order – alphabetical by title, with all book titles starting with “A” appearing under “A”, and “The” titles under “T”. Really? For me, the best order would be by author, so I could see, for example, all the Astleys they have, all the Cusacks, and so on. Also, very few of the book descriptions include original publication date which pedantic me would really like to know!

Book coverWhinge aside, the list is an exciting albeit serendipitous one, including many books barely remembered these days. There are, for example, Kylie Tennant’s memoir The man on the headland, and her autobiography, The missing heir. There are four by Thea Astley, eight by Dymphna Cusack (including the Newcastle-set Southern steel, which interests me), and four by Xavier Herbert.

Book coverOther treasures, in terms of their place in Australian literary culture, include Dal Stivens’ 1951 political (and debut) novel, Jimmy Brockett. Stivens is little known now, but, as Wikipedia tells, he won the Miles Franklin Award in 1970 for A Horse of Air, was awarded the Patrick White Award in 1981 for his contribution to Australian literature, and in 1994, he was given a Special Achievement Award in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Book coverAs you’ll have realised from the Tennants above, the books include non-fiction, like Australian historian Russell Ward’s memoir, A radical life. There are also books of poetry, such as AD Hope’s Selected poems, and short story collections.

More contemporary writers in the list include Nick Earls and Mandy Sayer (both born, coincidentally, in 1963).

I’d love to know if any of my Australian readers know of this series? The cover style is a little familiar to me, but I am certainly not as aware of them in the shops as I am of the wonderful Text Australian Classics series. My guess is that this is due to the publishing model they are using. Any comments?

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

July 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He writes:

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

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

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

Bill curates: Imre Kertesz’s Fateless or Fatelessness

July 24, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Sue reads some striking books and writes some (many!) striking reviews, of which this is one. I’m not sure I agree with her about Holocaust fiction, but I do appreciate that people who experienced the Nazi concentration camps, or their after-effects in the case of, say, Lily Brett, must write, just as we must read to honour their tribulations, and that a fictionalised account may be the way they choose to do this. Imre Kertész is another Nobel Prize winner I was unaware of. He died in 2016.

My original post titled: “Imre Kertesz, Fateless or Fatelessness”


Let’s get the first thing clear. I like holocaust literature – not because I enjoy the subject matter but because in it I find the most elemental, universal truths about humanity. Depending on the book, this literature contains various combinations of bravery and cowardice, cruelty and kindness, love and hate, self-sacrifice, self-preservation and betrayal, resilience and resignation, and  well, all those qualities that make up humanity and its converse, inhumanity. I have by no means read all that is out there but here are some that have moved me: Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl (of course) and Anne Holm’s I am David, from my youth, and then books like Martin Amis’ Time’s arrow, Bernhard Schlink’s The reader, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief, and Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river. There are gaps, though, in my reading, such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s ark (I did see the film), the works of Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. I have, however, just added Imre Kertèsz’s Fateless to my list of books read.

Kertèsz adds a new spin to the universal truths explored by these books – it’s what he describes (in my 1992 translation anyhow) as “stubbornness” which seems to me to mean “resilience” or a determination to survive, and even to have, if possible, little wins against the system.

Anyhow, first the plot. The novel takes place over the last year of the war and concerns Gyorgy Koves, a 14-year old Hungarian Jew, who, one day, is suddenly called off a bus, along with all other Jews on the bus and transported to Auschwitz, and then Buchenwald, Zeitz and back to Buchenwald, before returning home at war’s end. It chronicles his experiences, his thinking, and the impact on him of his experience. He begins as the archetypal naive narrator…but by the end, though his tone has changed little, he is no longer naive. This is rather beautifully achieved as we see his youthful application of logic being changed into something more cynical and survival focused.

Gyorgy speaks with a strange sense of detachment borne, to start with, of an apparent unawareness of what exactly washappening to him and a disbelief that anything untoward would happen. And so, in the beginning, as events unfold he describes them as “natural” because of course, when they got to Auschwitz, it was sensible to inspect each person to see who was physically fit and capable of working. He didn’t know then what would happen to those not found physically fit. The horror gradually builds as reality sets in and he goes about making it through each day – through his share of beatings, the reduced food rations, and all the other deprivations that make up concentration camp life. In the first part of the book he uses the term “naturally” to mean some sort of normal logic but by the end it comes to mean, as he explains to a journalist who asks him why he keeps using the word for things that aren’t natural, that these things were natural in a concentration camp.

Early on in his captivity he says that they approached their life (and work) “with the best of intentions” but they soon discover that these “best of intentions” do not bring about any kindness from their overseers, and so his attitude to getting on, to surviving starts to change. As he starts to physically weaken, become emaciated and develop infections, he observes that “my body was still there. I was thoroughly familiar with it, only somehow I myself no longer lived inside it”. Always dispassionate, always matter-of-fact, while describing the most heart-rending things.

Towards the end, he is placed in a hospital ward and there he is treated better and, even, with a certain amount of kindness. This in its way is as shocking to him as the cruel beatings he experienced at Zeitz. He can see no logic, “no reason for its being, nothing rational or familiar”. He can only understand kindness in terms of the giver receiving “some pleasure” from it or having some “personal need” satisfied. Never is there any sense that altruism might come into play. His view of “justice” is based very much on survival. He says, when he is spared, “everything happened according to the rules of justice … I was able to accept a situation more easily when it concerned someone else’s bad luck rather than my own … This was the lesson I learned”.

And so, in the end he returns home, and finds it hard to explain to people just what happened and how he now views life. He describes getting through his time as “taking one step after another”, focusing just on the moment. He implies that if he had known his fate he would have focused on time passing – a far more soul-destroying activity than concentrating on getting through each day “step by step”. This brings us to the fate/fateless bit. He says at the end that:

if there is a fate, there is no freedom … if, on the other hand, there is freedom, then there is no fate. That is … that is, we ourselves are fate.

I find this a little hard to grasp but he seems to be saying that we are free to make our own choices, even in a concentration camp – we are not fated but make our own fate. He was and is not prepared to accept any other approach to life. But life will not be easy:

I am here, and I know full well that I have to accept the prize of being allowed to live … I have to continue my uncontinuable life … There is no impossibility that cannot be overcome (survived?).

And yet, at the very end of the book, he says “and even back there [in the concentration camp], in the shadow of the chimneys, there was something resembling happiness”. Wow! This is an astonishing book – it charts horrors with a calmness that is quite shocking, and it is particularly shocking not because Gyorgy is unfeeling but because he can’t quite grasp what is happening to him. This is the fundamental irony of the book, and the fundamental truth of a naive narrator: we the reader know exactly how it is even as Gyorgy tries to make sense of it using logic and reason. I must read this book again – and preferably the newer more highly regarded 2004 translation by Tom Wilkinson.

Imre Kertész
Translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson
Northwestern University Press, 1992 (orig. ed 1975, in Hungarian)
191 pp.
ISBN: 9780810110496


I looked in my bookshelves when Bill sent through this Bill Curates post, and discovered that the edition I own is the later Tom Wilkinson one. I must have bought it with the intention of reading it, but I haven’t yet. Oh, the dreams of an everyday reader!

Bill will, I hope, explain his introductory comment regarding Holocaust fiction. We’d love to know what you think – and/or read.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian writers and the Miles Franklin Award

July 20, 2020

This is not going to be a treatise on the Miles Franklin Award and diversity. We all know literary awards have not been as diverse as they could have been (and that they still have a way to go). We know, too, that this is not only due to judging, but also reflects the fact that the publishing industry has not been as diverse as it could be. It is probably also true that, in the past at least, we readers have not demanded more diversity in our reading. However, this story is too complex for this post, and, anyhow, has been explored many times. Today, I simply want to celebrate those Indigenous Australian writers who have been listed for and/or won Australia’s (arguably) most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, in the spirit of bringing attention to their work as a body of literature.

Notwithstanding the above, I do need to make the point that it wasn’t until 2000 that we started seeing Indigenous Australian writers appear in the short and longlists for the award*.

  • 2000 Kim Scott’s Benang (won) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
  • 2007 Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (won) (my review)
  • 2011 Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (won) (my review)
  • 2012 Tony Birch Blood (shortlisted) (Lisa’s review)
  • 2014 Melissa Lucashenko Mullumbimby (longlisted) (Lisa’s review)
  • 2014 Alexis Wright The Swan Book (shortlisted) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
  • 2016 Tony Birch Ghost River (longlisted) (my review)
  • 2018 Kim Scott’s Taboo (shortlisted) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
  • 2019 Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip (won) (my review)
  • 2020 Tony Birch’s The white girl (shortlisted) (my review)
  • 2020 Tara June Winch’s The yield (won) (my review)

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You could probably call this a round-up of the usual suspects, in terms of contemporary Indigenous Australian novelists, with Kim Scott and Tony Birch appearing three times, Melissa Lucashenko and Alexis Wright twice each, and of course relative newbie, Tara June Winch, once. It’s notable that every book here deals with Indigenous issues. This is important for truth-telling, but it will be a measure of our maturity as a nation when Indigenous Australian writers can feel free of the need to carry these truths on their backs.

Anyhow, I wonder what Miles Franklin would say? When she said “without an indigenous literature, people can remain alien in their own soil”, I don’t believe she was thinking of the real Indigenous people of this soil. However, I imagine that, were she living now, she would love the richness that the growth of Indigenous Australian literature has brought to Australian life and culture.

It seems apposite, then, to leave this (very) little tribute with the words of this year’s winner, Tara June Winch, as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, “It doesn’t have to be POC writers against white voices – we have to work together to bring voices to the fore.” Absolutely. Let’s hope more and more diverse writers get to tell their stories to us. I – and I know many of my litblogging friends – love to read them. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you do read The yield, a complex but strong book which its author calls “a once-in-a-lifetime love letter to Australia.”

Have you read any of the listed books, and if so, would you like to share your favourite/s?

* I may have missed a writer or two, as I didn’t find complete lists of short and longlisted authors from the beginning of the award, but I think my point still stands.

Bill curates: Elizabeth Jolley’s My father’s moon

July 17, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Elizabeth Jolley is one of the greats and I am sorry that I have only read her in fits and starts. I have had, unread, Brian Dibble’s biography of her for so long now that I wonder if I should just hurry up and read all these fictionalised accounts of her life first, uncontaminated by knowing what she ‘really’ did.

My original post titled: “Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon”

Book cover‘No one,’ she says, ‘can write anything till they’ve had experience. Later on perhaps. You will write later on.’ (Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon, 1989)

Although fiction demands imagination, it must be based on  some kind of genuine experience. (Elizabeth Jolley, “Only Connect”, essay first published in Toads, 1992)

My father’s moon is the first book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, the others being Cabin fever and The George’s wife. It won The Age Book of the Year Award in 1989.

I am an Elizabeth Jolley fan – and, along with Helen Garner, another Jolley fan, I enjoy the way she repeats and revisits stories and characters from one book or story to another. In this book is the chapter, “Night Runner”, which was published as a short story in Meanjin in December 1983, and again in a short story anthology, Room to move, published in 1985. The narrator of the story – and of the novel – typifies Elizabeth Jolley’s alienated protagonists and their often peculiarly self-centred and self-deluded ways of coping with their loneliness. Clearly Jolley decided that this was a character she wanted to develop further. And clearly she also drew a lot from her own experience to develop this character. Like Vera, Jolley was brought up as a Quaker, her parents sheltered refugees before and during the Second World War, and she trained as a nurse. Like Vera, Jolley probably experienced loneliness and alienation. However, this is fiction and so we need to be careful about how far we take these analogies between Vera and her creator. Much as I can empathise with Vera’s predicament, I must admit that I would hate to think she is Elizabeth Jolley.

It’s an uncomfortable novel. Vera, the first person narrator, is not a highly sympathetic character but neither is she totally disagreeable either. What she is, though, is lonely. The book has a somewhat challenging structure – and I had to concentrate to keep track of where I was. It starts with Vera, a single mother, leaving her parents’ home, with her young daughter, to live and work in a boarding school. Her hopes for a lovely life there among people “who feel and think as I do” are dashed. Such people “are not here as I thought they would be … I am by my own mistakes buried in this green-leafed corruption and I am alone”. In this first chapter are flashbacks to the past, and gradually the book moves into the past, providing us with insights into her character and how she has ended up where she is. Most of this past takes place in the hospital where she trains as a nurse during the war. The book finally returns to the beginning of the novel with Vera resolving to make a step towards alleviating her loneliness. However, we are by no means convinced she will.

The book comprises titled chapters, many if not all of which could be (and some have been) published separately as short stories. This gives it a somewhat disjointed feel – but seems appropriate for the story of a person like Vera. It is full of wonderfully drawn characters, with some very funny (if often dark) scenes and dialogue. Just think nurses and hospitals! There are many references to music – something that is common in Jolley’s works. Music is usually a comforting force for her characters, offering them respite from what is often a cruel world – and this is the case here, with Vera being drawn to characters who love and play music. There is a lot of irony, some of it subtle, some of it less so as in Magda’s comment to Vera who has fantasised about an affair with her husband: ‘You are so innocent and good … Don’t ever change’. Naive perhaps, innocent no!

So, what about the title? Funnily enough(!), it refers to Vera’s relationship with her father, a major stabilising influence in her life. He tells her throughout her childhood that wherever she is she can always look at the same moon he is looking at, ‘And because of this … you must know that I am not far away. You must never feel lonely’. A lovely concept and one to which Vera regularly returns in the book.

My father’s moon is not, I think, the easiest Jolley to read, and there are some things that might become clearer on a second reading. However, its concerns are very representative of her work – loneliness and alienation, homosexuality, parenting, memory, music and religion. While Vera is deeply lonely, while she often behaves selfishly, she can also be kind. She is also no quitter. For that I rather like her.

Elizabeth Jolley
My Father’s Moon
Melbourne: Viking, 1989
ISBN13: 9780670822676


I have written several posts on Jolley over the years, including reviews of a couple of novels, a sort of memoir, and a short story, but I had hoped to have read and posted on more of her work by now. Instead, a few of her novels – along with that Brian Dibble biography Bill has – still languish on my TBR pile.

Have you read any Jolley? If so, do you have any favourites?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian literature, 1970s

July 13, 2020

Although Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) annual Indigenous Literature Week is officially over for 2020, I thought I’d bookend it with a second Monday Musings, this one on how Indigenous Australian literature looked around 50 years ago. Who was writing then, and what were they writing?

My main sources were Trove, of course, and the Macquarie Pen anthology of Aboriginal literature, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter. In their introduction, Heiss and Minter argue that:

Aboriginal literature as we know it today had its origins in the late 1960s, as the intensification of Aboriginal political activity posed an increasing range of aesthetic questions and possibilities for Aboriginal authors.

With the Constitutional Referendum of 1967, and, as they put it, “the election of the reformist Whitlam government in 1972 [that] saw a new radicalisation in Australian politics”, there was a growing interest in land rights and cultural self-determination. In this world, Aboriginal literature “began to play a leading role in in the expression of Aboriginal cultural and political life”.

Heiss and Minter nominate the period from 1967 to the mid-1970s as being “significant for the sudden growth in Aboriginal authorship across a broad range of genres.” Ha! It was in 1967 that I wrote a little piece for my school year book on “Aboriginal equality in Northern Australia”. (It’s a bit excruciating to read now, being the words of an idealistic young teen, but that was when my interest in Indigenous Australian rights really started – and when I started reading authors like Kath Walker, later Oodgeroo Noonuccal.)

Book coverThe writers they name from that time – Kath Walker, Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Monica Clare (who is new to me), Gerry Bostock and Lionel Fogarty – pretty much mirror the writers who cropped up in my Trove search. Heiss and Minter describe them as

active in the political sphere while simultaneously catalysing a nascent publishing industry and writing their own vanguard pieces of creative literature.

There is another name that they don’t mention, but who comes up in Trove, and that’s the controversial Colin Johnson (who also published under the name Mudrooroo.)

The interesting thing about this group of people is that they are primarily poets and playwrights. Davis, Bostock and Gilbert are both, while Walker (Noonuccal) and Fogarty are best known as poets. The exception is Monica Clare. She was primarily an activist, but wrote an autobiographical novel that was published posthumously in 1978, Karobran: The story of an Aboriginal girl. Why were poetry and drama so dominant at that time? Is it because they were easier to publish (or get published) – or perform? Is it because these forms lend themselves more to the activism all these writers were engaged in? A poem, after all, is a powerful tool that can be performed, learnt and quoted again and again – as Noonuccal’s were, I know.

Now, what did the newspapers at the time have to say about Indigenous writing? First, there were several references to the paucity of Indigenous writing and Indigenous characters in contemporary literature, including in children’s literature. Presumably this awareness marked the beginning of the slow change that led us to the last decade or so in which we’ve seen significantly more Indigenous writing being published across all forms and genres.

There was, though, less awareness of the importance of Indigenous people telling their own stories. The sense I get is that it was perfectly alright for non-Indigenous people to tell Indigenous stories. Reviewer Lyndal Hadow, writing in the Tribune about a book of short stories by someone called D Stuart, praises:

his wide and deep knowledge and appreciation of the Aborigine. I believe there is no one who has written with such understanding in all the literature of the subject. His ear and his pen for the subtleties of altered English as used by his Aboriginal friends are not matched by any one I have read, and I have read them all. Again Stuart shows that those of whom he writes are known to him, not as subjects to be studied, but as old friends whose lifestyle he understands, and whose strengths he respects.

I love her confidence in her assessment because she has “read them all”!

The most comprehensive article I found about Indigenous writing in Australia came from the University of New South Wales’ student magazine Tharunka in 1976. The article, written by John Beston, commences:

Who are the Aboriginal writers? The first person to supply an answer to that question was Kath Walker, herself the best known of Aboriginal writers. In an article entitled “Aboriginal Literature,” in the January 1975 issue of Identity, Kath Walker mentions five writers other than herself — Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Colin Johnson, Wilf Reeves and Dick Roughsey — and concludes that there is an exciting time ahead. I agree with her.

Beston comments on the three main poets of the time, Walker, Davis and Gilbert, and shares this:

Kath Walker has graciously acknowledged Jack Davis to be the better poet, but there is no clear superiority of one poet to the other: Davis is the more skilled craftsman, but Walker sometimes has greater emotional force.

This article is worth reading, because it surveys the gamut of Indigenous Australian writing at the time, across all forms and genres. He concludes, though, by returning to Walker and her significant role, saying (in the tone of his times):

The quality of her work and the success she met with — We Are Going went into seven editions — gave other Aboriginals a needed boost and encouraged them to express the creativity that they have always had. So Aboriginal literature is less than twelve years old. The young tree is certainly flourishing.

Another article I found noted Kevin Gilbert’s being awarded a literature grant to write a book. And, there was a 1979 review of the book Literature and the Aborigine in Australia by a non-Indigenous writer, which seemed to be more about “the history of the efforts of Australian writers to come to terms” with Indigenous culture than about Indigenous literary culture itself, though the review does say:

‘There is also, completing the record, the very new group of writers, Aboriginal or part-Aboriginal themselves, who are producing their own literature.’

In the 1970s, then, there wasn’t a lot of coverage of Indigenous Australian writing, but there was the beginning of an awareness that Indigenous Australians were writing – and that Indigenous Australians and their culture should no longer be overlooked. We have a long way to go yet in terms of all Australians reading and appreciating Indigenous Australian writing and culture, but it is useful to see where we’ve come from, don’t you think?

Past ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings

Helen Garner, Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987 (#BookReview)

July 12, 2020

Book coverThe opening session of last November’s inaugural Broadside Festival featured Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein about her recently published Yellow notebook, the first volume of her edited diaries. It was an excellent, intelligent conversation. Garner came across as the forthright writer she is, one who fearlessly exposes difficult and unpleasant things, alongside joys and triumphs.

The epigraph she chose for her diaries is therefore not surprising:

We are here for this–to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. (Primo Levi, The periodic table)

Certainly, in Yellow notebook, Garner both stands some blows and hands a few out. She admits to many mistakes. She allows herself to be vulnerable. She may have cut a lot, as she told Krasnostein, but she clearly didn’t sanitise. Her aim was to select what others might find interesting. She didn’t rewrite, only changing (or adding) something if it would otherwise have been meaningless. A diary, she said, “has no voiceover, unlike a memoir”. That is, a diary contains what you did/felt at the time without the benefit of later reflection; she had to accept herself – both hurting others and being hurt – as she was at the time of writing. This gave her “fellow-feeling” with others.

She also decided not to identify people. She uses initials, such as M for her daughter, F for her husband at the time. Some of these people are, of course, easily identifiable for anyone who knows her biography, but I think there is still value in taking this approach. In this spirit, I decided not to investigate beyond what I already knew about her life.

The yellow notebook has a lot to offer Garner lovers. For what is quite a short book, its content is wide-ranging. It includes observations from life around her (as you’d expect from a writer), snippets of conversations (both overheard and her own), the occasional news item, stories from her life, thoughts about other writers, and of course reflections on her own writing. We are introduced to her love of music, and her interest in religion. We hear about her marriage break-up and her all-encompassing love of her daughter. All this reveals a messy person – someone who can be wise at times, and immature at others, who can be confident but also excruciatingly insecure, who can be unkind but also warm and generous, a person, in other words, like most of us, except most of us don’t lay the worst of ourselves quite so bare.

I could give examples of all of the above – and I should, because there’s glorious sentence after glorious sentence – but I want to focus on her writing life. For the rest, do read the book yourself.

“thinking voluptuously of the stories I’m going to write”

Part of understanding a writer is knowing who they read and admire. The writer Garner mentions most in this volume is Elizabeth Jolley. While Jolley and Garner are, in some ways, quite different writers, they have a lot in common. Both don’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of human behaviour. Sometimes Garner simply quotes Jolley – as we do when a writer reminds us of something we’re experiencing. Sometimes she shares little anecdotes about Jolley, but other times she comments on Jolley’s writing, even when referring to another writer!

‘Cod seemed a suitable dish for a rejected one and I ate it humbly without any kind of sauce or relish.’ –Barbara Pymm, Excellent women. This is Elizabeth Jolley’s tone and it made me laugh out loud.

Elizabeth Jolley makes me laugh out loud too. Garner also loves Jane Austen. She writes:

Mansfield Park. She never tells you anything about the appearance of her characters. As if they were moral forces. I love it.

You can see why I love Garner. She, Jolley and Austen all get to the heart of humans, incisively – and with wit. Garner writes about being rejected:

My short story was rejected by the Bulletin because it contained four-letter words. A letter from Geoffrey Dutton: ‘It pains me to have to knock this back … it’s you at your best.’ Thanks a lot. I suppose he’s a skilled writer of rejection letters.

Other writers Garner mentions include, randomly, Frank Moorhouse, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, Tim Winton, Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, DH Lawrence (who “uses the same word over and over till he makes it mean what he needs it to”), EM Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Henry James, James Joyce, Doris Lessing, Christina Stead (whom, she discovers, is “a visonary”), Randolph Stow, Rosa Capiello, and Les Murray:

The infuriating accuracy and simplicity of his images – birds that ‘trickle down through’ foliage. Of course, I think, this is what they do – why didn’t I know how to say it?

Four of Garner’s own books are published during the ten years covered by these diaries, the novels Moving out (1983) and The children’s Bach (1984) (my review), and short story collections, Honour; and Other people’s children (1980) and Postcards from Surfers (1985) (my review).

She shares many of her struggles and challenges in writing The children’s Bach, in particular:

… each morning I set out for my office weak with fear. I will never be a great writer. The best I can do is write books that are small but oblique enough to stick in people’s gullets.


This flaming book is jammed again. I feel my ignorance and fear like a vast black hole.


I’m scared to go into my office in case I can’t make things up.


Went to work and fiddled around for half an hour, then began to properly feel it come … Delirious I ran downstairs and bought myself a pastie …

She shares her thoughts about writing, such as

About writing: meaning is in the smallest event. It doesn’t have to be put there: only revealed.

This is so Austen, too.

More broadly, she also speaks of critics, awards, and readers. It’s engaging and heart-rending all at once – and probably applicable to many writers.

Finally, she reflects on the value of art and on the creation process. Describing the experience of a painter finishing a portrait, Garner writes:

The miracle of making something that wasn’t there before. Pulling something out of thin air.

It’s that capacity that impresses someone like me. I’m sorry for the pain writers (and other creators) endure, but I’m so glad they are prepared to do it. I look forward to Volume 2, and beyond.

Challenge logoHelen Garner
Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2019
ISBN: 9781922268143

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Bill curates: JM Coetzee’s Diary of a bad year

July 10, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

When Sue wrote this review in July 2009 – yes I am progressing only slowly, but there is so much to choose from!  – Diary of a Bad Year was Coetzee’s most recent work. I read it only a year or so ago and it impressed on me how lucky we are in Australia that Coetzee chose to live here.


My original post titled: “JM Coetzee, Diary of a bad year”

Book coverJ.M. Coetzee is one of those rare novelists who pushes the boundaries of what a novel is. The progression from his mid-career novel, the spare but terrifying Disgrace (1999),through Elizabeth Costello (2003) to Diary of a bad year (2007) is so dramatic that there are those who question whether these last two are even novels. It’s actually been a year or so since I read Diary of a bad year but it is currently being discussed by one of my reading groups so now seemed to be a good time to blog about it here.

One of the first things to confront the reader who picks up Diary of a bad year is how to read it. It has three (two to begin with) concurrent strands running across the top, middle and bottom of the page. Some readers try to read the three strands as concurrently as possible while others read the strands sequentially. Following this latter path, though, means you risk missing the way the strands comment on each other. The three strands are:

  • the narrator’s formal voice, basically taking the form of essays he is writing
  • the narrator’s informal voice in which he talks about his life as he is writing the essays
  • the voice of Anya, his “little typist”, and, through her, of her boyfriend, Alan

The three characters represent three modes of viewing the world: the narrator’s is primarily theoretical, while Anya’s is more pragmatic and Alan’s rational. Through these modes, Coetzee teases out the moral conundrums of the early 21st century both in terms of the political (the events confronting us) and the personal (how are we to live).

Towards the end, Coetzee refers to his love of Bach. To some degree the book is a paean to Bach: its three-part structure in which each part counterpoints the others seems to be a textual representation of Bach’s polyphony. The essays running across the top of the page, while a little uneven and dry on their own, are counterpointed by the views of the characters in the other two strands, resulting in our being presented with different ways of viewing the same world.

The characterisation is interesting: Senor C, the writer of the essays, is the logical, moral but somewhat pessimistic thinker; Anya is practical, down to earth, but with a strong moral sense; and Alan is the economic rationalist for whom money is essentially everything. The views of the two men are strongly contrasted, while Anya is caught in the middle. There is a Darwinian sense in Alan of the survival of the fittest, while Senor C spurns competition as a way of life, preferring collaboration. For all his “moral” views, though, Senor C is not presented as a paragon and we are discomforted at times by his attitude towards the beautiful Anya.

The overall theme seems to be how do we live in a world full of paradoxes and contradictions, a world that seems to be pervaded by dishonour and shame (the things Senor C explores in the essays). He talks about ordinary people and how they (we) cope with things they (we) don’t approve of. He wonders why they (we) don’t do something about it, but suggests in the end that they (we) practise “inner emigration”. He says:

The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.

I like that concept though it does smack of burying one’s head in the sand. He also talks about collective guilt, and about bearing the dishonour of what’s gone on before. Through choosing a “novel” form like no other, one which blends but in no way harmonises fact and fiction, Coetzee shows in a very concrete way that difficult times need new ways of presenting ideas. He offers no neat conclusions, no easy outs; he is quite subversive really. Late in the book he ponders the value of writing, and says:

Are these words written on paper truly what I wanted to say?

This then is another step in Coetzee’s path of trying to find the best, perfect perhaps, way of saying what he wants to say. I, for one, will be ready for his next step.

JM Coetzee
Diary of a Bad Year
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2007
ISBN: 9781921145636


I said in this July 2009 post that I was ready for his next step, but in fact other reading got in the way and I have not read any more Coetzee since then. However, like Bill, I’m very glad he chose Australia to be his home. I will try to read more of him in coming years because I enjoy his exploration of the novel-form itself, as well as being interested in his ideas.

Have you read any Coetzee? If so we’d love to hear what you think about his writing.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian biographies

July 6, 2020

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2020 Indigenous Literature Week, and, as I have done for a few years now, I’ve decided to devote my Monday Musings to an Indigenous Australian literature topic. This year’s topic is Indigenous Australian biography.

I have previously written Monday Musings on Indigenous Australian autobiographies and memoirs. These have flourished in the last decade or so, particularly, it seems, memoirs from Indigenous Australian women. I’ve reviewed several on this blog. However, biographies are a different form altogether, and in researching for this post, I’ve struggled to find many. Readings bookshop, for example, provides a list of Australian First Nations Memoir and Biography but I struggled to find many biographies in their list. It is a positive thing that publishers and readers have embraced memoirs, but I can’t help feeling that the paucity of biography tells us something about the place of Indigenous Australians in Australian culture.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), self-described as “Australia’s pre-eminent dictionary of national biography”, aims to provide “informative and fascinating descriptions of the lives of significant and representative persons in Australian history.” This suggests that biography has a formal role in telling the story of a nation. Consequently, the dearth of Indigenous Australian biographies – if my research is right – is surely a measure of the continuing marginalisation or exclusion of Indigenous Australian culture and lives from our national story.

Not surprisingly, I’m not the only one to have noticed this problem. In 2017, the National Centre of Biography launched a new project “to develop an Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography“. It’s being led by Shino Konishi who is of Indiengous descent from Broome. She is on the ADB’s Indigenous Working Party which was established in 2015, and which includes “leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars from each state and the territory”. The main aim of the project is to add 190 new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander biographies to the ADB which, they say, has published nearly 13,000 biographies since 1966, but “has tended to under-recognise the contribution of Indigenous people to the Australian story”. The end-result of the project will be a dedicated Indigenous ADB.

Alongside this, the National Centre of Biography, which publishes the Australian Dictionary of Biography, also hosts a site called Indigenous Australia which “brings together all entries on Indigenous Australians found in the NCB’s biographical websites–Australian Dictionary of Biography, Obituaries Australia, Labour Australia and Women Australia.” It also supports the Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive, which is an initiative of the University of Western Sydney. (However, it moves us away from my focus here on biography.)

Of course, the above is all very important, but the ADB is about biographical essays in a dictionary of biography. I’m also interested in full-length biographies. I didn’t find many, but, as always, I’m hoping you will tell me (or remind me of) others?

Alexis Wright, TrackerIndigenous Australian biography – a small selection

  • Max Bonnell’s How many more are coming?: the short life of Jack Marsh (2003): on athlete and first class cricketer, Jack Marsh, who died in 1916.
  • Kathie Cochrane’s Oodgeroo (1994): on poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
  • Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the past (1999): on Ginibi’s son, Nobby, who spent significant time in prison, and the systemic failures in handling Indigenous young.
  • Kevin Keeffe’s Paddy’s road: Life stories of Patrick Dodson (2003): on activist Patrick Dodson, and his family, and their commitment to reconciliation.
  • Marlene J. Norst’s Burnum Burnum: A warrior for peace (1999): on Burnum, Stolen Generations survivor, sportsperson and activist.
  • John Ramsland’s The rainbow beach man (2009): on Les Ridgeway, Worimi elder, who was a farm labourer, station manager and was eventually recruited by Charles Perkins to work in the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
  • Peter Read’s Charles Perkins: A biography (2001): on activist, Freedom Ride participant and administrator, Charlie Perkins.
  • Banjo Woorunmurra and Howard Pedersen’s Janadamarra and the Bunuba Resistance (1995): on Aboriginal resistance fighter, Jandamarra, and his resistance against invasion in the Kimberleys.
  • Alexis Wright’s Tracker (2018??): on the charismatic ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth, activist, a book which is described by some as a “collective memoir” but which I’ve included here as an example of new forms of “biography”, particularly for Indigenous life-writing.

So, now, please add to this list …

Past ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings

Six degrees of separation, FROM What I loved TO …

July 4, 2020

Half the year is over – and what an awful year it has been, generally and personally. I’d like to try to put the first half behind me (without ever forgetting the special person who left my life during it and whose 91st birthday would, in fact, have been today) and look to a more positive second half. Let’s see what we can do with this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme.  If you are new to blogging and don’t know this meme and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Book coverJuly’s starting book is another I haven’t read. Indeed, I haven’t read any of her books, but if I did, this is the one I’d choose. The book is American writer Siri Hustvedt’s What I loved.

Jane Austen, PersuasionSiri Hustvedt is, I read a long time ago, a Jane Austen fan, so my first link is Jane Austen’s Persuasion (my reviews of volume 1 and volume 2) because Hustvedt wrote the introduction to the Folio edition of this novel. If you are a Jane Austen fan, like me, you will buy multiple versions of her novels just for the introductions. (For this reason, I’ll be adding my mum’s editions to my already multiple edition Austen library.)

Helen Garner, Everywhere I lookAnother novelist who loves Jane Austen – they are legion in fact – is Helen Garner. She wrote about Austen in her collection of essays, Everywhere I look (my review).

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (PD, via Wikipedia)

Garner, in fact, wrote about quite a few writers in that collection, including Tim Winton and Elizabeth Jolley, but the one I am going to link to next is a much older writer, Barbara Baynton, and her short story “The chosen vessel”, (my review). Garner says she has never got over it. It’s a powerful story, that’s for sure.

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin (PD, via Wikipedia)

There are many short stories and novels I have never got over, though quite a few of them are from pre-blogging times. However, there’s a short story from my blogging times that affected me deeply and that I keep returning to. The writer is the American Kate Chopin, and the story “Désirée’s baby” (my review). Its underlying themes about race and gender are distressingly still too relevant today (or, do I mean still too distressingly relevant!)

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The hate raceRacism is an issue that we just can’t seem to resolve. Why is it that we can’t all see and respect each other as equal human beings? I have read many books over the years – fiction and non-fiction – that deal with race. However, I’m going to return to Australia, and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (my review), for my fifth link, because her aim was to show “the extreme toll that casual, overt and institutionalised racism can take: the way it erodes us all”. It “erodes us all”: this is a lesson we are all still learning.

Book coverWhere to from here? Can I be a little less heavy for my last link? The hate race is a memoir about Clarke’s experience of growing up. I hope it’s not disrespectful to conclude with a very different, and rather happier memoir about growing up, Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano lessons (my review). Goldsworthy had her challenges – who doesn’t – but nothing like those faced by Clarke.

So, an unusual chain this month, because it includes two short stories, a book of essays, two memoirs, and just one novel. My links have stayed mostly in Australia, but I have popped over to early 19th century England and late 19th century USA. All this month’s writers are women.

Now the usual: Have you read What I loved? And, regardless, what would you link to?