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Sarah Krasnostein, The trauma cleaner (#BookReview)

May 10, 2018

Sarah Krasnostein, The trauma cleanerI’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t planned to read Sarah Krasnostein’s biography The trauma cleaner. I feared it might be one of those sensationalised, voyeuristic stories, but how wrong I was. I thank Brother Gums and partner for this great birthday gift.

I was wrong because … no, let me start with why I thought what I thought. The subject of this biography, Sandra Pankhurst, is a transgender woman, now in her early-sixties. She’s been a drag queen and a sex worker, and now has a trauma cleaning business, which means she cleans houses after murders and other difficult, messy deaths. It also means that she cleans the houses of hoarders, particularly those whose hoarding has resulted in squalid living conditions. And there’s more. Pankhurst was also an abused, neglected and rejected adopted child, and she experienced the violent death of her pregnant girlfriend. You can see why I feared what I did.

But, I couldn’t have been more wrong, for two main reasons – Sarah Pankhurst is a compelling human being, and Sarah Krasnostein a wonderful writer who knows her subject well. I’m not surprised that the book is doing well on the award circuit this year, including winning the 2018 Victorian Prize for Literature.

First Pankhurst

Born apparently a boy, and adopted when 6-weeks-old by a couple to replace their son who’d died during childbirth, Pankhurst’s life was fraught from the start. He was adopted because his parents had been told they couldn’t have more biological children, but his life was upended five years later when the inevitable happened. A son was born, followed by another two years later. His parents told him they’d made a mistake, because now they had two sons, and proceeded to increasingly exclude him from the family circle. He was physically and emotionally abused and neglected. Unbelievable – except that we all know, don’t we, that human beings are capable of unbelievable cruelty.

Eventually, Pankhurst left home, married, and had children, but his gender dysphoria began to affect his ability to live the life he’d forged. He left his family, and over the next couple of decades was a drag queen and sex worker, and underwent sex reassignment surgery in its early days in Australia, to become the person now known as Sandra. She lost a pregnant partner through a vicious assault by a club bouncer, and worked in the brothels of Kalgoorlie. All this at a time when gay and transgender people were ostracised and brutalised, particularly by those in authority. Then she married an older man, George. She ran a small hardware business with him, and became a respected leader in her community. It was after this business failed that Pankhurst moved into cleaning and thence to her current speciality of trauma cleaning.

Now, popular wisdom would say that a person so neglected and abused would end up abusing others, or, at the very least, be bitter, but not so Pankhurst, which makes her an amazing being, or, as Krasnostein says, “utterly peerless”. Here is just one example of her tender but firm care of a hoarder – Janice, whom she and her team struggle to keep from going through the bags of “rubbish” being thrown out.

And then, speaking to herself [Janice this is], sharp and low, ‘Why do you do this? You know what rubbish is.’

‘Because you see yourself as rubbish,’ Sandra says. ‘Time to start seeing the good in life. You deserve it.’ The angel statue suddenly slips off the couch and bounces on the carpet; a wing snaps off.

‘Is that a bad omen?’ Janice asks, looking up at Sandra frantically.

‘You know what it’s saying?’ Sandra answers with a smile. ‘I’m broken but I’m not dead.’

And this is what she does, time and time again, building up her damaged clients, gently guiding them to make better decisions, and, above all, treating them with absolute dignity, all the while surrounded by a squalor most of us would run a mile from.

And now Krasnostein

But what makes this book so captivating is Krasnostein’s skills in telling it to reveal Pankhurst’s extraordinariness. I’ll start with the mundane, the book’s structure. It begins with an untitled preface in which Krasnostein introduces Pankhurst, and then moves into the first and unnumbered chapter titled Kim, who turns out to be one of Krasnostein’s clients. From here we move to the numbered chapter 2 which begins the chronicle of Pankhurst’s biography with her childhood. The book then progresses in alternating named and numbered chapters – switching that is, between clients and biography – until the last two chapters which are both numbered. This structure does a number of things, one of which is to show, as we go, how Pankhurst’s own experiences have made her the empathetic, but no-nonsense, trauma cleaner (no, person) she is.

This brings me to the book’s genre – a biography of a living person. To write it, Krasnostein had to traverse several mine-fields, the first being the presence of the subject. It’s clear that Krasnostein is close to her subject, which could make us question her objectivity. Fortunately, I’m not a huge believer in objectivity, but I do believe in being thoughtfully analytical, and this is what Krasnostein achieves. She doesn’t hide her admiration of Pankhurst. Indeed she addresses Pankhurst in her “preface” calling the book “my love letter to you”.

Related to this minefield is the fact-gathering one. There are gaps in Pankhurst’s memory. She is not, Krasnostein says, “a flawlessly reliable narrator”:

She is in her early sixties and simply not old enough for that to be the reason why she is so bad with the basic sequence of her life, particularly her early life. Many facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality.

Krasnostein suggests various reasons for this lack of reliability, including drugs, trauma, and the fact that she has not spent her life surrounded by people who have always known her and with whom she’s shared life’s stories again and again, building up a personal history. Makes sense – and suggests another fallout from the ostracism and neglect experienced by people like Pankhurst.

One of these Pankhurst-memory-gaps relates to her first marriage. Whenever Krasnostein questions her about this time in her life, about the way she left her wife and children, pretty much high-and-dry and with no ongoing interest or involvement, Pankhurst, who exhibits such empathy in so much of her life, seems unable to answer. Krasnostein writes – and this is also a good example of her gorgeous style and of her attempt to get at “the truth”:

When I ask these questions, Sandra genuinely seems to be considering them for the first time and uninterested in pursing them further. We have floated across the line and here we stay, becalmed, past her outer limits. The mediaeval horizon where you simply sailed off the edge of the earth or were swallowed by the monstrous beasts that swam there.

With a biography of a non-famous living person, there are few documentary sources against which the biographer can validate what the subject says, but there are other people. And Krasnostein speaks to them, including this first wife, Linda, who was treated so poorly but who seems to bear no animosity. She’s amazing too. That’s the thing about this book: there’s such a display of basic human compassion amongst people, many of whom have so little.

And finally, if you haven’t already noticed, there’s the language. It frequently took my breath away with its clarity and freshness. Here’s a description of Sandra after she’d experienced a brutal rape while working in a Kalgoorlie brothel:

It’s not the first time she’s had crippling pain that she pushes into a tight little marble and drops down through the grates of her mind, somewhere deep below.

It may be that I loved this book so much because I had no real expectations, but I think it’s more than that. The trauma cleaner is an elegantly conceived and warmly written book about a woman who could teach us all something, I’m sure, about tolerance, acceptance, and respect. With a red-face, I recommend it.

AWW Badge 2018Sarah Krasnostein
The trauma cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay & disaster
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925498523

Sydney Writers Festival 2018, Live streaming (Session 3)

May 8, 2018

My final live-streamed session of the Festival was even more interesting than I expected. My friend and I chose it partly because it fit our respective busy time-tables, but partly also because, as people interested in language and literature, we are interested in translation.

Emily Wilson: Translating the Odyssey, Sunday May 6, 4.30pm

Sydney Writers Festival Emily Wilson bannerThis event was an interview format, with the interviewer being journalist Jennifer Byrne who, for over ten years, hosted the First Tuesday Book Club (aka The Book Club).

Byrne is a cheery, engaging interviewer. However, on this occasion it felt, at times, that her interview agenda was at cross-purposes with what was important to Wilson. This made for a fascinating discussion, with ideas about translation, feminism, and The odyssey itself, jostling between them.

Now, clearly I’m behind in my literary gossip, because apparently Emily Wilson’s translation of The odyssey has made quite a splash, particularly because, of the over 60 translations into English done to date, it’s the first by a woman. It was this point – particularly because of the Festival’s “power” theme – that Byrne wanted to concentrate on, but Wilson, Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania, had other ideas.

Byrne briefly introduced Wilson, noting that the book has had excellent reviews for being a “cultural landmark” and for being lean, clean and fast. To prove this point, she asked Wilson to read the opening lines.

Why another translation?

Given the plethora of English translations of The odyssey, Byrne asked why she did it?

Firstly, Wilson replied, the publisher Norton had asked her. However, her real, and more academic, reasons were:

  • the original has music and rhythm to it. This does not come across in most translations, which are tend to be free verse, so she chose a regular metre for hers.
  • most translations are too long and slow, so she made hers tighter, pacier (and thus, also, more teachable, which is already appealing to academics)
  • most translations simplify the story to only Odysseus’ perspective but there are more in the original, which she worked to bring out.

At this point, Byrne tried to focus Wilson on the gender issue and what she brought to the text in terms of female perspective, but Wilson didn’t really want to be pinned down. She was surprised, she said, by the focus on her being the first woman translator, and said she was more interested in the poetics and narrative perspectives than in a feminist agenda.

She also said that a women’s voice doesn’t necessarily mean a feminist perspective. She argued, logically, that given she’s the only woman English-language translator to date, it’s impossible to assess what a “female” perspective is. Conversely, it is possible to ascertain a male perspective because there have been so many male translators and similarities in their approach can be identified. For example, male translators have, in general, translated a certain non-gendered Greek word into a gendered English word, “man”, while she used non-gendered words, like “human” or “person”.

However, she admitted her gender may have influenced her bringing out other perspectives, such as those of slaves (and other under-class people) versus the more common focus on gods and goddesses. Moreover, she said, most translations downplay abuse of power in the work because Odysseus is a “good guy.” Wilson said she wanted to offer a less heroic image of him, which led to some discussion of double standards. Odysseus had affairs, but Penelope would bring down the house of Odysseus, if she did. His power, in fact, rests on her fidelity.

Wilson then explained that the Greek word “hero” simply means “warrior”, and that in the original, the words frequently used for Odysseus stem from “poly” (“many”) suggesting many layers to his character. Wilson wants readers to question whether there’s something wrong with Odysseus. He sacks a holy city for example. We were given an example of two translations:

He could not save his men from disaster (Robert Hiller, I think)

He failed to keep his men safe (Wilson)

Wilson’s translation more actively suggests failure on Odysseus’ part.

Why this story?

Wilson described her early introduction to it via a play when she was 8, and her later realisation that she’d loved the story because it’s about being lost, about confusion re where home is, and about the meaning of belonging, all of which were issues for her then.

She also said that she loved Greek and Latin languages.

Towards the end of the hour – but I’m time-shifting it to here – Byrne asked about the story’s relevance to now. Wilson believes it’s highly relevant: it’s about strangers, about dealing with people not like you, about whether foreigners are dangerous. She used the word “migrant” at least once in her work.

The challenges of translation and more on the feminist perspective …

Byrne noted that Wilson’s translation had come in at exactly the same number of lines as the original, and Wilson agreed that she’d tightened it up, had made it pacy. The challenge was to identify the essential thing being said.

Regarding translation being the same as the original, which seemed to be what Byrne expected, Wilson said that “if you want the real Homer you need to learn Greek.” Fair point. And how I wish I could avoid the mediation of a translator and read foreign texts myself, but it’s not a feasible things I realise. Anyhow, Wilson said, logically, that it’s not worth doing a translation if it’s the same as the others.

The conversation then turned again to female perspectives, particularly regarding the power theme. Wilson discussed how male translators describe the women, characterising, for example, Helen of Troy as “bitch” and “shameless whore”, Calypso as a “nymphomaniac”, how they avoid using the word “slave” for people who clearly were enslaved. She gave examples of Greek words and her translation of them.

Continuing this theme, she discussed the women who were killed by Odysseus at the end. They were clearly raped by the suitors, but male translators have tended to describe them as “sluts” and “whores”. Wilson commented that the hanging of these women has been seen as “justice”. Given that The odyssey is seen as the starting point of western civilisation, this viewpoint makes this act the foundational moment of misogyny. Male translators do not present these women, she said, as having no choice.

Nonetheless, Wilson said, she couldn’t root out the misogyny in the text, but she could be clear about it.

By this point, Byrne seemed to be cottoning on. She had thought translation should be a close analogy, but “you’re bringing in a viewpoint”, she said. Wilson responded that male translators bring a viewpoint with their “sluts” translation – and then reiterated that …

Translators need to be aware that they are going to have to interpret, have a viewpoint, but they need to be conscious and try to have a better interpretation than previous ones. Theoretically, translation is impossible. It’s a case of how can I describe this word that has no direct meaning? Translators need to be aware she said of three questions: Who am I writing for; what century am I in; and who am I? 

There was some discussion about the institutional barriers to women translators, and then it was the closing Q&A, which was wide-ranging and, nicely, drew from live-streaming sites as well as the venue itself. I’m going to share just two questions. The first asked her about what Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (my review) offered. Wilson responded that Atwood does not make Penelope a hero, but a more complex character.

The other was a Year 11 teacher asking, on behalf of her students, whether the killing of suitors at the end is justified. Wilson said this is actually three questions.  Does Odysseus think it is justified: Yes. Does she, Wilson, think it is justified: No. But the harder question is, does the narrative think it is justified: she “thinks not”!

And so ended my 2018 SWF experience. I so appreciated being able to experience a tiny bit of it.

Monday musings on Australian literature: My reading group does Garner

May 7, 2018

You are never too old to try something new – and so it was that my 30-year-old reading group tried something new for our April meeting. The idea was that we would all read Garner, but our individual choice of Garner. We’ve discussed five Garners over the years, and many had read other Garners besides those, so we thought it might be fun for us to all read what we like – from her large oeuvre of novels, short stories, screenplays, essays and other short non-fiction, and longform non-fiction – and then see what conclusions we might draw.

It worked well – I think. At least, the discussion was lively and engaged.

So, what did we read?

(Listed in publication order, with links to my reviews where I’ve reviewed them here.)

  • Monkey grip (1977) (x2)
  • The children’s Bach (1984) (x2) (my review)
  • The last days of chez nous and Two friends (1992) (my review)
  • The feel of steel (2001)
  • Everywhere I look (2016) (x2) (my review)
  • True stories (2017)
  • A writing life: Helen Garner and her work, by Bernadette Brennan (2017) (my review)

A good spread in some senses but not in others. It includes two of her five novels, her two screenplays, three collections of her short non-fiction (essays and the like), and the not-a-biography-literary-portrait. It does not include any of her short fiction (like Postcards from Surfers) (my review) or her longform non-fiction (like This house of grief) (my review). It was pretty clear, I’d say, that most didn’t want to confront the unpleasantness of books like Joe Cinque’s consolation and This house of grief, though we did discuss Joe when it came out.

Helen Garner, The children BachThe reasons we chose our books were diverse. Some of us, including me who did the screenplays, chose books we already owned. Some chose books they’d read and wanted to reassess (like Monkey Grip), while another chose Monkey Grip because she hadn’t read it and felt it was now “part of our culture.” One music-lover chose The children’s Bach because it was short and referenced music, while another chose The feel of steel because there were only two options at her secondhand books source and she didn’t want to read the other (Joe Cinque’s consolation.) One chose the 2017 compilation True stories because it represents 50 years of Garner’s short non-fiction writing. And one chose the literary portrait because she’d read a lot of Garner, and wanted to find out more about her.

What common threads did we find?

It wasn’t hard to find common threads in Garner – which is not to suggest that we think reading her is boring!

The overriding thread was that she draws heavily from her life, even for works that aren’t autobiographical. We agreed that she’s present, one way or another, in most of her writing, including her longform non-fiction works, such as Joe Cinque’s consolation.

Another thread was that she is “searingly honest”, “will have a go at everything”, “is not afraid of looking an idiot”.  This honesty, we felt, applies both to the topics she chooses and to her way of exploring them. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve regularly made this “honest” comment about Garner.

The third main thread that most of us commented on was her writing. We agreed that she’s a wonderful stylist, but beautifully spare too. Spare, though, doesn’t mean plain. One put it perfectly when she praised Garner’s “word pictures”.

Over the course of the evening, excerpts were read – to show her writing skill and/or her ability to capture life (not to mention her sense of humour).

Helen Garner, Everywhere I lookHere are some that were shared:

The waiter had a face like an unchipped statue. (The children’s Bach)

He waltzed the car from lane to lane with big flourishes of the steering wheel. (The children’s Bach)

Everyone looks at her, surprised. She has quietly dropped her bundle. (The last days of chez nous)

I knew I couldn’t be the only person in the world who’s capable of forgetting the contents of a novel only minutes after having closed it. (from The feel of steel)

And long live the Lydias of this world, the slack molls who provide the grit in the engine of the marriage plot; for without them it would run so smoothly that the rest of us would fall into despair. (referencing Pride and prejudice, in “How to marry your daughters”, from Everywhere I look)

Our conclusion

Our discussion ranged rather widely, but we did try to draw it all together at the end, particularly regarding her relevance and longevity.
Questions we considered included: Is she too Melbourne-focused? Does she only appeal to people around our age? Will she still be relevant for future readers? One member reported that her daughter, who’s a keen reader, couldn’t get into Everywhere I look. The Melbournites loved her ability to describe Melbourne, but wondered if that limited her appeal.
We concluded that Garner has carved out a niche that’s unlike anyone else, and that despite her focused setting, her subject matter is universal. And, overlaying this is her writing. It’s worth reading for itself.
So, it wasn’t a contentious meeting, as sometimes discussions of Garner can be … instead it was full of delight and discovery. We’ll probably all read more Garner as we follow in her tracks, a decade or so behind her.

Sydney Writers Festival 2018, Live-streaming (Session 2)

May 6, 2018

Annabel Crabb, 2014 By Mosman Library [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I only managed one session a day at the SWF’s live-streaming program at the National Library of Australia, and on day 2, I picked a doozy! It was such fun, I forgot to take a pic!

Annabel Crabb’s BooKwiz, Saturday 5 May, 4.30pm

Panel: Leigh Sales, Richard Fidler, Julia Zemiro, Tim MinchinAnnabel Crabb (MC)

Of the three sessions I attended, this was the best attended (at my venue), and probably the least “worthy” but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. It was engaging, witty, and even informative every now and then – how could it not be with this panel! The topic was all things bookish, all those things readers like to ask each other, such as:

Which section do you gravitate to in a bookshop?

What would you answer? Our panel said:

  • Zemiro: Self-help, none of that Scandi-noir for her, she said. (She may or may not have been serious about this!)
  • Minchin: Self-help and Diet, because he likes to see what scam-artists are selling this time.
  • Crabb: The Sale Bin because she has a special talent for finding gold in sales bins!
  • Sales: New Release Fiction. She thinks about death, and the decreasing time left, so has decided to let go of all those past books she hasn’t read, and try to keep up with the new stuff! (Love it. I once calculated how many books I was likely to read in the rest of my life – and it was very depressing, even though I gave myself a reasonably long life!)

Does there come a point where you decide there are some authors/books you’ll just never read? Are you guilty about them?

(Yes, I would have said if she’d asked me! In fact, coincidentally, a few hours before the session, I “decluttered” some unread books to donate to Lifeline. They included William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom.)

  • Fidler has tried many times to read Conrad’s Heart of darkness, but just can’t get into his style. This and other worthy books, such as Herodotus, glare at him he said from his bookshelves.
  • Minchin says he aims to read 50:50 Fiction-Nonfiction, but he’s learnt that he just needs to read the first third of nonfiction to get the thesis because the “rest is just firming up the argument”. (I’m thinking of following this theory in future!) His guilty book is Hawking’s A brief history of time. He’d like a briefer history of time! Also, he’s managed 70 years of 100 years of solitude two or three times!
  • Zemiro thinks she should read the Bible. She can’t read Lolita or Elena Ferrante’s novels. She, in fact, had brought these books with her, and set up her own street library on the stage.
  • Crabb said she didn’t love Lincoln in the Bardo (which led to a brief discussion about reading prize-winners.)

Do you have favourite books that are guilty pleasures, that you feel secretly ashamed about?

From the guilt of what they haven’t read, we moved to guilt about what they do read!

  • Sales: spy thrillers, because she wants to be a spy and/or write a spy thriller!
  • Minchin: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, which are formulaic though every now and then you think “wow, this is proper”. He commented that he reads more non-fiction as gets older “because you panic you don’t know enough.” (Hmmm … I commented to my friend that, then again, the older you get maybe the less you need to know!)
  • Fidler: reads way more nonfiction, but the most memorable books he’s read are the novels. Oh, and he’s never read a good active politician’s memoir. (Crabb rejoined that the Alan Clark diaries are excellent).
  • Zemiro: any book about wanting to live in France because they are fake. (The only good one is Sarah Turnbull’s because it’s honest). Fidler rejoined here that he avoids these books too, but out of envy because he’s always wanted to live there.
  • Fidler: superhero comics.

How do you treat and shelve books?

At this point, Crabb said she has some ethical questions too. Good, I thought – and then had to laugh at myself because the question was “is it ever 0k to fold down the corner of a page”. Fidler, a self-confessed book-fetishist, said no, while Michin said yes, because used-looking books are the best. He proceeded to start Fidler’s therapy there and then by forcing him to fold a page corner in one of Zemiro’s street library books!

Sales admitted to not being sentimental about books, either.

As for shelving, Fidler carefully classifies his – the Penguin classics he said look particularly nice – while Crabb shelved hers in the order that she read and acquired them (until a friend kindly tidied up her books for her. She said that where she is when she reads a book affects her reading/appreciation of a book.)

What (if anything) do you reread?

You all know my answer to this question, but what did the panel say:

  • Zemiro: The handmaid’s tale. Atwood is a genius, particularly because of the final chapter which explores how we report on history.
  • Fidler: Wuthering Heights, because it is such a “perfectly strange masterpiece” about twisted humanity; and Anna Karenina, because he reads it differently every time he comes to it again.  (The mark of a great book I think is one that engenders different readings depending on our stage in/experience of life.) Minchin said that Anna Karenina is on his guilty unread list. Fidler commented that Tolstoy had planned to write about an immoral woman, but ended up writing something sympathetic.
  • Minchin finds it hard to reread books because of all those he hasn’t read. He has, though, read Vonnegut’s Cat’s cradle and Lee’s To kill a mockingbird more than once. However, he returned to his anxiety about increasing his knowledge and that his most recent favourite book is Sapiens.
  • Sales reminded me of Daughter Gums when she said she was a bigger re-reader when she was a child. Favourites were Anne of Geen Gables (which caused her to make a pilgrimage to Prince Edward Island) and Enid Blyton. This engendered a big discussion about Enid Blyton. Minchin talked about reading The Famous Five to his children, and about all the “teachable moments” in it.

Are there any adaptations you love?

  • Sales: a television adaptation of, yes, Anne of Green Gables, the one with Megan Follows, and Minchin’s adaptation of Dahl’s Matilda
  • Zemiro: the play adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet
  • Fidler: the BBC TV series of Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy, starring Alec Guinness

I know this hasn’t captured the fun, quick-witted, good-natured repartee of the session, but hopefully you’ve got some sense of it? It was all a bit of light-hearted fun from serious booklovers. And we can do with a bit of that every now and then.

I’d love you to answer some of these questions in the comments – if you’d like to!

Sydney Writers Festival 2018, Live-streaming (Session 1)

May 6, 2018

May is such a busy month for birthdays and anniversaries in the Gums world that I hardly ever get to the Sydney Writers Festival, even though it is not much more than 3 hours drive away. I was consequently thrilled to discover that this year the National Library of Australia, Canberra, would be one of its live-streaming sites (#AWFLiveAndLocal) – and I was determined to support it (as well as attend because I wanted to). Overall, some 15 sessions were streamed over three days to around 35 sites.

This year’s theme is “The year of power”, one which is close to the revived Canberra Writers Festival theme of the last two years, “Politics, Power, Passion”.

Conflicting Narratives, Friday 4 May, 3pm

Panel: Ben Taub, Alexis Okewo, Alec Luhn, Ben Doherty (MC)

Sydney Writers Festival 2018This session was billed as being about “the role of storytellers in a time of ongoing conflict, terrorism and refugee crises.” The panelists, for those of you who don’t know them, were New Yorker writer, Alexis Okewo, who has written about extremism in Africa in her book A moonless, starless sky; the Moscow-based reporter for The Telegraph, Alec Luhn; and another New Yorker writer, Ben Laub, who writes about Syria and the jihadi movement in Europe. The moderator, Ben Doherty, writes for The Guardian.

The discussion started with Ben asking each panelist about his or her recent work. Okewo spoke about the moral complexities faced by people in extreme societies, arguing that the decisions they have to make aren’t simple. Individuals often aren’t all-victim or all-perpetrator and can be forced to commit violence. She talked about the aftermath, about how you live after terrible things (which made me think of Aminatta Forna’s The hired man, my review).

Taub talked about Syria, and how the Rome Statute is clear about what you can and can’t do in conflict. The problem is, however, that Syria isn’t a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and that while there is “no ambiguity in international law”, Russia “protects Syria” at the UN Security Council. He noted that although there are currently geopolitical obstacles to pursuing accountability, this doesn’t mean you can’t collect evidence for later.

Luhn clearly confronts similar problems, asking how do you resolve problems when countries don’t agree on fundamentals. It’s more than simply “trying to beat the Russians at their disinformation game.”

Discussion then moved on to processes, such how journalists do their research in such tricky regions. They all agreed that journalists’ main job is to find reliable/trustworthy sources, and that there is a lot of newsworthy material out there “if you know the right people.” Okewo spoke of the difficulty of getting into the remote regions, for example, where Boko Haram is operating. Obtaining good information is particularly difficult in places where “the government is broken” and “resistant to being transparent.” The narrative regarding Boko Haram, for example, tends to be that it didn’t happen, but is a political plot.

Laub talked about the need to use trusted sources, some of which can come via NGOs. However, he did comment that the narrative you get can be “true but not the whole story”.

Related to this, and scattered throughout the conversation, were discussions about what readers can trust. Luhn, in particular, emphasised the importance of teaching media literacy. (My friend and I felt that this is something that’s surely always been taught. Of course, the environment in which we apply assessment techniques keeps changing, but the principles remain the same.) Responding to a question during the Q&A about what readers can trust, Luhn (I think) said that the best thing is to read widely because each media form/outlet has pluses and minuses. It comes back to media literacy, and understanding different outlets.

Another questioner from the Q&A wondered whether it would be possible to have a rating system for journalists, like we have for, say, Uber drivers. MC Doherty was not convinced about this. He wondered who would make the assessment, and worried that ratings could affect freedom of speech. Luhn pondered an organisation like UK’s OFSTED. He also said, though, that we need to trust the professional standards of the traditional newsroom and non-profit journalism centres.

Luhn, I think, quoted Churchill’s “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

From here, the discussion moved on to journalists’ safety, an issue of critical importance if we are going to get reporting from the ground. Alexis, the only woman on the panel, had quite a different spin on this: women journalists, she said, can be threatened by their own sources. They must trust that the people they are reporting with won’t hurt them. She also talked about dealing with vigilantes, about writing on people who are doing admirable but also disturbing things! You can’t fully trust them.

Luhn commented that it’s important not to work alone but journalists are increasingly are doing just this. He mentioned the Rory Peck Trust and the “hostile environment” training they offer freelance journalists. (The things you learn!)

Laub, I think, talked about relying on locals – drivers etc. What happens after you leave can be problematic, he said, because these people can face retribution for working with foreign media. Journalists need to continue the relationship after they leave. On the other hand, people, such as your fixers, can turn on you.

The session ended with quite an engaged Q&A, some of which I’ve included above. It ranged from questions about journalism itself – including one asking for advice for young writers – to questions about the regions the journalists are working in and the causes of the problems those regions are facing. The panel talked about Russia’s troll factory, and the future of Syria for example, but I’m going to close here!

It was inspiring to hear this bunch of engaged – and brave – young journalists talk about their work and their profession.

PS: I apologise if I’ve wrongly ascribed the speaker. I mostly captured the speaker’s name, but I slipped up a couple of times.

Six degrees of separation, FROM The Poisonwood Bible TO …

May 5, 2018

May is the last month of autumn for us in the Southern hemisphere, and what an autumn it’s been. So warm. I shouldn’t be pleased, however, because the cause is worrying … so, let’s get on to something uncontroversial and non-worrying – our Six Degrees of Separation meme. It’s currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). Please click the link on her blog-name for her explanation of how it works. Meanwhile, this month’s meme is  Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which, woo hoo, I’ve read, along with all the linked books.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood BibleLike last month’s Memoirs of a geisha, I’m guessing most readers, except millennials perhaps, will have read this 1998 book. It was Kingsolver’s fourth novel, and made quite a splash. It’s about a family of missionaries who go to the Belgian Congo in 1959.

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusNow, I’ve read several novels about missions and missionaries, and most of them critical. The most recent one is, and if you’re Australian you’ve probably guessed it, is Claire G. Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review). It’s a debut, dystopian novel by an indigenous Australian author, and aims to encourage Australians to understand what being invaded means.

Jane Rawson, A wrong turn at the office of unmade listsAnother dystopian novel wanting us to understand “something”, is Jane Rawson’s A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review). (I still love this title!) The something she’s warning us about – is the something I alluded to in my opening paragraph – climate change. It’s a great read – serious but with a touch of humour too. But, time now to move on to the next link, which is …

Sara Dowse SchemetimeCalifornia! California because Rawson’s novel is partly set in San Francisco, 1997 San Francisco in fact, to which a couple of 2030 Melbourne Aussies go. Another book in which an Aussie or two go to California is Sara Dowse’s Schemetime (my review), though her characters are involved in the film industry and they go to the Los Angeles area in the 1960s.

Dorothy Johnston, Through a camel's eyeSo, where next? Well, Sara Dowse was a member of Canberra’s famous Seven Writers, and so were a couple of other writers who have appeared here, Marion Halligan and Dorothy Johnston. As Halligan has appeared in my Six Degrees a couple of times already, and Johnston hasn’t, I’m going to share it around and choose her new coastal-Victoria-based detective series, which started with Through a camel’s eye (my review).

Jamil Ahmad Wandering falcon coverAnd now, because, after starting in Africa, we’ve only been to Australia and the USA, I’m going to take us somewhere completely different, to a perfect setting for camels, Pakistan/Afghanistan/Iran. Jamil Ahmad’s debut novel, The wandering falcon (my review) comprises nine stories, the third of which is titled “The death of camels”. This novel explores what happens when political borders are plonked down without regard to people and how they live in a land.

Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village

Now, I read Ahmad’s book as part of the 2011 Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize team, so I’m going to end on another memorable book I read for this project, Yan Lianke’s Dreams of Ding village (my review). Set in China, it was inspired by the plasma economy that developed in Henan Province in the early 1990s. It was an engrossing book, and I’d love to read more Lianke.

Well, I’m thrilled that this month we not only managed to keep our travels up, but I also kept the word count down! I fear I’ve become too wordy in my Six Degrees of late. Interestingly, unlike last month, which was historical fiction heavy, this month we dipped our toes into the future a couple of times. The gender balance, though, has been the same, two male authors amongst our six.

What will Kate suggest for June?

And now, my usual question: Have you read The Poisonwood Bible? And regardless, what would you link to? 

Helen Garner, The last days of chez nous, and Two friends (#BookReview)

May 3, 2018

Helen Garner, Last days of chez house & Two friendsHelen Garner must have loved prize-winning book designer WH Chong’s cheeky cypress-dominated cover for the Text Classics edition of her two screenplays, The last days of chez nous and Two friends. You’d only realise this, though, after reading her Preface, in which she explains that she had incorporated cypresses into her screenplay for their “freight of meaning”, but that, because an appropriate location could not be found, they were replaced by a spire! For the published screenplay, however, Garner says she’d taken “the liberty of removing the spire and putting the cypress trees back in.” Love it.

I enjoyed reading this book much more than I expected. I’ve seen and enjoyed both films – a long time ago, as they were made in 1992 and 1986, respectively – but reading screenplays didn’t seem very appealing. How wrong I was. I’m glad, therefore, that Text decided to republish this volume in its Text Classics series. As always, they’ve value-added by commissioning an expert to write a commentary, which, in this case, given there was already an author’s Preface from the original 1992 edition, they appended an Afterword. It’s by well-regarded Australian scriptwriter, Laura Jones (who, coincidentally, is the daughter of the late Australian writer, Jessica Anderson.)

Both the Preface and the Afterword are informative and engaging, but I’ll start by discussing the plays. They are presented in the book in reverse chronological order of their writing, which means The last days of chez nous comes first. Both stories chronicle relationship breakdowns. This is common fare for Garner, but here as in all her work I’ve read, it’s not boring. Her skill lies in the intelligent, clear-sighted way she explores these situations, and in her ability to inject both humour and warmth. She’s never maudlin, and she never judges.

So, in The last days of chez nous, the breakdown is the marriage of Beth and her French husband JP, while in Two friends it’s the friendship between two 14-year-old girls, Louise and Kelly. Both, as is Garner’s wont, draw from her life. She was married to a Frenchman, the marriage did break up, and her husband did fall in love with and eventually marry her sister, most of which happens in the play. In Two friendsBernadette Brennan reports, she drew on a friendship her daughter had had, but, when she saw the film, she realised that it was “really, in a funny sort of way, about me.” And the “me” character was not the sensible daughter, based on her own daughter, but the friend from the troubled background.

In her Preface, Garner tells how the impetus to write her first play, Two friends, was money. She needed it at the time, so when the idea was put to her:

I rushed home and rummaged in my folder of unexamined ideas. Out of it stepped Kelly and Louise, the young girls who became Two friends.

She continues that, although money had been the initial driver, she found, as she got down to it, the writing was “powered by the same drives as fiction” – curiosity, technical fascination, and “the same old need to shape life’s mess into a seizable story.”

This latter point is important, not only because it confirms her lifelong subject matter, “life’s mess” aka relationships, but because it answers those criticisms that she “just” presents her journals. She doesn’t, she “shapes” what she’s experienced (and seen) into “a seizable story”. She also shares in the Preface some of the things she learnt from film writing, including the challenge of working collaboratively which is something writers don’t usually have to do, the “priceless art of the apparently dumb question”, and that she was “forced to learn and relearn the stern law of structure.” She explains, using Last days of chez nous, how her “perfectly smooth narrative curve” was turned into “a little Himalaya of mini-climaxes”.

This is a good place, though, to talk about the structure of Two friends which chronicles the girls’ relationship breakdown in reverse. That is, we start at the point where it appears to have broken down and move back through the months to the peak of their togetherness. Experienced scriptwriter Laura Jones discusses this in her Afterword:

The story … is daringly told in the present tense, backwards, although each of the five parts is told in the present tense, forwards. We hold these two storytelling modes in our minds at once, the forwards momentum and the backwards knowledge […] Such deft playing with time–elegant, formal and musical–offers great storytelling pleasure, as we move from dark to light, from the painful separation of two adolescent girls to the rapturous closeness of ten months earlier.

She’s right, it’s clever because the end is bittersweet – we love the close friendship but we know what’s coming.

Now I want to share some of the experience of reading these plays. Here is an example from early in Two friends when Matthew, Louise’s wannabe boyfriend, tells her he’s seen Kelly:

LOUISE: What did she look like?
MATTHEW: All right.

He shrugs; like many boys he is not good at the kind of detail Louise is after.

These instructions to the actor about his character also enliven the reading. It’s the sort of sentiment you’d find in a Garner novel, though perhaps expressed a little more creatively.

And here’s some scene-setting in the next part, where Louise, Matthew and Kelly are together:

Kelly plays up to Matthew–almost as if she can’t help it. (Kelly will become one of those women who, when there’s a man in the room, unconsciously channel all their attention towards him.)

Similarly, in Last days of chez nous. Here is a scene where Beth has eaten some French cheese that JP has been storing carefully until it reaches maturation. He’s very upset, and eventually Beth senses the importance to him:

Beth is silent. They stand looking at each other. She has not quite succumbed, but for once he has her full attention–and this is so rare that he does not know what to do with it …

All this is probably what always happens in scripts, but Garner’s way of describing the situations and characters certainly made the screenplays more than just readable. They were engrossing.

Of course, I read Shakespeare’s (and other) plays at school – but that was school and, although I enjoyed them, I haven’t really gravitated to reading plays/scripts since. I won’t be quite so cautious in future.

Do you read them?

AWW Badge 2018Helen Garner
The last days of chez nous and Two friends
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925355635

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)