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Monday musings on Australian literature: the Australian Common Reader

July 1, 2019

The Australian Common Reader is, says its website, “a world-leading database of digitised reading records” which “contains thousands of records of library borrowers between 1860 and 1918.” Initiated by Western Australia’s Curtin University professor Tim Dolin in 2008*, it was acquired by ANU in 2013, and is managed by its Centre for Digital Humanities Research. It was officially launched two weeks ago on June 18 – a fact which was brought to my attention by Bill (The Australian Legend.) Thanks Bill.

The libraries whose circulation records are in the database include:

  • Collie Mechanics’ Institute (WA)
  • Lambton Mechanics’ and Miners’ Institute (Newcastle, NSW)
  • Maitland Institute (Yorke Peninsula, SA)
  • Port Germein Institute (regional SA)
  • Rosedale Mechanics’ Institute (Gippsland, Vic)
  • South Australian Institute (Adelaide, SA)

These are all, I understand, mechanics’ institutes (about which I’ve written before), and are mostly located in mining towns and farming communities. Although these institutes were set up to support worker education and recreation, members of the public could also join.

The database is publicly accessible, making it a rich resource, surely, for all sorts of researchers. Certainly, Dr Julieanne Lamond, who manages the project, argues that we are lucky to have it.

The database has been designed, she says, to facilitate researchers sifting through pages of records to create a picture of Australia’s borrowing and literary history. You can search the database on:

  • Borrower occupation
  • Borrower gender
  • Book title
  • Book author
  • Borrower name

This means, Lamond said, that “you can see what the local doctor or politicians were reading, what books and authors were popular, and a library’s most prolific borrowers”. As a result “we can see that doctors were borrowing more books than solicitors and butchers were reading more than engineers.” (Hmm … I’m feeling quite glad that I’m not a big library user right now! Seriously though, this is pretty fascinating.)

Charles Dicken, c1860

Dickens, c. 1860 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Stephanie Convery, writing for The Guardian Weekly, reported on the launch and says that the records tell us, for example, that:

Australian butchers in the 19th century preferred to read thrillers, miners loved novels about horse racing, while the most popular author among doctors – and the Adelaide working class in 1861 – was Charles Dickens.

Lamond points out that the records include Mathew Charlton, one of the earliest leaders of the Australian Labor Party. He was, she says, “quite an avid reader, making a total of 264 loans over a 10-year period” and “his favourite author appears to have been Edward Phillips Oppenheim, an English novelist known for writing thrillers.” Oppenheim is, in fact, the second most borrowed author in the database.

She said that the website shows Australians were diverse in their reading habits. They read Dickens, for example, but they also read the latest magazines. They read Australian fiction, as well as overseas authors. And, probably just like now, some were avid readers, while others would “borrow the same book over and over again.”

The records show that male borrowers far exceeded women, but Lamond argues that this is probably due to the sorts of libraries they were. Interestingly, she says, the data “shows that men and women read very widely across all these kinds of genres that now we think of as being quite gendered.”

Nonetheless, the data does show some different favourites. The most popular book for women was On the wings of the wind by Welsh author Anne Adaliza Puddicombe who used the male pen name of Allen Raine. She was one of the bestselling authors of the time, apparently. Woo hoo, though, women reading women! In fact, their research shows that four of the top five works borrowed by women were written by women!

By contrast, the most popular reading for men was a weekly magazine – Household Words which was edited by Charles Dickens (and about which I have also written before.) It was specifically aimed, as I quoted in my post, at “the masses” and it intended to both entertain and “shape discussion and debate on the important social questions of the time”. I love discovering that it was, indeed, popular among the people it was created for.

Overall, Lamond, quoted by Convery, says that

“People’s reading was very diverse, much more diverse than I think most of our reading is now. These people just read incredibly widely. They were reading sporting novels and political thrillers, they were reading George Eliot and Jane Austen at the same time.”

(Hmm, is she basing this comparison regarding diversity today on any evidence? Anecdotally, and defending my era, I’d say there’s a lot of diversity in today’s reading today!)

Convey makes a few other observations, including that:

  • miners were the most abundant profession represented in the data, making up nearly 13%, with the most prolific borrower being a South Australian miner named John Pellew, who borrowed 877 books from the Port Germein Institute.
  • fiction was, overall, more borrowed than non-fiction.
  • the most popularly borrowed author was Cornish Christian novelist Joseph Hocking, reflecting, perhaps the preponderance of Cornish and Welsh miners in the borrowing communities.

Lamond hopes to obtain funding to digitise more records to broaden our insight into reading habits of the past. She notes that they don’t have good data about metropolitan reading, and that these records are not really in existence:

“The stars have to align for these kinds of records to survive because often they were run by volunteer management committees, and they sat in boxes in people’s attics; they threw them out; they burnt down – a lot of historical library records have gone up in smoke, literally.”

Don’t you hate hearing about the destruction of records?

A little example

Anyhow, of course, I had to have a little play in the database myself, so I looked at the Borrower by Occupation. They are listed in order of quantity, starting with Miners (5,666 borrowings) and ending with six occupations represented by 1 borrowing, including “Authoress” and “Tea merchant”. However, it looks like the occupations were entered “free text” and that the ANU has not tried to concatenate them in any way, so, for example, there are State School Teachers, School Teachers and School Masters (and maybe even more permutations).

Using the “visualisation” option, I found state school teacher, Frances Cairns, who borrowed 326 books, of which 318 were fiction. The author she borrowed most was Scottish author and minister, George MacDonald, but I was delighted to see that she also borrowed a book by the cheeky Australian author Elizabeth von Arnim. One of the eight non-fiction works she borrowed was Daniel Crawford’s Thinking black, which, says Wikipedia, “was recommended reading for those Europeans who wanted to work in partnership with, rather than over, Africans.” I wonder what was behind this? The visualisation option was fun, but probably more useful is the fact that you can also download spreadsheets of your searches to do further analysis.

And here I will close on this fascinating project, but do have a play if you are interested,

* Another report says that the database commenced in 2001! Who knows? Maybe both are right, and it’s a matter of defining “start”?

Mary McCarthy, The group (#BookReview)

June 30, 2019

Book coverMy reading group has a few loose “rules” for choosing our reads, but one of the more rigid ones is that each year we like to read at least one classic. This year’s first classic – yes, another is coming – was Mary McCarthy’s The group. As I wrote in last week’s Monday Musings, it was published in 1963 and became a New York Times best-seller. I was initially uncertain about this choice, because I had read it and there are so many classics I still haven’t read, but, as it turned out, I was glad to read it again. This is because it is a true classic, by which I mean it’s a book that you can read again, at a different time in your life, and find new richness.

For those of you who don’t know the story, it centres on the lives of eight women from Vassar College’s Class of ’33 (of which McCarthy herself was a member, so she knew whereof she wrote – Bill!) The novel follows their lives for the next seven years as they, variously, marry, divorce, have children, find jobs, and in the case of one, die. In doing so, it also evokes their era beautifully. This was a time when America was coming out of the Depression, when women’s expectations about their lives were starting to change, when medicine was starting to assert its authoritarian self, when Trotskyism was attracting the radical intelligentsia, and when Europe was moving into World War 2. Our eight women – Kay, Lakey, Polly, Dottie, Priss, Libby, Pokey and Helena – having received a liberal Vassar-style education, are engaged in the issues of their day. Indeed, the role of education is one of the themes of the novel. Early in the novel, Kay recognises that:

That was the big thing they taught you at Vassar: keep your mind open and always ask for the evidence, even from your own side.

Late in the novel, Norine, a friend of the group, and also Vassar ’33, voices the challenge their education has posed for them: “our Vassar education made it tough for me to accept my womanly role”. Some, of course, found it easier to accept than others.


I loved the novel – the satire, the writing, the details, the individuation of the characters. What was not to like? Well, there are flaws for some readers. It doesn’t have a strong plot, and the structure is episodic, so that just as you get into one person’s story, you leave her to move onto another. This can be alienating for readers who love to emotionally engage with their characters. I can see all this but, for me, they are not overriding issues. Firstly, while there isn’t a strong plot, there is a narrative trajectory that sees relationships develop and change over time as the girls mature from new graduates to experienced women. Also, the novel commences with the wedding of a character, who recurs more frequently than do others as the book progresses, and it neatly concludes with her funeral. Secondly, despite the episodic approach, I engaged with the lives of each character as she came into focus for a chapter or so. Of course, some engaged me more than others, and, in fact, McCarthy gives some more time than others. What made McCarthy’s approach work for me were the ideas being explored through the various characters, and the writing used to do this. Evocative and/or witty writing expressing interesting ideas or viewpoints will get me every time.

So, for example, the book contains wonderful set pieces that seem to just keep coming, including Dottie’s deflowering and the sociology of the “pessary”, Priss’s (shock! horror!) breast-feeding in hospital under the instruction of her paediatrician husband, Priss versus Norine on child-rearing, Hatton the butler’s management of “his” family, Kay’s time in a mental hospital, to name just a few. These vignettes – which provide such insight into the lifestyles, the political interests, health and medicine, and so on, of these women – make the novel a rich source for social history of the times. Being educated, and generally of a liberal bent, most of the group are actively engaged in the political issues of their day. Some support Roosevelt’s New Deal, while those more radical become involved in socialism, Trotskyism in particular. There are references to World War 2, and the tensions between the America Firsters (sound familiar?) and those who thought America should join the war.

Gender is also an issue. Educated they may be, but these women find themselves, more often than not, controlled by men in what was still a patriarchal society. The women believe that:

It was very important … for a woman to preserve her individuality; otherwise she might not hold her husband.

But the truth is somewhat different. Kay is mischievously committed to a mental hospital by her husband, without her knowledge, and finds she needs his agreement to be discharged, while Priss

did not recommend sacrifice, having meekly given up her job and her social ideals for Sloan’s sake. It was now too late, because of Stephen [her son], but she was convinced she had made a mistake.

And then, as you expect from a classic, these more temporal concerns are wrapped up in bigger, more universal themes, such as juggling love and friendship, managing relationships and work, balancing theory versus practice, or navigating the gap between appearance and reality. Our characters reflect the gamut of human nature, being, variously, conservative, radical, idealistic, pragmatic, confident, kind, empathetic, proud, manipulating, ambitious, pompous, opinionated, naive. You name it, you are likely to find it amongst the eight.

Besides its rich content is the writing. It’s so sly and satiric that it carries you on regardless of the story:

Now, in the chapel, they rearranged their fur pieces and smiled at each other, noddingly, like mature little martens and sables: they had been right, the hardness was only a phase; it was certainly a point for their side that the iconoclast and scoffer was the first of the little band to get married.

Moreover, McCarthy can skewer character with just a few words. Candace Bushnell, in her Introduction to my edition, writes that “Readers who desire ‘likeable characters’ in their fiction above all else may be disturbed to find that every one of her characters is flawed.” This is true, and is, in a way, what I liked best. There’s no perfection here, there’s just young women struggling to make lives for themselves with an education that didn’t always make it easy for them to live in the world they found themselves. Here are couple of McCarthy’s character descriptions:

she had an image of herself as a high-bred, tempestuous creature, a sort of Arab steed in an English sporting primitive. (Libby)

fat cheerful New York society girl with big red cheeks and yellow hair, who talked like a jolly beau of the McKinley period, in imitation of her yachtsman father. (Pokey)

a solemn, ashy-haired little girl who looked like a gopher and who felt it her duty to absorb every bit of word-of-mouth information that pertained to consumer problems. (Priss)

In the last chapter, Polly, the most sympathetic of the women, thinks “how young and superstitious they had all been … and how little they had changed.” Perhaps, though I think she’s being a bit hard and that some wisdom had been achieved. Regardless, the ending, when a certain male character gets his comeuppance, is delicious – and was loved by the members of my group!

Mary McCarthy
The group
London: Virago (Hachette Digital), 2009 (Orig. ed. 1963)
ISBN: 9780748126934

Chris Womersley, A lovely and terrible thing (#BookReview)

June 28, 2019

Book coverDescribed as “twenty macabre and deliciously enjoyable stories for readers of Fiona McFarlane and Lauren Groff”, Chris Womersley’s newest book – his debut collection of short stories – wasn’t necessarily a natural fit for me. I haven’t read Lauren Groff, but I have read and really liked Fiona McFarlane’s clever, memorable, The night guest (my review). However, the macabre is not something I naturally gravitate to. Still, I did like The great unknown (my review), edited by Angela Meyer, and I have been wanting to read Chris Womersley for some time, so I decided to put aside my reservations and give it a shot. I’m glad I did, because although there certainly is an element of the macabre here, the stories aren’t all so macabre that I felt the need to strap in for a shivery ride as the promos were also suggesting. This is not meant to put off those who like shivery rides, but to encourage those who don’t. It’s meant to say, in other words, that there’s something for most readers here.

The stories, in other words, do offer some variety. Most are told in first person male voices, but these voices range from children to teens to grown men, from sons and fathers, to brothers and friends, to husbands. There’s a hunchback, a junkie or two – and three stories use female voices. Despite this variety, however, there is an overall similarity in tone – somewhat melancholic, somewhat reflective. Many, in fact, are stories about something that happened in the past so they have that tone of – hmm, regret, or, if not that, of an uneasiness that has carried through to the present. Or sometimes, it’s just resignation. If you like nostalgia, this is not for you, as the first story makes clear:

My God, those suburban evenings, so full of hope and all its little victims. (“Headful of bees”)

So, what are they about? Fundamentally, and not surprisingly, they are about relationships – families, friends, neighbours, strangers, and, particularly, fathers and sons. Many relationships are under some sort of internal or external stress, or are unusual in some way. Most of these stories can be simply weird and, in some cases, even hopeful. But in other relationships, there’s power at play, and it is more often in these that the macabre, if not downright horror, ensues. In some stories, then, like the opening “Headful of bees”, a young person is mystified by the behaviour of an adult neighbour, while in others, such as the second one, “The house of special purpose”, a well-intentioned or naive person is cruelly taken advantage of by those who wield power.

The stories have been ordered in a way that manages our emotions. The truly macabre stories are interspersed with others, which reduces tension a little but also keeps us guessing. Will this story, we wonder, disturb and unnerve, or simply sadden us? There are a few truly shocking stories, and they include my favourites. Naming them, however, would spoil their impact. As one character, not from one of these stories, says:

You think you know people, but they always have something hidden away. It’s an awful lesson, corrosive … (“The age of terror”)

Fortunately, the collection ends on a story that, while containing tragedy, also offers hope about humanity. It’s not a happy story, but neither is it a complete downer, so we close the book feeling at least a little reassured that our journey has not been completely in vain.

Of course, there’s more to enjoying this book than the variety in and challenge of its stories. There’s also the writing. Womersley’s plotting and language is exquisite. I enjoyed his wordplays, and his use of metaphor. In “The middle of nowhere”, the drug-addicted protagonists are both literally and spiritually lost, and in “Growing pain”, a young adolescent girl’s grief and sense of alienation is manifested in a strange, physical way. Water features in many of the stories, as is signalled by the epigram from Moby Dick which ends with “as everybody knows meditation and water are wedded forever”. However, as everyone also knows, water is a paradoxical element – “another dimension, a netherworld” – that can both give and take. And so it is in these stories. Some of the most gruesome of them have water (or a place of water) at their core.

I said above that the stories are about relationships, which they are, but of course these relationships are explored through stories that deal with the things that confront us as humans. There are grieving parents and children, and people with regrets and failed aspirations. There are dreamers, junkies and mentally ill people. There’s birth and death, there’s deep love and desire for true connection, but there’s also revenge, child abuse and cruelty. Many of the stories explore, in some way, “the chasm that exists in all of us – between who we imagine ourselves to be and the person we truly are” (“The mare’s nest”). A character in “Dark the water, so deep the night” tells the young protagonist that “We tell stories to impose order upon the world, to give things meaning. To give us hope.” If there’s one thing we learn here, it’s that stories, on their own, can’t impose order. More often, they illuminate the chaos!

Of course, I didn’t love them all equally, and there is, as I’ve already said, some sameness to them. The tone is similar, and many are told by a narrator remembering the past. Also, many of the protagonists are young people trying to comprehend the adults around them, though there are older protagonists, including a 79-year-old woman in “The age of terror”.

However, I didn’t find one of them boring. This is not surprising because, although A lovely and terrible thing is Womersley’s first collection, he has been writing short stories for a long time. Sixteen of the twenty here, in fact, have been published before, from 2006 on, in some of the best literary magazines around, including Granta, Meanjin, The Griffith Review. Not a bad record, eh? The stories are, to be a little corny, lovely and terrible things. They take us, as another title in the collection suggests, to “the very edge of things”. What I like about them is that they do this with such control that, even when they push us to the limit, they feel true. Highly recommended.

Chris Womersley
A lovely and terrible thing: Short story collection
Sydney: Picador, 2019

(Review copy courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Books banned in Australia

June 24, 2019

Book coverThis week, my reading group will be discussing an American classic, Mary McCarthy’s The group. Published in 1963, it sat on the New York Times best-selling list for five months. It also has the honour of having been banned in Australia! I realised that I’ve never done a Monday Musings on banned books, so now seemed a good time …

Last year, in Banned Books Week, The Canberra Times’ Karen Hardy wrote on the subject. She quotes Meredith Duncan, Library Manager at the ANU, as saying that the main type of books that used to be banned in Australia were those “seen as obscene”. She told Hardy that our attitudinal changes towards sex and sexuality have shaped literary censorship over the years:

“In the introduction to one of the editions we have here of the Kamasutra, which was banned in Australia for many years, reads ‘This is only to be read by married men or medical professionals’.

“A lot of censorship revolved around the idea of women taking charge, a lot of men weren’t comfortable with that.”

As times changed, she said, “homosexuality became a hot topic”.

However, as a National Archives of Australia (NAA) blog post says:

Literary and scholarly works made up only a small proportion of the publications banned by Australian Customs. The bulk of prohibited imports were pulp fiction novels, comics, magazines and pornographic material. These items were considered to be a threat, not only to our morals, but also to Australia’s literary standards. They were banned by Customs under special provisions introduced in 1938 to address the growing number of cheap books and magazines entering the country.

Consequently, in the 1940s and 1950s, those popular pulp fiction crime and detective thrillers with their “themes of both sex and violence” were frequently banned by Customs. (Do check out the blog post to see a selection of these, such as Darcy Glinto’s Road floozie!) Adult magazines, too, “were often subject to blanket prohibitions lasting years”. Playboy, for example, was banned here from 1955 to 1960.

Most of the information below comes from posts on the NAA’s Banned blog which they published over 2013. It is worth checking out, as it includes a wonderful selection of primary source documents. Use this Books page link to check out individual banned books.

Ten books banned in Australia

  • James Baldwin’s Another country: partially banned in 1963, until 1966, allowed only for “the serious minded student or reader”. Among the comments made by Kenneth Binns, of the Literature Censorship Board, was that the description of a homosexual incident “on pages 367-375 would both shock and offend the average Australian reader for he is not as sex conditioned as are readers in most other countries”. (Oh, we innocent little Aussies!) He was also concerned that a ban might “even be associated with Australia’s misunderstood ‘White Australia’ policy and her refusal to support UN condemnation of South African Apartheid”. (Poor misunderstood Australia!)
  • William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch: banned 1960 to 1973. The last work of fiction to be banned in Australia, it was banned for being “hard-core pornography”. It was reviewed by the Commonwealth Literature Censorship Board in 1963 after Clem Christesen, Meanjin’s founder, applied to import the novel. The Board allowed Christesen’s request but unanimously agreed to retain the ban on the general sale of the book. Chairman Kenneth Binns said that “there is no need to note any particularly objectionable scene or passage for the book is so full of them and the general writing so extremely coarse that one need only consider the general character and tone”.
  • Aldous Huxley’s Brave new world: banned 1932 to 1937. Ireland was the only other country to ban it. The ban, says the NAA, was supported “with great gusto by church-related associations and temperance movements” but opposed by librarians (of course) and publishers. The NAA writes that the ban was lifted after the appointment of an Appeal Censor, and that “a sexually permissive culture did not follow, nor did a seditious and morally bankrupt one”. (Funny that!)
  • DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s lover: banned 1928 to 1965, for, says Duncan, being “sexually obscene, with explicit relationships”.
  • Mary McCarthy’s The group: banned in Australia, Italy and Ireland, says Wikipedia, for “being offensive to public morals.”
  • Grace Metalius’ Peyton Place: banned 1957 to 1971, after initial approval and dissension within the Board. Positive comments about its depiction of small-town America were set against opinions like those of, yes, Kenneth Binns. He thought the novel’s “profanity and obscene expressions” were excessive, and wrote that “It is unfortunate that Mrs Metalious is so flustered with sex, for she often writes well”.
  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: banned 1955 to 1965, though in 1964 its prohibition was appealed when the ANU’s Dr Bob Brissenden added it as a text for his course on American literature. Apparently, a member of the Liberal and Country Party State Council “wondered why students should not study books such as the Bible, or works by Milton, Shakespeare and Dickens” even though this was a course in American literature!
  • Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s complaint: banned 1969 to 1971, and the last work of fiction to be taken to court in Australia. The National Literature Board of Review called it “obscene”, “filthy”, while Chipman of the Department of Customs and Excise noted that it was a bestseller in the America where “permissiveness is unlimited”. (Take that, Americans!) However, literary experts, including Patrick White, argued that it had merits. Its banning history is interesting regarding the role of the states.
  • JD Salinger’s Catcher in the rye: banned 1956 to 1957, although it had been circulating in Australia since publication in 1951. Talk about after the horse bolting! As with most bannings, it resulted in discussion in the media. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote in 1957, that “this country has one of the most arbitrary – and perhaps one of the most inefficient – systems of book censorship in the world”. The Commonwealth Literature Board could, but didn’t have to, review books banned by Customs. In this case, the Board had “no hesitation” in releasing it!
  • Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber: banned 1945 to 1958, for its “crude and obvious appeal to the sexual instinct”, for lacking literary merit and over-emphasising sex. Customs Minister Senator Richard Keane said, “The Almighty did not give the people eyes to read that kind of rubbish”.

Counter-arguments for not banning, or for lifting bans, included practical ones, such as that the book was too expensive for many readers, and that the book was not likely to be of popular interest. (Of course, if they banned it, it would certainly become so!)

Finally, Karen Hardy reminded us in 2018 that there are several non-fiction titles still banned in Australia, including two guide books – Dr Philip Nitschke’s voluntary euthanasia one, The peaceful pill handbook, and The anarchist cookbook, on how to make explosives and weapons, and manufacture drugs. Further, some books remain restricted. Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel, American psycho, for example, cannot be bought in Queensland by those under the age of 18.

As a librarian, I support the freedom to read (freedom of information.)

Comments anyone?

World Refugee Day – #StepWithRefugees

June 20, 2019

World Refugee Day was denoted by the UN General Assembly in December 2000, and has been celebrated on June 20 ever since. Why 20 June? Because this was the date on which many African countries had already been celebrating Africa Refugee Day. The Day’s aims, as for all UN International Days, are “to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity.”

It’s probably worth, at this point, sharing the definitions provided by the UN on its World Refugee Day site:

  • Refugee: someone who fled his or her home and country owing to “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”, according to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. Many refugees are in exile to escape the effects of natural or human-made disasters.
  • Asylum seekers: someone who says he or she is a refugee and has fled his/her home as refugees do, but whose claim to refugee status has not (yet) been definitively evaluated in the destination country. (And we all know how hard some countries can be, don’t we.)
  • Other related groups – Internally Displaced Persons, Stateless Persons and Returnees – are also included in their list.

There’s always been movement of people escaping their homes for a safer, more secure life, but over the last century they have included Jews escaping persecution before, during and after WW2, Southeast Asians (particularly Vietnamese and Cambodians) escaping civil strife around the 1970s, people of diverse backgrounds escaping the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, and the ongoing movement of people from multiple countries in the strife-ridden Middle-east, and South and Central Asia.

Anyhow, each year has a theme, with this year’s being:

#StepWithRefugees — Take A Step on World Refugee Day

I figured that one step could be to highlight some fiction and non-fiction Aussie books that might help educate us about the experience and lives of refugees, and thus in turn mobilise some action. So, here’s a small selection (alphabetically by author):


Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountains

Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister sister (1998) (my review): While I’m not sure the word “refugee” is specifically used in this book, Blay’s extended family left their home-land of Poland, after experiencing the atrocities of the Second World War, because post-war anti-Semitism meant it was no longer “home”. “We could feel we were not welcome”, Blay’s aunt Janka tells her.

Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains (2018) by Iranian-Kurdish journalist who has been on Manus Island since 2013 – an inhumane and unacceptable situation. Most Australians will know this book, because it has won multiple literary awards over the last few months, including the Victorian Prize for Literature. I wrote about taking part in a marathon reading of it a couple of months ago, and Bill (The Australian Legend) reviewed it last week.

Anh Do’s The happiest refugee: My journey from tragedy to comedy (2010): I haven’t read this, but it’s hard to ignore. Do and his family came to Australia in 1980 on a boat from Vietnam. He was 3 at the time. His book chronicles the horrors of that trip, and the challenges of the family’s early years in Australia.

Alice Pung’s Unpolished gem (2006), Her father’s daughter (2011) (my review): Pung was born in Australia a year after her Teochew Chinese parents from fled Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge in 1980. Her two books share her experience of being the child of refugees. I have also written about a conversation between her and Sam Vincent at this year’s Festival Muse.

Olivera Simić’s Surviving peace: A political memoir (2014) (my review): Academic Simić writes about the challenges of being a refugee from the wrong side. It’s a moving, but also analytical, analysis of the long term impact of violence, on those who find themselves in the centre of it, though no choice of their own.

Fiction (long and short)

Hans Bergner, Between sea and skyHans Bergner’s Between sky and sea (1946) (my review): This is a gut wrenching story about a group of Jewish refugees from the Nazi invasion of Poland, bound for Australia on an old Greek freighter. The story is reminiscent of the historical MS St Louis which kept being turned away from port to port.

Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of travel (2012) (my review) and The life to come (2017) (my review): Migration has featured in a few of de Kretser’s books. In The life to come, a do-gooder employs refugees to serve food at her party, while other characters in the novel stereotype refugees and migrants. In Questions of travel, too, de Kretser reveals misunderstandings about refugees and other migrants.

Irma Gold’s “Refuge” in Two steps forward (2011) (my review): A short story about a medical officer in a detention centre, and her reaction to the dehumanisation she’s forced to be part of. Most of the stories we read focus on the refugees and asylum seekers themselves, so I appreciated reading this story from another perspective.

Nam Le’s “Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” and “The boat” in The boat (2009) (my post): These two autobiographical short stories bookend the collection. They draw on his life and on his family’s experience of migrating to Australia from Vietnam as boat refugees, in 1979, when Le was just one.

AS Patric, Black rock white cityAS Patrić’s Black rock white city (2015) (my review): Patrić’s Miles Franklin Award winning book is about two refugees from the Yugoslav Wars, who, academics in their own country, are forced in their new one to work as cleaners and carers. Fiction, but oh so true! This is a complex book which fundamentally questions how are we imperfect humans to live alongside each other.

Arnold Zable’s Cafe Sheherezade (2003): It’s a long time since I read this unforgettable novel. As its name suggests, it contains multiple stories – in this case of Jewish refugees from World War 2. The novel’s cafe is based on an actual cafe in Melbourne which was frequented by displaced Jewish people. The book is confronting and affecting, and affirms the importance of memory and story to survival.

Once I started looking, I found, in fact, that I couldn’t stop. I apologise to all those authors I’ve read but not listed here, but hope this sample is representative.

Now, I’d love you to make your contribution to this commemoration of World Refugee Day by sharing some of your reading on the topic.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Irish-Australian writers

June 17, 2019

With yesterday being Bloomsday – at which Lisa (ANZLitLovers) took part in a reading marathon – I thought it might be interesting to talk about writers in Australia who have an Irish background. But, how to define this? Wikipedia lists hundreds of Irish-Australians, although not all are writers of course!

The Irish were among the first of colonial Australia’s immigrants. As Wikipedia describes it they came from the late eighteenth century on, as criminals, as prisoners of war, such as from the 1798 Irish Rebellion, and as settlers fleeing the Irish famine and the harsh years that followed. By the late 19th century Irish-Australians constituted up to a third of the country’s population – though definitions, here, are tricky. Certainly Wikipedia’s definition is pretty broad, so I’ve decided to narrow it to writers whose “Irishness” goes no further back than grandparents.

In popular imagination – and perpetrated by the Ned Kelly story – they were seen as the underdogs in colonial Australia, often oppressed and discriminated against. And there was some truth to that, related in particular to the persecution of Catholics in Australia, versus the “approved” Protestantism of the English. However, many Irish also thrived in the colony, and reached senior positions in the society. It’s a complex story, and is nicely summarised in an essay by National Museum of Australia curator Richard Reid.

Meanwhile, onto some writers, listed in chronological order of their birth.

Joseph Furphy (1843-1912)

Book coverFurphy, who used the pen-name Tom Collins, is often described as the father of the Australian novel. He was the son of Irish-born Samuel, a tenant farmer who migrated to Australia in 1840. Furphy’s most famous book, Such is life, published in 1903, is a fictional account of, says Wikipedia, “the life of rural dwellers, including bullock drivers, squatters and itinerant travellers, in southern New South Wales and Victoria, during the 1880s”. Its title comes from what are believed to be last words of our most famous Aussie Irishman, Ned Kelly.

I must say that I assumed that our slang term, “furphy” (meaning “tall story”) came from him. Seems likely doesn’t it? However, apparently, scholars believe it probably originated with water carts, produced by J. Furphy & Sons, which was owned by Furphy’s brother John. Interestingly, though, Such is life probably contains the first written usage of the Australian and New Zealand idiom “ropeable”.

Christopher Brennan (1870-1932)

Australian poet and literary critic, Brennan, was born to Christopher and Mary Ann, both of whom had migrated from Ireland. Brennan has appeared a couple of times on my blog, most recently as a poet admired by that American professor, Bruce Sutherland, who championed the study of Australian literature in the USA.

Brennan lived a colourful life, marrying a German woman he’d met while living in Berlin on a scholarship, then later divorcing her and living with Violet Stringer who died in an accident a few years later, in 1925. That year he had also been removed from his associate professorship at the University of Sydney University, due to his divorce (shocking, of course, in those days) and to his increasing drunkenness.

Brennan is regarded as one of Australia’s top poets, with his contribution being recognised in the Christopher Brennan Award.

Mary Durack (1913-1994)

Book coverAuthor Mary Durack is best known for her Australian history classic, Kings in grass castles, about her family’s pioneering role in the Kimberley pastoral industry. The family’s story, as told in her book, starts with her grandfather, Patrick Durack (born 1834), who emigrated to Australia from Ireland in 1853 with his struggling tenant-farmer family.

I have reviewed Brenda Niall’s biography of Mary and her controversial sister, Elizabeth, True north: The story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack.

Jessica Anderson (1916-2010)

Jessica Anderson, The commandant Book coverAnd now we come to someone whom I’ve actually reviewed here, Jessica Anderson. Her father was the youngest of a large Irish family, and the only one born in Australia after the family emigrated here. Wikipedia says that Anderson’s mother, Alice, came from a staunch Anglican family, and disapproved of her marriage to the Irish Catholic Charles. Alice’s mother, for the rest of her life, refused to see Charles or any of her grandchildren. (Such is the power of prejudice, eh!)

The two novels of hers that I’ve reviewed here are her third (and her only historical fiction), The commandant, and her final one, One of the wattle birds. I read her best known novel, Tirra Lirra by the river, long before blogging. The commandant is about the real Scottish-born penal settlement commandant Patrick Logan (who was reputed to be strict-to-the-point-of-cruelty), his Irish-born wife, Letitia O’Beirne of Sligo, and her sister Frances. (Letitia did have a sister who lived with them, Hannah, but Anderson’s Frances, is, I believe, fictional.)

Thomas Keneally (b. 1935)

And finally, to round up this little list, is the well-known writer with a very Irish name, Thomas (or Tom) Keneally). Wikipedia says that both Keneally’s parents were born to Irish fathers. Apparently Keneally was known by that very Irish name “Mick” until he started publishing, at which point his publisher advised him to use his “real” first name.

Keneally is a prolific writer, and has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, twice, as well as the Booker Prize for Schindler’s ark.

Wikipedia quotes Australian academic Peter Pierce as saying of Keneally, that

Keneally can sometimes seem the nearest that we have to a Balzac of our literature; he is in his own rich and idiosyncratic ways the author of an Australian ‘human comedy’.

Unfortunately, while I’ve read some of his work, and have mentioned him here before, I have not read any since blogging.

You’ll have noticed that, despite the title for this post, I haven’t tried to draw any conclusions about the impact of these writers’ Irishness on their work. I’ve simply taken the opportunity of Bloomsday to highlight what is a very long-standing tradition of Irish contribution to Australian literary culture. Oh, and to say, that it’s not all about Ned Kelly!

I’d love you to share any of your favourite Irish-background authors, in the comments.

Lecture and Book Launch: Australia’s first naturalists

June 13, 2019

I don’t usually write up book launches, mostly because the speeches are brief, and I hope to eventually read and review the book itself. However, as the title of this post tells, the launch for Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell’s book, Australia’s first naturalists, was also billed as a lecture, hence this exception.

Australia’s first naturalists was published by NLA Publishing, and is subtitled Indigenous peoples’ contribution to early zoology. The event was MC’d by NLA curator Nat Williams, with the first speaker being Rebecca Bateman, who is the NLA’s first indigenous curator. She talked about the NLA’s collections relating to indigenous people, and how, in some cases, they contain information, including language, that can help people regain lost culture. Then it was over to the authors…

The authors

Penny Olsen, Honorary Professor in the the Australian National University’s Division of Ecology, Evolution and Genetics, has worked as a field biologist and ecological consultant, but now mostly writes books about Australian natural history. She started by saying that it feels like there’s been a sea change in awareness and appreciation of indigenous people’s part in Australia’s story (and I think she’s right.)

However, she said, while their roles as guides and trackers, as workers in the cattle industry, in mining, on stations, and in whaling, is well-known, less known is the significant role they played in the advancement of science – particularly in zoological science. She said that researching the contributions made by indigenous people was challenging, because sometimes their help would simply be referenced in a throwaway line. Other times, though, there would be more detailed accounts. Her reading of these relationships between indigenous people and scientists, was that indigenous people were willing, but also that the relationships ranged from exploitative to warm friendships.

Olsen then talked about some of the collecting partnerships she found – chronologically, starting with James Cook in 1770 – illustrating them with powerpoint slides. These partnerships involved activities such as indigenous people locating specimens, and sharing their knowledge about animal behaviour.  Sometimes the indigenous people were named, sometimes not. Sometimes scientists worked with individuals, sometimes with families or whole groups. It was fascinating, and whetted my appetite for the book!

She finished with a quote from geologist Cecil Thomas Madigan’s 1946 book, Crossing the dead heart, which included:

… but I knew the value of natives on trips such as these, real bush natives who know the habits of all bush creatures and catch them. They are of the greatest help to the biologist and botanist in collecting …

(She also made a disclaimer about the terminology – like “natives” – that is used in historical sources.)

Then it was co-author Lynette Russell’s turn.

Lynette Russell, Professor at Monash University’s Indigenous Studies Centre, among other roles, calls herself an anthropological historian who focuses on developing an anthropological approach to the story of the past. She welcomed us briefly in the language of her great-grandmother – and then commenced, not surprisingly, by saying that “stories are important to understanding the past”. She won’t get any disagreement from us on that, will she?

Anyhow, she then shared various stories, also using images to support her points. She explained, for example, how long-lived traditions in indigenous culture contain information about climate change, such as the rise of sea levels, and how rock art provides evidence of indigenous peoples’ understanding of anatomy. She talked about how millennia of fire-stick farming has resulted in many Australian plants being fire resistant. And she commented on the arrival of feral animals, and their impact on indigenous peoples’ ability to sustain their environment.

The book is organised chronologically into 5 chapters, with the first chapter titled “Pre-European: Australia’s first naturalists”, and the last, “Epilogue: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land and Sea Managers”. This last chapter, she said, discusses Indigenous Protected Areas, and indigenous ranger programs, which enable those who so desire to remain living on country and thus to maintain their traditional ecological knowledge and ensure its continuity. Traditional ecological knowledge is, she said, an “attribute of societies having continuous connection to their country”. Aboriginal peoples’ faunal knowledge is still extant; creating these new collaborations, replicates in some senses, those of the 19th century. Now, like then, indigenous people are generous with their time and knowledge.

She referred to Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu (my review), saying it has managed to make promulgate more widely information about indigenous land management practices that archaeologists have known for a long time.

Finally, she noted that this book is an act of reconciliation.

Q & A

There was an interesting Q&A, with topics being:

  • why indigenous people wear clothing in some pictures and not others: they were interested in clothing, and were often “paid” in clothing.
  • why this information about expeditions has escaped us for so long: Australian history has focussed on squatters, and tragedies (like the Burke & Wills Expedition), but their research has uncovered a different story about real relationships and friendships.
  • whether the names of any indigenous people were used in scientific names for creatures they helped scientists “discover” (good question!): they couldn’t find any!
  • what was the quality of the expeditions in terms of their end-product: most were good for their time but tend to lack information we’d like today, such as animal behaviour, distribution, ecology. Their focus was – surely understandably? – more on identifying, categorising and naming.
  • what motivations did indigenous people have to help, besides being given items like sweets and clothes: friendship, it seems, and a genuine interest in these strange white men.

It’s encouraging to see yet another book furthering scholarship and understanding of indigenous peoples’ lives and culture, and of their very real role in forming modern Australia. A most enjoyable launch.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has already reviewed this book!

Lecture and Book Launch: Australia’s first naturalists
National Library of Australia
11 June 2019