Introducing the first event of their Sunday afternoon program, Dan, co-owner of Muse, commented on a peculiarity of Canberra: when they offer sessions on politics or history, they are packed out, but when the focus is fiction, the events are more intimate. Fine by me! I love small, cosy events. But it’s interesting, eh? Anyhow, we then got down to the event, which involved local author and editor, whom you’ve met several times here before, Irma Gold, interviewing local poet, essayist, novelist, Robyn Cadwallader, about her debut novel The anchoress (my review).
It was excellent. Gold structured her questions beautifully, starting with some background questions, moving through well-targeted questions about the book itself – well-targeted for me anyhow because she focused on historical fiction and feminism – and then ending with Cadwallader’s future plans. There was something for everyone – though I suspect most of us were interested in it all.
Gold commenced by providing a quick bio, which included the facts that Cadwallader migrated to Australia with her family when young, and that her background is academic writing. Gold shared Cadwallader’s shock that, when she moved from academic writing to fictional, her struggles with the dreaded term structure followed her! That made me laugh because I love thinking about structure in fiction. Gold also told us that The anchoress had been published in the USA and UK as well as Australia, and has been (or is being) translated into French. She said Marie Claire described The anchoress as “the book the whole literary world can’t stop talking about”. Wow, eh?
The interview commenced then with a brief discussion of Cadwallader’s early interest in books and writing, but let’s get to …
The discussion started with Cadwallader doing a reading – and she chose the Prologue. That was great not only because it’s always (hmm, mostly) good to hear authors read from their own work, but also because it refreshed the book and some of its themes for me.
Gold said she’d never heard of anchoresses and asked Cadwallader what sparked Sarah’s particular story. Cadwallader responded that she’d come across anchoresses in her research for her PhD and, like Gold, was both horrified and fascinated by the concept. She said the inspiration for the story came from sitting in an anchorhold, unable to leave it, for an hour or so. It got her thinking about how it would feel to be in such a place forever. What would be the experience? She said her poetry is “about taking a moment and investigating it”. In this book, she took a small space and investigated it. Reinforcing her interest in focusing on the “experience”, she said she’d started writing the novel in 1st person but felt it wasn’t working, so tried 3rd but that didn’t work either. She then realised she had to be there to share the experience. She also made the point that she didn’t want Sarah to speak for all anchoresses.
Gold then honed in on the book’s genre, historical fiction, and asked Cadwallader how she went about separating her research from the writing. Cadwallader said she was lucky because she’d done so much research on the period before she started writing. She had to do a lot of thinking, however, and when she started writing she needed to do extra research on aspects she knew less well, such as village life and monasteries.
Next Gold moved onto how Cadwallader approached incorporating the history into the story. Cadwallader said she knew people would know little or nothing about anchoresses – how right she was! – but didn’t want to do exposition. She used the example of the section where Sarah stands in her cell (anchorhold) for first time. This was hard to write she said without “describing”. She tried to write it from Sarah’s experience in a way that would “show” modern readers, too, what it was like.
Some of the questions at the end concerned the historical fiction issue, so I’m sneaking them in here. Responding to what next, Cadwallader said that some people assumed she’d do a sequel! No, she said, as far as she’s concerned she’d wrapped up Sarah’s life and didn’t have anything more to say. Love it. This points, I think, to a difference between genre and literary-fiction. Genre tends to focus on plot, on the story of characters’ lives. Readers of genre love to get lost in – escape into – the characters’ lives and want to follow them, on and on. Readers of literary fiction – and they can be the same people, so I’m not suggesting a “snooty hierarchy” here – look for different things. They tend to be happy with ambiguous endings, and look forward to moving on to something different. I tend to be one of these readers. You could call me fickle.
Other questions picked up the relationship between fact/history and fiction, about the degree to which historical fiction should focus on the fact versus the fiction. Again, I loved Cadwallader’s considered response. She described historical fiction as an engagement between the present and the past. Writers, she said, need to balance what will communicate effectively with contemporary audiences and what’s accurate. She cited swearing as an example: a medieval oath, like “God’s teeth”, would not convey anger to a modern audience the way a modern swear word would.
Back to Gold now. Her next question concerned feminism. Yes! Was Cadwallader conscious of feminist issues from the start or did they emerge through the writing process. I loved Cadwallader’s answer. She said she was aware of feminist issues and theory from the start because her research had brought her face-to-face with medieval thinking about women, including the belief that women represent the body, and tempt men. However, she is concerned, she said, about historical fiction that wants to be positive about women. Such fiction needs to create strong, feisty women, but she wanted to explore what ordinary women experience.
So, her Sarah pretty soon finds her experience of her body starting “to bump against” the rule that tells her that her body is terrible. Cadwallader wanted to tell about ordinary women doing things that are not “spectacular”. She thinks some readers expected a “spectacular ending” but that would have plucked Sarah out of her context. Her approach to feminism was to describe these women’s experience, to honour them. She didn’t want to exploit them, but explore who Sarah was. She then talked about the village women. (They’re wonderful supporting characters in the book.) She didn’t want them to be “campaigners”, but wanted us to “see” them. It’s too easy for us to miss and not respect the ordinariness of women and what they do.
Gold ended with questions regarding how Cadwallader has handled her success and what her future writing plans were. Cadwallader talked about ongoing feelings of self-doubt and how easy it is to buy into criticism (rather, it seems, than praise). She described it – and being a writer, she used a metaphor – as being a headwind that you just have to keep walking into! And yes, she is writing another book. And yes, it’s mediaval-focused – to do with illuminators.
There was a brief Q&A, then it was over. We might have been an intimate group, but what a privilege to have been present at a conversation between an intelligent, warm interviewer and a thoughtful, open interviewee. Lucky us.
Muse is one of my favourite places in Canberra. It’s a cafe-restaurant-winebar plus bookshop plus arts event space – self-described as “a meeting place for those who enjoy a grenache with their Grenville, and their Winton with a good washed rind”. They have offered many short, mostly afternoon events, in the 18 months of their existence, but this is their first festival. Mr Gums and I went to the opening event, Women of the Press Gallery. How great that they chose to begin with a woman-focused event in a week that contained International Women’s Day.
The event took the form of a conversation-style panel but first, the Festival was opened by the doyenne of (women) political journalists, Michelle Grattan. I put “women” in parenthesis because the qualification is not necessary – she’s a doyenne, full stop – and yet it’s relevant to the context of this event, if you know what I mean. She talked about her early days as a journalist in 1970s Canberra – and the role played by restaurants in journalists’ lives. Muse, she said, has taken this role to a new level, by merging food, books, politics and talk in one place. She did say more, but I want to focus on the event, so will just say that she opened Festival Muse, and we got on with it!
Women of the Press Gallery
The panel comprised:
- Katina Curtis, political journalist and Canberra chief of staff with newswire AAP
- Karen Middleton, The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent
- Katharine Murphy, political editor of Guardian Australia
- Primrose Riordan, political journalist, focusing on foreign affairs, with The Australian
After a quick welcome and introduction from co-Muse-owner Dan, Karen Middleton opened proceedings, by saying that she loved being “participating chair” because she got to chair the panel and contribute ideas as well! She said the topics they’d cover would be media, politics, and chicks in media and politics.
To get the conversation going, Middleton asked the panel whether they “take sides” in their writing. The ensuing conversation also took in how the media is changing, and the impact of this on journalists’ work. Each had slightly different perspectives, partly due to their different roles.
Katina Curtis, for example, works for a newswire service so she needs to frame her stories to make them saleable to different news outlets. She can’t therefore pick a side.
Primrose Riordan commented that tailoring stories to particular audiences is problematic. It impacts the quality of the journalism and affects what stories are chased. She talked about the push for “hits”, the desire for “clickbait” – and how this drives journalists to write stories that focus on emotionalism.
Katharine Murphy, who conversed with Charlotte Wood in my last post, commented that the centre has gone, leaving us with two extremes that repel each other. This loss of the centre has massive implications. She also argued that media should have values, because all facts are not the same. (We all loved that, of course.) Guardian Australia, she said, has a distinctive, progressive voice.
Karen Middleton commented on the missing centre, suggesting that the people who are disengaging most from politics are probably the centrists.
Riordan agreed, noting that people aren’t dealing well with what they disagree with. But she – who clearly wanted to make some political points about what’s happening to journalism itself – commented that journalism is also hollowed out. By this she meant the large-scale departure of experienced journalists before retirement age was resulting in the loss of their teaching/knowledge to the next generation.
Moving to a different – and interesting to me – tack, Murphy, with her long experience, talked about changes to the journalistic process. In the old print days, she said, she would file stories once a day. This provided the opportunity for journalists and their editors to choose the important stories. Now, though, filing tends to be continuous, because this is what you (that is, we readers) want. (I felt a bit accused at this point!) In this scenario, the NEW is prioritised over the IMPORTANT. We are all part of a social experiment, she said. In the early days of the transition from the traditional print cycle to the new live cycle, the journalism tended to be shoddy. However, she believes, with experience, it is improving.
This point regarding the prioritising of the new over the important gave me one of those light-bulb moments. Ah, yes, makes sense, I thought. In the rush to produce news, and particularly to beat your competitor in this “live cycle” world, there’s no time to explore the nuances, and analyse what’s really important. Later, but I’ll pop it in here, Riordan made some points about the negative impact of “free” journalism with its high level of advertisements and clickbait-driven content. We should value journalism and pay for it, she said.
The personal (is the political)
Middleton asked the panel for their greatest challenges (and here, to break things up a bit, I’ll dot-point):
- Curtis talked about the constant need to file stories. It’s hard to get/be given the mental space to write something that feels well-informed, she said. The story changes as it is being written; the deadline is always now!
- Riordan reiterated this point about the importance of investigative work (and referenced the movie, Spotlight, longingly!) Then she added her main challenge: “reading” what’s happening. Politicians can talk all day, she said, but journalists have to work out what is really going on.
- Middleton concurred with Riordan’s point regarding what’s happening on the surface versus what’s going on underneath. She said journalists need to “read” the chamber in terms of the little things – facial expressions, note-passing, etc.
- Murphy said that time was the big thing!
Next up, Middleton got onto the gender issue, asking the panel for their comments on life as female political journalists.
Curtis said that a friend had told her, before she joined the press gallery, that the women read and research while the men socialise and get news from the bar. She laughed that she finds herself doing the reading, and would rather like to get more news from the bar!
Riordan, ever the political one regarding journalists and journalism, commented on the challenge for mothers. Motherhood impacts careers. Men can stay late, while women usually can’t. This is still somewhat a barrier – though Curtis said that she feels lucky that the generation of women before her had forged the way so that being a mother and a journalist was now a little more normal. She was a little irritated though that though she (a mother of less than 18 months) has been covering education and childcare for 6 years, her male colleagues now suggest that she’s interested in those topics because she’s a mother.
Riordan also noted that the management of news organisations is still heavily male-dominated.
Murphy shared that when Michelle Grattan came to Canberra in 1973, she was one of the few women here – and had to do social pages! She was an important trailblazer. Murphy also stated that for women to prosper, they need to be better than men. They have to be persistent, resilient, tough, fair, and safeguard their reputation. She believes that some of Australia’s best journalism at present is coming from women.
Middleton asked the panel about life outside work. Riordan said that journalists have to be prepared to miss family events and that for press gallery journalists, “sitting weeks are insane”. Curtis said that the work is potentially all-consuming, but that having grown up in Canberra she has friends outside the profession which helps her separate. Murphy commented that she’s either “fully in” or “fully out”. This means that when she’s on leave, she completely disconnects from social media – and engages in her other interests.
We then moved into Q&A, and while there were several questions, I’m going to share just one, the one which referred back to the loss of the centre. How, the questioner asked, can the middle be made more worthy (more interesting, I suppose, too)? Murphy suggested that it can be achieved by looking for opportunities to find common ground, by finding politicians and others who are more nuanced in their views. She commented that for many people politics is like religion, meaning it’s about belief not facts. For these people, if the facts don’t concur with their belief, they don’t listen. Hmm … that made me stop and think a bit about my own practice! Do I do this? I like to think not, but will have to watch myself …
Anyhow, moving right along, Curtis added that journalists feel what’s important but their editors don’t always agree. And Riordan commented on the diversionary tactics used by politicians such as putting out “announceables” – like a new policy – to distract journalists from something else!
All in all, it was a lively evening spent in the company of intelligent, engaged and committed journalists. I learnt a lot about the pressures of modern journalism – and was entertained at the same time. Thanks Muse.
NOTE: Check out the Muse link above for more Festival events.
I have just returned from an inspiring evening in which we got to see Aussie author Charlotte Wood in conversation with Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy. It more than made up for our disappointment last year when Wood had to pull out of the Canberra Writers Festival due to illness. Tonight’s event was presented “in association with the Canberra Writers Festival” and had the support of the National Library of Australia where it was held.
As the post title suggests, the evening was framed around Wood’s latest novel, The natural way of things (my review), which is partly why I was very keen to go because this is a provocative book that doesn’t leave you in a hurry. Wood started by describing the set-up, and explaining that the main plotline is like any prison novel. In other words, the question is: Will they escape or won’t they? I liked the simplicity of this!
Anger and the book’s genesis
Murphy asked her to talk a little about her comment, elsewhere, that anger had inspired the book. Wood explained that she didn’t realise how angry she was when she started writing the book. She talked about hearing a radio documentary about the Hay Institution whose inmates were described by the government as the “ten worst girls in the state”. The anger-inducing thing is that these girls had all been sexually assaulted in some way, and had been locked up for “being in moral danger”. They were locked up because they were in moral danger? You can see why Wood was angry – why any of us would be – on hearing that. Why were the victims locked up?
Wood then explained that her original story was historical, realist, in style, and it wasn’t working. Then, because when you are writing, “everything is about your book”, she started noticing contemporary stories – the army girl raped by a co-cadet, the woman employee sexually harassed by the David Jones CEO, etc – and decided to try a contemporary approach …
… but, while she was writing it, Julia Gillard became Australia’s first PM, and she saw a photo of Gillard, Quentin Bryce, and Anna Bligh together. They presented such a positive picture of female achievement that she thought her book was no longer needed. We all laughed at that! She then spoke of the hatred directed at Julia and her own distressed reaction to this. This is where her writing comes in: art helps you understand incomprehensible things, she said, you can give them shape.
Later, during the Q&A, she spoke more on the anger issue. She’s uncomfortable with anger, she said – a little self-deprecatingly. She likes it when the book is described as “ferocious” or “fierce” rather than as “angry”. She talked about the importance of humour, of its being the essential companion to anger. (There is humour in the book, as I noted in my review). She quoted American thinker, Patricia Williams (she thought), who talks of the “gift of intelligent rage”. Wood saw this as anger/rage which encompasses positive energy.
The discussion then turned to the ending, and its ambiguity. Murphy worried that Wood seemed to be suggesting that the answer is “separatism, opting out”. The ending is certainly the aspect that gave me some pause. It wasn’t the women pouncing on the designer handbags that bothered many readers, but, like Murphy, it was the ambiguity. I like ambiguity, but here I was a little uncertain about what I was taking away.
Wood’s response was helpful. She said the book has different endings depending on who you are following, and that some readers come away feeling triumphant, while others feel demoralised. She said that for Yolanda, her only liberation was to “separate” herself, to go feral, to become an animal in fact, but that wasn’t Verla’s answer. This gave me a little structure for my thinking.
While she doesn’t like to talk in terms of messages, she agreed that part of it was that in order to be free you have to separate yourself to a degree from a culture that hates women. This can mean not reading women’s magazines that hurt/harm you, not laughing at sexist jokes, and so on.
She talked about another issue that intrigued me, and that’s to do with the men – the prison guards – ending up being trapped too. This is where the balance of power started to shift a little – and is the part of the novel she liked writing!
Murphy then asked her “nerdy stuff”, that is, about her writing process. I won’t spend a lot of time on this (though nerdy me was interested too). I’ll just share a couple of comments. One was that although she now has five novels to her name, she is still always unsure when she sits down to write, but one thing experience has given her is that she is now “quicker at diagnosing problems”. She has also learnt more about the “craft” of writing, such as how to shape stories.
She described writing as hard – it’s hard making up stuff out of your head, she said. She knows when she’s got the momentum up – it’s when her current book is in her dreams, when she thinks about it as soon as she wakes up. She referred to her PhD on the cognitive aspects of creativity. She found some commonalities between writers, but knowing what these are doesn’t help you do it, she said! Encouraging eh?
Murphy asked whether she kept a notebook to jot down ideas she comes across, things she hears. She said she does this a bit, but wishes she did notebooks as well as Helen Garner. Mentioning the notebook excerpts in Garner’s latest book, Everywhere I look (my review), she said she admires “the precision of her [Garner’s] observations”.
Plausibility in fiction
Early in the conversation, Wood referred to some readers questioning plausibility in the book. I followed this up at question-time, as it was an issue in my reading group. I loved her answer because – as you regular readers here will see – it concurred with my views!
She said it depends, partly, on the sort of novel you’re writing. She wanted this novel to be strange and weird. Her usual benchmark is to ask what she herself would believe. Her question for readers is: “Are you going with it. If you start worrying about factual details, you risk missing out on what’s true.” Yes! So, in this book, in particular, she didn’t “care” much about plausibility. Her next book is more realist so the facts will matter more, but I got the sense that fundamentally she focuses more on what she is trying to do, to say, than on getting all the facts right.
There was more, but I’ll leave it here on my question – and conclude by saying that Wood came across as warm, natural (!), thoughtful, and openly sharing of herself. This made it a most enjoyable event – the hour went way too fast.
Last week’s news that Ali Cobby Eckermann had won a very special prize scuttled my plans for today’s Monday Musings post, which is fine because it can wait, whereas this one can’t. Last year, I wrote about Helen Garner winning the lucrative 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize for Non-Fiction. It was a new prize to me, and is American-based, so imagine my surprise when it popped up again this year through the announcement that indigenous Australian poet, Ali Cobby Eckermann, had won the 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry. How wonderful for her, and, by association, for Australian literature, for Australian indigenous writers, and, with Garner and now Eckermann winning, for Australian women writers too.
Eight Wyndham-Campbell Prizes were awarded this year, two each for Fiction, Non-Fiction, Drama and Poetry. This is the first year the awards have included poetry. These prizes, which are open to English-language writers around the world, were “established in 2013 with a gift from the late Donald Windham in memory of his partner of forty years, Sandy M. Campbell”. They’re impressive for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the nominations are made confidentially and judged anonymously, so the recipients have no idea they are in the running until they receive a call from the prize manager. Secondly, the prize is worth USD165,000. That is, each winner receives that amount of money. Now that’s a prize!
Before I get to our winner, just one more thing on the prize. It is awarded at a ceremony during the Windham-Campbell Festival, which happens this year from September 13-15, 2017 at Yale University. The awards ceremony apparently traditionally begins with an invited speaker who gives a talk on “Why I Write.” This year’s speaker will be Karl Ove Knausgård. All the events are apparently free and open to the public. Really, this is philanthropy isn’t it! Now, to …
Ali Cobby Eckermann
The prize announcement page describes her as “Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal Australian”, and the page on her explains her work in these terms:
Through song and story, Ali Cobby Eckermann confronts the violent history of Australia’s Stolen Generations and gives language to unspoken lineages of trauma and loss.
It also says that she founded Australia’s first Aboriginal writers retreat. I didn’t know that.
Eckermann has published poetry collections, two verse novels, and a prose memoir. She also edited a special issue of Southerly devoted to indigenous writing. Southerly, congratulating her on win, describes it as their best-selling issue.
On being told of her prize, Eckermann (born 1963) is reported as saying that it will change her life completely. She is currently living in a caravan and looking after her elderly adoptive mother. This money will help her bring her family – including her son and grandsons – together. She is, as you’ll have gathered, a product (I don’t want to say “victim”) of the Stolen Generations. Linda Morris, reporting the win in the Sydney Morning Herald, writes:
In her memoir Too Afraid to Cry, published in 2013, Eckermann related how she had been tricked away from her mother as a baby, repeating the trauma her mother had suffered when she was taken from her grandmother many years before. Eckermann, in turn, had to give her own child up for adoption.
It’s a tough story, and one that reflects, we now know, the lives of many indigenous people. It’s this story, and the wider dispossession of indigenous people, that Eckermann explores in her work. She told Morris that
”I like to think the prize recognises an honest truth around Stolen Generations, for writing around an emotional truth, not academic. I’ve learnt to embrace my emotional baggage and turn it into poetry.”
She sees herself as representing a ”generational voice, not a singular voice”.
- Little bit long time (2009, poetry collection)
- Kami (2010, poetry collection)
- His father’s eyes (2011, verse novel)
- Love dreaming and other poems (2012, poetry collection)
- Ruby Moonlight (2012, verse novel, my review, winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year and Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry)
- Too afraid to cry (2013, memoir, and winner of the Tangkanungku Pintyanthi Fellowship)
- Inside my mother (2015, poetry collection, Lisa’s combined reviews post, shortlisted for the NSW and Premier’s Literary Awards, and described by Eckermann as an “emotional timeline” of the Stolen Generations.)
In addition to these she has appeared in many anthologies, including a few editions of Best Australian poems.
The judges praised her ”substantial and formally innovative body of work”. I’ve only read a little of her work – Ruby Moonlight, which I’ve reviewed as you’ll have seen above, some of Inside my mother which I’ve just bought, and an individual poem or two. While I have to admit that my knowledge of poetry is not particularly deep, I can see from even this small sample what they mean by her work being “formally innovative”. As for “substantial”, I’m assuming they don’t just mean quantity but the quality and depth of her work and ideas.
Anyhow, while I didn’t use those words in my review of Ruby Moonlight, I tried to convey a sense of its formal and intellectual cleverness alongside the emotional engagement it generates. I can see these qualities in Inside my mother too. It opens with a gorgeous shape poem, “Birdsong”, and has at least one other, “Severance”. It has longer narrative poems alongside more abstract poems, of various forms, that convey feelings and ideas. There’s a discordant poem, “I tell you true”, that has an almost cheery singsong rhythm while telling a bitter story about alcohol abuse, violence, suicide, loss. And so on …
Interestingly, in his introduction to The best Australian poems 2009, poet Robert Adamson writes:
I attended the APC Regional Poetry Festival at Castlemaine in April 2008. Ali Cobby Eckermann, a poet from Alice Springs was on the program and she read a poem I have included here, “Intervention Pay Back”. Ali recited this poem and the audience was clearly moved. I was certainly moved by both the subject matter and the language of the poem. Somewhere between a ballad and written spoken word, it makes a new shift into what a poem might say and be.
“A new shift into what a poem might say and be” is clearly what the Wyndham-Campbell judges also saw nine years later.
So, big congratulations to Ali Cobby Eckermann on a much-deserved award … and kudos to the person or persons who nominated her.
David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short (eds), The near and the far: New stories from the Asia-Pacific region (Review)
Anthologies, almost by definition, have a unifying theme, something that explains their existence. There are the “best of” type, as in best of a year or of a genre, for example. There are those drawn from a prize, such as The trouble with flying, and other stories (my review) from the Margaret River Short Story competition. And of course there are subject-oriented ones like Rebellious daughters (my review) or Australian love stories (my review). David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short’s anthology, The near and the far, is another type. Its origin is a project called WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange) which, the editors tell us, is “a program of reciprocal residences and cultural events focused on writers and writing from Australia and the Asia-Pacific”. The residencies and events occurred in such places as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Australia. The aim was to enable Asia-Pacific writers to immerse themselves in the face-to-face exchange of ideas and collaborative experiences, in order to build cultural understanding and find, as one participant says, “sustainable ways of speaking amongst ourselves and relating to one another as cultural practitioners”.
The result is that the stories – and even the forms of the pieces – are varied. The book has been thoughtfully presented. There’s a foreword by Alice Pung and an introduction by the editors at the beginning, and some notes on WrICE and a list of contributors with mini-bios at the back. The stories themselves are organised into three groups – The Near, The Far, and The Near and The Far – though I’d probably have to think hard about why certain stories have been allocated their particular group. There are 21 stories, 15 of which, if I’ve counted correctly, are by women. There’s a lovely extra touch, which is that at the end of each story is an author’s reflection – on the writing process, the goals and/or the experience of WrICE. They were often illuminating.
Before we get to the stories – and of course I’m only going to be able to focus on a few – I’d like to share some comments from the foreword and introduction. In her foreword, Pung calls the book a travel anthology, and I suppose it is, in a sense, though I may not have described it that way if I hadn’t read her foreword! She says
The near and the far is one of those rare travel anthologies, combining fiction with poetry and longform essays, each piece revealing a real insider’s experience of inhabiting a different world without exoticising the foreign. Each story has a centre – whether philosophical, moral, or political – and yet none of them are didactic.
The editors talk of how our different colonial experiences had “left long shadows across our imaginations”. They refer particularly to “settler” Australians who live in what was seen as an “outpost” – further than the “Far East” – and yet who still tend to look to Europe and America for our main cultural input. “The far feels near”, they write, “and the near feels far away”. That makes a lot of sense – to me.
You think you know (Omar Musa)
Now the stories. They come from, as you’d expect, a diverse group of writers, from Australia and Vietnam, from the Philippines and America, and from many places in between. Some I knew – like Melissa Lucashenko, Omar Musa, Cate Kennedy, and of course Francesca Rendle-Short – but most were new to me. Many of the pieces explore in some way the idea of what we know and don’t know. They may be about ignoring what we know because it’s too painful, or because we fear the rejection of others. They may be about the disconnect between what we assume and what we find. Or they may simply be about facing something new or unexpected.
I loved that indigenous Australian writer Melissa Lucashenko’s story, “Dreamers”, was chosen to start the anthology. Set in rural Australia in 1969, two years after the famous referendum, it’s a beautifully structured and told story about the relationship that develops between indigenous woman and her non-indigenous employers. It’s a story about love, loyalty and tolerance, but manages to quietly reference, without being polemical, social change issues such as environmental protest and the stolen generations.
Not surprisingly, the theme of accepting – welcoming, hopefully – diversity runs through the book. In “My two mothers”, Singaporean Suchen Christine Lim shares a story about a young adopted girl’s shame at having two mothers, her unwillingness to appreciate their love and tender care, and her eventual recognition of what they had given her.
If you have ever read or heard Australian-Malaysian performance poet Omar Musa, you won’t be surprised to hear that diversity underpins his contribution, “You think you know”. In this first-person story he explores “the deeply troubling issues” regarding sexual identity in Malaysia through his narrator’s (presumably himself) friendship with a young Malaysian man met on a bus. It’s a quiet, reflective, wrenching story – quite different from the higher octane wordplay of his performance poetry.
A story using a completely different tone and pace is Chinese-Indonesian, now American writer Xu Xi’s “BG: The significant years”. In a time when scientists and historians argue about dating nomenclature – BCE/CE anyone? – Xu Xi has come up with her own, BG or Before Google! Google (created 19 August 2004, if you want to know) provides for her a significant life marker. In short chronological sections, starting with “BG 43 (circa 1961 to ’62)”, she chronicles her life – in a lightly satirical tone – from applying to go to university in America, to becoming a US citizen, and getting a job and then losing it in the 1986 stock market crash. Her commentary on life in the US is enlightening. Joining the unemployment queue meant, she writes, that “for once I wasn’t a minority, because the minority was the majority in that government office”! Telling eh?
There are many more stories I’d like to share: Laurel Fantauzzo’s second-person-told story, Some Hints About Travelling to the Country Your Family Departed, about going back to the place (in her case the Philippines) a parent came from; Francesca Rendle-Short’s “1:25,000” on the geologies of time, on memories, regrets and saying “no”; and Maxine Beneba Clark’s short, painful, 9/11-inspired “Aviation” in which accepting “other” is put to the test.
And then there’s David Carlin’s gender-bending, mind-bending “Unmade in Bangkok”. Inspired by Thailand’s ladyboys, he explores ideas about identity and gender. The story is told in ten sections, mostly in third person but slipping between male and female personas. In section four, “she” considers:
Women make themselves up, men do not. This is curious when she thinks about it. To be a woman, in this culture, is to be a creature dipped in fiction, whereas to be a man is to be altogether real or at least natural, unconstructed.
So she dresses up and considers: “What is she becoming? Ever more fictional? A character in drag?” I enjoyed how Carlin explored gender identity, using broader ideas about “fiction”. “Some fictions trap us”, he writes, “but other fictions free us”. For ladyboys the implications are serious. It’s a complex story which covers a lot of ground. I need to read it again.
I titled this section “you think you know” because in all the stories, the writers are seeking to know, not so life can be assured, or complete, but in the spirit of understanding, of growing. Alvin Pang, in the note to his story “The Illoi of Kantimeral”, discusses the invented language he used:
Their precise meanings may or may not be immediately discernible from context, but neither is the experience of engagement, negotiation, resistance, and mystery within the Asia-Pacific itself as straightforward as we might wish the world to be. There is humility and pleasure in earnest encounter, and in listening out for the inherent humanity of what we do not fully recognise.
Perfect! This is a book which confronts us with many ways of seeing and experiencing. Different stories will appeal to different readers, depending on experiences, but I hope I’ve given you a taste. Books like this deserve a bigger audience than they often get.
(Review copy courtesy Scribe)
You probably know all about the Six Degrees of Separation monthly “meme” by now, but here’s the gen for newbies. It’s currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest), who, each month, nominates a book from which we players create a chain of seven books, linking one from the other as the spirit moves. Unfortunately, once again, I haven’t read the starting book, Nick Hornby’s football fan-book Fever pitch, but our host Kate said (somewhere) that she thought it would be interesting to start with a book about sport – and I’m up for the challenge! As always (to date), I promise I’ve read all the books I select for my chain.
When I said above that I’m up for the challenge I meant it, because I immediately knew what my first link would be, Gerald Murnane’s delightful Something for the pain: A memoir of the turf (my review). It’s another memoir from a writer with passion for a sport. I enjoyed it for two reasons. I learnt a lot about Murnane, and I learnt about a sport I know nothing about – which is one of the joys of reading, isn’t it, learning about subjects you know nothing about?
A sport I know a little about – more as spectator than exponent – is swimming, and it is to a novel about swimming that I’m linking to next, Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (my review). It tells the story of a young potential swimming champion from the “wrong” side of town being offered a scholarship to attend an elite school where he can be coached by a top swimming coach. The book is not so much about swimming as about the meaning of success and failure, and about what makes a good man.
My next link sees me leaving the sport theme to draw on Barracuda’s idea of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks finding himself among the well-to-do. Sonya Hartnett’s Golden boys (my review) is about the reverse. A well-to-do family moves to a poorer neighbourhood and the two sons find themselves having to mix with the sons of a very different world. But, their real challenge is their father, who is the reason the family needed to move. It’s a disturbing book.
My next book is also about fathers and his sons. It was one of my favourite discoveries last year, Stephen Orr’s The hands (my review). Its evocation of a father’s relationship with his sons, and of the relationship between the two brothers, particularly through wonderfully authentic dialogue, impressed me greatly. It is set on a remote South Australian farm and deals with the stresses of modern farming in a dry land, stresses that are exacerbated by the spectre of climate change.
Another novel about farms and climate change that I enjoyed was Alice Robinson’s Anchor point (my review). This one, though, was more about a daughter and her father. Interestingly, in both The hands and Anchor point the mother is absent – albeit for different reasons. And now, because I really should, as I’ve said before, link to at least one non-Australian work, I’m going to conclude with another novel about a missing mother …
Kyung-sook Shin’s 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize winner, Please look after mom (or mother) (my review). Set in South Korea, it tells the story of a mother who goes missing. I loved it for a number of reasons: it’s set in a country whose literature I don’t know; it is told from multiple points of view and in different voices (first, second and third person); and it explores some themes that interest me including city versus country values, the importance of literacy and education, and those universal emotions of guilt and regret.
And so, here we are at the end. This is the first time that all my links have drawn on the content of the books. I don’t think I can link at all back to the first book, but we have played some sports along the way, visited a couple of farms, and got to know a few parents and their children. That’s pretty interesting – at least, I think so.
Have you read Fever pitch? And whether or not you have, what would you link to?
Every year, my reading group aims to do at least one classic – usually something from the nineteenth century – but this year someone suggested Graham Greene. Yes, we all responded, why not? But which one? For reasons I don’t recollect, Travels with my aunt was suggested and given none of us had a burning desire to do another, it was scheduled. This suited me as I hadn’t read it before.
It surprised me a little. I was expecting something lighter because I’d understood that it was a comedy, a bit of a romp, and it is – but I found layers too. Wikipedia says of Greene’s work, overall, that “he explored the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world, often through a Catholic perspective”. Travels with my aunt might be a fun book but this description is relevant to it too – though I’m not an expert on “the Catholic perspective” bit.
Anyhow, let’s start with the plot. It concerns middle-aged retired banker Henry Pulling’s travels in Europe and South America with his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta whom he only gets to properly know after his mother’s funeral. Henry is a bachelor whose hobby is growing dahlias. It’s a quiet, English sort of life. His aunt, though, is a completely different kettle of fish. She appears at her sister’s funeral, whisks Henry off to her flat where she lives with her valet-cum-lover, the black Wordsworth. She tells him that his mother was not his mother, but had married his father and faked pregnancy in order to take on his care when he was born to… Well, of course, we can guess who the birth mother is can’t we? From this point on, she engages Henry in her various travels which, it has to be said, become increasingly morally suspect. When she says that “sometimes I have the awful feeling that I am the only one left anywhere who finds any fun in life”, she’s not joking, but her fun can have a more than questionable edge.
The story is told first person by Henry. I’d call him a naive, rather than an unreliable, narrator – I think there is a subtle difference. This is one of the jokes of the book. We know or suspect things that Henry, in his inexperienced not to mention conservative British way, doesn’t immediately cotton on to. Part of the story’s enjoyment is the tension Greene creates between Henry and his free-wheeling Aunt. This tension provides one of the layers I referred to.
Another layer I’ll tentatively suggest was inspired by discovering that Greene’s full name was Henry Graham Greene. This made me wonder whether there is a little of the autobiographical in the book. There’s certainly not in the literal sense, because Greene, who left his wife and the associated traditional, domestic, settled life, led a peripatetic and adventurous life, one closer to Aunt Augusta’s. But the ending, which I won’t give away, poses some interesting questions when looked at from this perspective.
Other layers relate to various issues Greene refers to or hints at along the way, such as American imperialism, particularly in South America; World War 2 and the actions of collaborators; the impact of the pill (resulting in pregnancy now being the girl’s fault); Catholicism and its role (or not) in personal value systems; and, I think, some critique of “Englishness”.
However, I don’t want to make it sound too serious. The book is a romp. There’s no doubt about that, as we follow Henry and his aunt to Brighton, France, Istanbul via the Orient Express and, eventually, to Paraguay. The activities his aunt engages in, not to mention the stories she tells Henry about her past shenanigans, are funny, outrageous, sometimes farcical, and not always legal. You do have to keep up with a rather large cast of colourful characters, including the young Tooley and her is-he-a-CIA-operative father O’Toole, the Nazi war criminal and love of Augusta’s life Mr Visconti, various policemen and military personnel, and the put-upon Wordsworth who calls Augusta his “bebi gel”.
Greene’s writing is frequently funny. Here is a description of an American tourist having a cuppa in Europe:
One of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing sight I felt very far away from England, and it was with a pang that I realized how much I was likely to miss Southwood and dahlias in the company of Aunt Augusta.
Then there’s Aunt Augusta on her plans to fund their trip to Istanbul:
“I hope you don’t plan anything illegal” [says retired banker Henry!]
“I have never planned anything illegal in my life,” Aunt Augusta said. “How could I plan anything of the kind when I have never read any of the laws and have no idea what they are?”
And there’s this on the is-he-CIA O’Toole:
“Are you in the CIA like Tooley told me?”
“Well … kind of … not exactly,” he said, clinging to his torn rag of deception like a blown-out umbrella in a high wind.
There are also many delightful set-pieces, such as the description of a Christmas lunch for the lonely, and some ridiculous confrontations with various policemen.
This book is too well-known for me to write something more comprehensive, so I’m going to leave it here, and let you tell me what you think.
Meanwhile, I’ll conclude on a quote from early in the book. It’s Henry reflecting on his mother’s life:
Imprisoned by ambitions which she had never realised, my mother had never known freedom. Freedom, I thought, comes only to the successful and in his trade my father was a success. If a client didn’t like my father’s manner or his estimates, he could go elsewhere. My father wouldn’t have cared. Perhaps it is freedom, of speech and conduct, which is really envied by the unsuccessful, not money or even power.
Without going into what he meant by “successful”, I think this notion of freedom – particularly “of conduct”, which is an interesting take – is what’s at the bottom of this book, the freedom to choose how you will live your life. In the end, Henry realises he is free to choose. Whether he makes the “right” or “best” choice is up for discussion, but it’s the freedom that’s the point.
Travels with my aunt
London: Vintage Books, 1999 (Orig. pub. 1969)