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Monday musings on Australian literature: Whither Australian literature, 1930s (Pt. 1)?

November 4, 2019

Apologies to those of you not interested in the history of Australian literature, because this week and next I’m continuing my little survey of contemporary writing about Australian literature in the 1930s. My first post discussed the move from “gumleaf and goanna” to other topics, and last week’s focused on discussions about the importance of writing about character. This week and next, I plan to look at some bigger picture discussions about the place of Australian literature.

These posts are, however, based on a somewhat serendipitous search of Trove. There could very well be articles – there probably are – which say some different things. I can only share what I have been able to find in the time I have available. Just as well I’m not producing an academic work, eh?

And here might be a good place to point you to an article by Susan Lever in Inside Story concerning the current parlous state of teaching and research about Australian literature in Australian universities. It’s particularly depressing, now that we have Trove with its rich content, that there is not the support for research into our written heritage and culture – which, of course, feeds into discussions about who we are and where we are going.

Australian literature’s place in the Dominions

Why is it that Australian creative literature, fiction, and poetry has not reached the same high standard as that of South Africa and Canada?” and “What is the place of the Australian novel in the fiction of the British Dominions?” These questions were posed in reports of a lecture given in June 1934 by Firmin McKinnon to the English Association of the University of Queensland. Thomas Firmin McKinnon (1878-1953) was, coincidentally, born in the Yass area not far from were I live. He was a journalist, and, says Desmond Macaulay in the ADB, was nicknamed at Brisbane’s Courier, “the Encyclopaedia”! He and his wife were active in Brisbane’s cultural life, and by the mid 1910s and 1920s, he was “recognized as a tireless literary lecturer and mentor of many young writers”. Among his many roles, he was President of the Queensland Bush Book Club. Macaulay also says that “his Anglocentric conservatism, however, allowed little sympathy for certain literary trends”, so we should keep this in mind when thinking about his views of Australian literature.

The two reports are both in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail, one a brief report on a Tuesday and the other clearly a more feature article report on a Saturday. Neither have by-lines as far as I can see, so I’ll just call them Tuesday and Saturday. Tuesday’s is titled “Australian fiction: Where is it lacking” and Saturday’s is “Australian fiction: It’s place in literature”.

Katharine Susannah Prichard

Prichard, 1927/8 (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday says that McKinnon particularly focused on the fiction of South Africa (represented by Sarah Gertrude Millin, Pauline-Smith, and Norman Giles), Canada (by Martha Ostenso, Corinthia Cannon, and Maza de la Roche), and Australia (by Katharine Susannah Prichard, Brent of Bin Bin, Flora Eldershaw, Marjorie Barnard, Helen Simpson, G. B. Lancaster, and John Dalley). Tuesday shares some of McKinnon’s arguments for the comparative failure of Australian fiction versus that of South Africa and Canada, saying that McKinnon’s conclusion is that “the contrast of nationality, and conflict of international ideas … were deficient in Australia. Even the contrasts provided by the migration era of the gold digging days had disappeared, and Australia was now the most homogeneous race on earth.” By contrast, South Africa had “a continuous conflict of colour and clash of nationalities” and while there was less conflict in Canada, it did have “a contrast of nationalities”. Hmm … sounds a bit simplistic to me. Prichard and Barnard-Eldershaw, for a start, found signifiant issues to tackle within our so-called homogenous culture. As did Christina Stead in Seven poor men of Sydney, but that, her first novel, was only published in the year of this lecture.

Tuesday reported that during the post-lecture comments, one person said “that many books of Australian fiction showed a good deal of slovenliness and lacked any marked spiritual impulse and characterisation”.

Book coverSaturday, as you would expect, provided more detail, including about the authors chosen to represent the three countries. Saturday reports that McKinnon admitted that “we have in Australia, in its history, and in its great cities excellent material and splendid background” but were not producing literature equal to Canada and South Africa. Saturday writes, presumably reporting McKinnon, that:

Unquestionably the impatience of the age has something to do with the decline of great creative literature all over the world. Beauty in literary form cannot flourish to perfection in an age that is wildly excitable, in an age that relishes some snippet about Bradman or Larwood, much more than it would a gem of English.

Have things changed much? Saturday goes on to report (or say) that

Australia has produced some very creditable fiction, but almost every creditable novelist who is writing of Australia has been abroad. Now is there any reason why our purely Australian novelist is not doing better work? There must be. Here in Australia we have a magnificent background for novels, and there is abundance of material. Some of the greatest novelists in the English language, from Jane Austen and Scott to Dickens and Walpole, have found their inspiration in happenings far less outstanding than those that could be found in the development of Australia, and in characters that may be found in any Australian city. But everything lies in the treatment of the subject, and our novelists fall short in the treatment of the story. Now what is the reason?

Llike Tuesday, he reports on the various ideas put forward and rejected by McKinnon, one being the effect of Democracy, itself, which he argued “which tends to the mediocre in everything”. Saturday quotes McKinnon as saying

Art and literature need to be fostered by leisure, good taste, moderate wealth, and cultivated discernment, and these do not flourish best in a democracy. Demos is a poor patron of art and literature.

Sounds a bit elitist don’t you think?

However, McKinnon, fortunately, realised the error of this argument, given Canada and South Africa were also democracies. And so, as Tuesday did before him, Saturday shares McKinnon’s argument that it’s “the lack of contrast and conflict in Australian life” that doesn’t support “literary creativeness”.

The answer? McKinnon says that what Australia needed was the “steady flow of migration” to provide “the clashes”, the opportunity to make comparisons “that are particularly valuable to the creative artist”. I’m not sure I fully agree with McKinnon’s argument regarding literature – I don’t see much evidence of clash of cultures driving Jane Austen’s novels, for example – but I do agree that cultural diversity is a good thing.

Anyhow, it appears that McKinnon gave a version of this talk later in the year, on 17 October, to the Authors’ and Artists’ Association. He again compared Australian writers with Canadian and South African ones, and he again argued that Australian novelists, with some exceptions, lack perspective and imagination, that they’re narrow and insular. Perhaps because this time he was talking to the creators themselves, he was, it appears, a little more positive. He “spoke of the vast and artistic improvement In Australian fiction within the past three years” albeit “all of it [was] written by travelled authors”. He again recommended migration to Australia, but added that “the development of aviation” and “even the Centenary gatherings in Melbourne” would be valuable in “helping to provide that standard of measurement that novelists needed”.

Now, I don’t know the South African and Canadian writers named, so I can’t comment on their relative merits. I’d love to hear from anyone who does know them. Regardless, though, I believe that Australians were producing some very interesting work in the 1930s, alongside the usual more popular fare?

Any comments?

Jessica White in conversation with Inga Simpson

November 3, 2019

Book coverHearing Maud, author Jessica White told us in her conversation with Inga Simpson two weekends ago, was 15 years in the making. This is something I already knew, because, as the result of our involvement in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I’ve met Jess and we’ve talked about this book. However, it was excellent to hear the more detailed story – and at its conclusion rather than partway through. Jess is clearly very happy to have it finally off her hands, but it’s also clear that the book was, and is, very important to her – as you shall see.

The participants

Simpson and White

Simpson (L) and White (R), Muse, 2 Nov 2019

Jessica White has written two novels A curious intimacy, which earned her a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist gong, and Entitlement (my review). She’s been listed for various prizes, and has had essays and short stories published in Australia’s best-known literary journals, including MeanjinSoutherlyOverlandIsland and Griffith Review. She is a lecturer/researcher at the University of Queensland.

Inga Simpson, whom I’ve still to review here (but I will), has written three novels, Mr Wigg, Nest and Where the trees were, the last two of which have been listed for or won prizes. Her latest book, Understory, is a memoir about her love of Australian nature, and especially trees.

The conversation

As Simpson advised at the beginning, the conversation was not a Michael-Parkinson-like hardball interview but more a conversation between friends which, apparently, they are. As a result, it had a warm, natural feel, while still addressing some important points and issues.

Hearing Maud, which I’ve just started reading, is one of those hybrid memoir-biographies that I’ve talked about recently. However, most of those have been mother-daughter stories, the biography being about the mother and the memoir, the daughter. White’s book is different. The biographical subject is Maud, the deaf daughter of the late nineteenth-early twentieth century writer Rosa Praed (1851-1935) (whom I read before blogging). White did not know or ever meet Maud so her knowledge has come from her research, which, Simpson said, is a strength of White’s.

White began by talking about the book’s genesis. It started with her PhD research into Rosa Praed, with whom White felt a connection, given they shared a rural, bush background and a love of romance! White was drawn to Praed’s “racy romances”, she said!

However, as she researched Praed, she discovered the existence of Maud, and the more she researched the more she realised what a “terrible life” Maud had had. So, she started writing a biography about Rosa and Maud. This was rejected by a publisher, but in rejecting it he suggested that she make the book “more about deafness”. To her credit, White was not put off. Having initially felt that deafness hadn’t challenged her, she started, as she continued to research Maud’s life, to recognise more about her own life as a deaf person – and then to perceive the intersections and divergences in their two lives.

Patricia Clarke, in her biography of Praed, Rosa! Rosa!, wrote that it was fortuitous for Maud to be born at a time when they were teaching deaf to speak, but White, now understanding more about deafness, saw it differently. It was a time of Social Darwinism – when the idea was to breed out disabilities – so the pressure to conform was strong. This was often, as it was in Maud’s case, counterproductive, if not disastrous. I will write more on this when I review the book, but essentially, a number of factors, including the breakup of Maud’s family and Rosa’s non-inclusive attitudes, resulted in her having a mental breakdown at 28 years old, and being committed to an asylum. She spent the next 39 years of her life there, that is, until she died!

The conversation spent some time on White’s own experiences as a deaf person. Simpson, being a writer, was particularly interested in language, so questioned White about words she’d used in different contexts to those Simpson was familiar with, such as, “coming out” (as a deaf person), “assimilation” (of deaf people into hearing culture), “mainstream” (of people with disabilities into abled-culture), and “colonialism” (of deaf culture and language by hearing culture.) Coming out as a deaf person was a slow process for White, not so much because she was resistant to the idea but because she hadn’t realised how much deafness had impacted her. Living in the country amongst a large extended family, she’d been, essentially, sheltered from fully experiencing her deafness. She was, she said, brought up as a hearing person, and just saw herself as “a bad hearing person”. That got a rueful laugh from the audience.

However, White was conscious through her teens and early twenties of a sense of isolation and loneliness. It was not until she was in her 30s that she started think about herself as deaf, and understand its impact on her life. She recognises, though, the paradox (“the poison and the cure” that she discusses in Hearing Maud) of her deafness, because she believes it has had, for her, negatives but also positives. She would not, she says, have become a writer if she hadn’t been deaf, and turned to reading at a young age.

Signing during the conversation

The conversation was signed.

The conversation, at this point, engaged in some of the history and politics of disability (and particularly deafness, of course): on government policy regarding educating deaf children, on the politics of whether to teach signing or not, on the notion (that is embedded in the cochlear implant development) of ”fixing” people. White argued that this medical model of disability opposes the cultural model, which, for example, allows deaf people to sign, to have have deaf friends, to, in fact, be deaf. White observed that signing is strongest in poorer countries where the medical model is not so developed/can’t be afforded! White is now interested in learning to sign, and is pleased that the book has opened pathways for her into deaf communities. She clearly hopes this will result in mutual benefit to them all.

White also explained how her deafness forced her to develop the ability to intensely focus – on faces and body language, for example – to find patterns and thus meaning. This need to attend to detail makes her a good scholar, she believes, albeit also exhausts her!

Returning to more literary topics, White addressed that tricky memoir issue regarding their potential to hurt others. White said that although she says some tough things, this was not an issue in her clearly close family, whom, she described, as over-sharers! Nonetheless, she did pare back some difficult things in her parents’ lives. She also said that the self in the book is her authentic self.

As for what’s next, White has other things planned – as indeed I know she does because, from my meetings with her, I know she has a mile-a-minute mind! One project is an ecobiography about the pioneering Western Australian botanist, Georgiana Molloy, in which she wants to show the importance of biodiversity. She defined ecobiography, as being about how ecology shapes who we are. I’m intrigued by the various ways the biography form is being explored, expanded, teased out in contemporary literature, so I look forward to White’s ecobiography take.

Q & A

There was a short Q&A, which I won’t share in full, but I did ask White why she’d decided to combine memoir and biography. She said that she wanted to tell Maud’s story, but that hers created a foil or mirror for that story, and in doing so, it enriched both stories.

Another questioner, commenting on deaf people having to conform to the speaking world, asked what the speaking world could do to make life easier for deaf people. White said that many people don’t understand the feeling of powerlessness that disability can bring. She hopes the book will help people see that there are different ways of being.

Jessica White in conversation with Inga Simpson
Muse (Food Wine Books)
Saturday 2 November, 4.30-5.30pm

Six degrees of separation, FROM Alice’s adventures in Wonderland TO …

November 2, 2019

It is the first Saturday of the month again, which means it’s Six Degrees of Separation meme time. For those of you who don’t know what that is, please check our host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest. It all starts with Kate setting a starting book.

Book coverThis month’s is a classic – the sort of book in fact which defines classic given its timelessness as a much loved book. It is, of course, given the post title, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. And of course I have read it, though so so long ago that I really don’t recollect the actual time I read it because it’s one of those books that enters one’s consciousness isn’t it?

Charlotte Wood, The natural way of thingsFor my first link, I’m going to do something that might shock those of you who know the book, because I’m linking to Charlotte Wood’s dystopian novel, The natural way of things (my review). There is a clear link, though, and it is this – in both novels, a woman (in the first case) or women (in the second) suddenly find themselves in incomprehensible worlds. Unfortunately, though, in Wood’s novel, they end up eating rabbits! Hmm …

Book coverNow, not everyone approves of eating rabbits (or any animals for that matter). For Wood’s characters it was a matter of them or the rabbits, and they chose themselves. However, to be balanced about this, because, you know, we are supposed to be balanced here in Australia, my next link is to David Brooks’ animal rights reflection-cum-memoir, The grass library (my review).

Evie Wyld, All the birds, singingThe main animals in Brooks’ book are rescue sheep – two at first, then another, and finally a fourth. Sheep that desperately needed rescuing, because they are being mysteriously attacked, appear in Evie Wyld’s Miles Franklin award winning book, All the birds, singing (my review).

Mateship with Birds (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)Birds of all sorts feature in All the birds, singing, as they also do in Carrie Tiffany’s Stella prize winning novel, Mateship with birds (my review). The main birds she features are a family of kookaburras, but there are also owls, magpies, wrens, and more.

Book coverFor Indigenous Australians, birds have many meanings and values, one of which is as messengers. We were introduced to this, practically, during our Arnhem Land trip last year, but birds-as-messengers feature in Tony Birch’s latest novel, The white girl (my review). “A morning doesn’t pass without one of them speaking to me”, says Odette. I love this.

Book coverAnd now, because all my links to this point have involved animals, I am going to stick with animals. However, for this last link, I’m going for a double shot and am linking on indigenous author too. The book is I saw we saw written and illustrated by the Yolngu students of Nhulunbuy Primary School (my review). The book features many animals that are part of these children’s lives – including birds, like eagles, chickens, seagulls and kingfishers, but other animals too, like whales, dogs and crocodiles.

So, for this month’s meme I’ve done two things I’ve not done before (as far as I remember anyhow): every link involves animals in some way, and we haven’t left Australia. It’s not the way I intended it to be when I started, but that’s the fun of this meme. You never know where you might take yourself!

Finally, before we leave the birds, let me put in a plug for the Australian Bird of the Year poll being run by The Guardian (and sent to me by M-R of MRSMRS blog.) If you love birds and want to take part in the fun, give it a go. The first round closes on 8 November. Regardless of whether you vote, do check out the poll for the often entertaining bird descriptions, such as this for the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo:

Gregarious, brash and not averse to a little mischief, is there another bird that better embodies the Aussie larrikin spirit? Shame about your timber decking, though.

And now, my usual questions: Have you read Alice’s adventures in Wonderland (or is this a silly question)? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

Special Event and Book Giveaway Winners for Jessica White’s Hearing Maud

October 30, 2019

Book coverAs promised, I have drawn this morning, using an online random number generator, the two winners for Jessica White’s Hearing Maud giveaway, which I announced a little over a week ago. As you may remember, the two giveaways were a book and admission to Jessica’s “in conversation” with author Inga Simpson at Muse Books and Cafe, this Saturday 2 November, and a book only for non-Canberra residents.

There were just 2 entries for the Book and Event draw, and 9 entries in Book Only draw.

Here are the winners:

  • Book and Event, No. 1 : Rosalind Moran
  • Book only, No. 5: Sharkell

Congratulations to Rosalind and Sharkell, and commiseration to everyone else, but thanks everyone for playing along. I do hope that those of you who didn’t win do seek out the book! It’s my next read and I’m looking forward to it.

Now, to claim your prizes:

  • Rosalind, just turn up at Muse on Saturday 2 Nov, at 4.30pm. Your name will be at the door.
  • Sharkell, please send me your postal address for delivery of your book by midnight (AEST) on 6 November 2019. (My email address as at the bottom of my Who am I? page.) If you don’t email me by the given date then I will re-draw a new winner for the book.

Again, thanks everyone – and especially thanks to Jessica for sponsoring this giveaway. I look forward to seeing (and hearing) her at the event – and to introducing Rosalind to her.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Setting vs Character in 1930s Australian fiction

October 28, 2019

Today’s post continues the discussion started in last Monday’s “gumleaf and goanna” post. It looks particularly at what reviewers were saying about setting/scene and character, through five Australian books that were reviewed in papers during the decade. There was clearly a lot of engagement in the community about the development of Australian literature, and you can expect more posts on the decade!

This post was inspired, though I’m not going to labour the point, by Eric Norton, who wrote in The Courier Mail in 1934. He comments on the over-focus in Australian literature on “some half dozen ‘peculiar’ environments — the farm, the selection, the station, the mining camp, and a few others, which, if not familiar to us in actuality, have become so through the magazines or by repute”. The stories relying on these, he says, “develop inevitably a certain sameness”. For him, “the imperishable in fiction is that which deals primarily with the shallows or the deeps of the human heart” and he concludes with:

In the creation of fiction, as in life, it is character, not setting, that counts; and it is to the Australian rather than to Australia that the local novelist must look for his inspiration.

Book coverBrent of Bin Bin: We now know this pseudonym was Miles Franklin, but it was a pretty well-kept secret at the time. Certainly, the reviewer in Melbourne’s The Age had no idea. S/he reviews Ten creeks run (1930) (see Bill’s review), which was the second Brent of Bin Bin novel. The reviewer has mixed feelings, saying that “the same defects and the same merits” are apparent in it, but then says that “the effect of repetition is to bring out the merits more emphatically and to place the defects in the background”. This reviewer discusses both setting and character:

The canvas is crowded with minor characters, and the author has not sufficient skill to make these minor characters stand out individually; but the mass effect is good as a background to this story of station life on the Murrumbidgee more than a generation ago. Station life has never been more faithfully depicted in Australian fiction, or with so little conscious effort. Most of the more important characters are true to life, and though the story does not reveal much imaginative force on the part of the author in creating dramatic situations, he [ha!] has skill enough to keep the reader’s interest alive.

Birkett, 1939, Unknown, National Library of Australia, Public Domain, Via Wikimedia Commons.

Winifred Birkett, who won the prestigious ALS Gold Medal, for her 1934 novel, Earth’s quality. The reviewer in Melbourne’s Leader, says this book represents a “great advance on her previous book, Three goats on a bender”.  S/he goes on to say that Earth’s quality,

like so many other Australian novels, has a sheep station for its setting, but unlike most of its class it is not a description of station life, but a study in characterisation. And most of the characters are portrayed with the skill of a practised hand.

S/he then describes some of the main and minor characters, noting that one of the minor characters, Anthony, a Cockney man-of-all-work, “stands out with the vividness of reality”. Fascinatingly, however, “Miss Birkett is not very successful in portraying woman characters”. The story is “somewhat bare of incident, but the literary quality of her book lifts it much above the level of most Australian novels”.

John K Ewers: A Western Australian novelist, poet and schoolteacher who was President of the WA branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. His second novel, Fire on the wind (1935), was reviewed in Melbourne’s Leader.  It’s a story about disastrous bushfires in Gippsland in the late nineteenth century. The reviewer notes that Ewers hadn’t lived in Gippsland, but did have “relatives who spent part of their lives there, and lived through the terrible experiences of Black Thursday.” S/he then outlines the plot – a farm saga – including describing the characters, and concludes that “Although the author is not a Gippslander he knows the bush and the settlers, and on that account the background of his story has the note of realism. His best portrait is that of the aged Colliver, who, despite his narrowmindedness and his bigotry, is an engaging old man”. (ADB)

William Hatfield (pen-name of English-born writer Ernest Chapman): This author I hadn’t heard of. He was best known for his novel Sheepmates (1931), but the review I’m focusing on is for his 1933 novel, Desert saga. It buys right into our modern discussions about who can write what story, because it is, says the The Age’s reviewer, “about a tribe of aborigines in Central Australia, who, when the story opens, had never even seen a white man.” Our reviewer says the author provides “an interesting account of tribal customs and ceremonies, but the primitive conditions of life of an aboriginal tribe do not provide the variety in scene, incident and character, which are the main essentials of a good novel”. Of course, there would have been be good character to explore here, but Hatfield wouldn’t have been the man to do it. Hatfield is on firmer ground when he introduces white men, and explores their relationship with Indigenous people. The reviewer concludes that it’s obvious that Hatfield “has studied the Australian aborigines, and that in presenting their customs, habits and mentality, in the form of a story, he has adhered to truth”. Hmm … how does the reviewer know – and yet, it’s interesting to see that Indigenous people appeared in fiction more often, perhaps, than we might have thought. (ADB)

Kay Glasson Taylor (who, Bill identified last week, used the pseudonym of Daniel Hamline, and was second place-getter in the 1929 Bulletin Prize): The reviewer of her novel, Pick and the duffers (1930), commences by noting that the Australian story “must stand on its own merit, and not by implication or suggestion strive to emulate something of quite different atmosphere.” S/he was commenting on the claim on the jacket of “Pick …” that “Pick is an Australian re-incarnation of the immortal Tom Sawyer.” Our reviewer finds such comparisons dangerous. S/he writes that like several recent Australian stories, “the setting of Pick and the duffers is Queensland, and it deals with some lively incidents connected with cattle duffing on “Coomera” and adjoining stations … It is quite a good yarn, with plenty of action and incident”. It also, interestingly, has an Aboriginal character, Gordon, who is a friend of 11-year-old protagonist Pick. But, for our reviewer, it’s a “a good story for boys, but to adults, Pick becomes tedious with his posturing and posing and precocities”. Not much character development here!

I have more, but will save them for another post another time. I’m enjoying exploring the period, particularly seeing the reviewing style, and what reviewers looked for in and thought about Australian literature.

Any comments?

David Brooks, The grass library (#BookReview)

October 27, 2019

Book coverOK, I’m going to show my hand here. I love animals – and hate animal cruelty – but I am not vegan. More to the point though, I am cautious about animal rights activists because they can sometimes act out the very violence and cruelty on humans that they condemn for non-human animals. I was, therefore, a little wary when I was offered for review David Brooks’ book, The grass library. However, Brooks, a poet/novelist/essayist/academic/one-time co-editor of Southerly, has enough cred that I decided to take a chance. I’m glad I did – just as I was glad to have read, three years ago, Bidda Jones and Julian Davies’ more targeted animal rights book Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports (my review).

The publisher’s letter accompanying my review copy quoted the Sydney Morning Herald’s description of Brooks as “one of Australia’s most skilled, unusual and versatile writers”. It is the combination of this writing skill, with the thoughts contained within, that makes The grass library such an engaging and provocative read.

Although there is no doubt about the author’s commitment to his cause, The grass library is not an in-your-face polemical book. Instead, it is a thoughtful work in which Brooks, now a committed vegan and animal rights advocate – advocate being, perhaps, a more appropriate word than activist – works through his practical, philosophical and ethical position. And he does so in a way that encourages us to think along, and to wonder about and question our own thoughts, practices and values.

The book is part-memoir, part-reflection. It starts with Brooks’ partner, simply called T in the book, pronouncing that she can’t eat meat anymore. “We’re turning vegetarian”, she says. A week later, that becomes vegan. And so, a big change occurs in their lives, one that takes oyster- and cheese-loving Brooks not too long, in fact, to get used to. Brooks writes, heralding the book’s real subject-matter:

But this book isn’t about veganism, or guilt. If I’d permitted myself a more eighteenth-century subtitle it might have been “An account of three years pf philosophical and un-philosophical transactions with animals in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales”, but ultimately and more simply it’s about discovery and wonder: wonder and wondering.

After a couple of false starts, Brooks and T find themselves, in 2012, living on a small farm in the Blue Mountains, with their recently adopted dog Charlie, and, soon after, two rescue sheep, Henry and Jonathan. Not long after that, a new-born lamb, Orpheus Pumpkin, joins them, and by the end of the book, ram Jason brings the number to four. These sheep and Charlie form the book’s backbone and become (or, should I say in the spirit of the book, are) characters in their own right. Other non-human animals appear too, some briefly, including cicadas, ducklings, a snake, and rats.

What I most enjoyed about this book is the calm, non-histrionic way in which Brooks introduces and ponders on a range of random-sounding but coherent-as-the-book-progresses ideas, such as “dusk anxiety” and “herd music”. “Dusk anxiety” is introduced early on through a twitching that Charlie was exhibiting at that time of day. It’s a sort of mood-change or discombobulation that some humans (and, Brooks believes, some non-human animals like Charlie) feel at that strange twilight, half-and-half time of day. Sounds valid to me. However, it also provides Brooks an opportunity to raise the issue of anthropomorphism. His argument is that anthropomorphism is not a bad thing, that in fact, it is central to empathy. The barbarity we engage in against animals is made possible, he argues, by denying this empathy, by believing “that we are so different from the creatures we live amongst that we cannot know or even hazard how they feel.” To read this book, then, you need to understand (if not accept) this fundamental world-view. Brooks may not know what the non-human animals he writes of feel, but he writes with the assumption that they do feel (and that we may know what they feel).

Another significant idea underpinning the book is that of the binary way we view animals. This idea is one of the most confronting or, at least, challenging in the book:

There are so many old, rusty binaries involved here. […]

We categorise animals, and behave towards them – accord or refuse them protection or sanctuary – depending on whether we see them as wild or tame, feral or domesticated, native or exotic, rare or common, endangered or of least concern, pet or pest, livestock or otherwise …

In most of these cases, he says, one side of the binary will be given a higher “value” (in human terms), with, often, a justification to kill the opposing side. For each animal concerned though it is his/her life!

It’s not for nothing, I think, that the next chapter talks about rats at their farm!

This discussion of binaries is part of a major thread in the book, which is language, and how it “trips” us up, how it “will restrict us, hold us back, if we don’t learn to use it with greater care and respect”. Language is all too often speciesist, he argues. Grammar – the use of “it” for a non-human animal, for example – is violent, for example, or, at least, has the potential for violence.

It’s a book, then, that makes the brain hurt – albeit in a gentle, encouraging way. However, there is beauty in the book too, such as the chapter on “herd music”. This chapter starts in his writing room, his “grass library”, and is inspired by the appearance outside his room of the two sheep when (and only when) he plays music. He ponders this. They are herd animals, but being just two rescue sheep, they have no herd and are thus deprived of, he posits, the music of the herd:

… if music it can be called (but how else to call it?): the sound of hooves shifting in the grass or tapping on stone, the occasional bleat of a lamb, response of its mother, grunt or growl or call of a ewe or a ram, the sound of snipping at grass-blades, coughs, throat-clearings, nudgings, strokings, as one sheep passes another, regurgitations, ruminant chewings, fartings, belches, sounds nearer and further off, all in all a constant, rolling concert, approximated—very distantly resembled, in a bizarre, post-something way— by the muted rhythmical under-music of whatever it is that I might be playing on the stereo system in my cabin, an aural equivalent of warmth, the ghost of companionship.

I share this because I loved this, but also because it provides some insight into the way Brooks thinks (or wonders.)

I can’t say I agree with all that Brooks writes. For example, as vegans, he and T didn’t want to feed their rescue lamb lactose-based lamb powder, so they seek non-animal products like almond milk (which doesn’t, for the record, work). But, but, I say, lambs grow on milk! And then, of course, there are those binaries. Philosophically I take his point, but practically? I need to think about this more.

The grass library, then, can be a confronting read because it challenges us to reconsider some fundamental perspectives and assumptions. However, it is not a difficult read, because not only is it generous, but it is also peppered with engaging stories about life in the mountains and the non-human animals with whom Brooks and T. live. I recommend it.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

David Brooks
The grass library
[Blackheath]: Brandl & Schlesinger
ISBN: 9780648202646

(Review copy courtesy Brandl & Schlesinger)

Lafcadio Hearn, Yuki-Onna (#Review)

October 24, 2019

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve posted on a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week. I usually “do” a few a year, but this is the first for 2019, even though I’ve identified several that I’ve wanted to do. However, when Lafcadio Hearn popped up last week – and with a Japanese story – I knew I really had to break the drought.

Image of Lafcadio Hearn's houseLafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) has appeared in this blog a couple of times before, the main time being in a Literary Road post from our 2011 trip to Japan when we visited Matsue. Hearn only lived there briefly but he met his Japanese wife there and it has a museum dedicated to him. Hearn is a fascinating man. Greek-born to a Greek mother and Irish father, he spent childhood years in Ireland before moving to the USA in 1869, where he then lived for two decades. Here he married a former slave who worked in his boardinghouse kitchen, and built his career as a journalist. In 1890 he went to Japan on a publisher’s commission. He married again, and lived out the rest of his life here, taking the name of Koizumi Yakumo. He became chair of English Language and Literature at the Tokyo Imperial University.

In their usual introduction, the Library of America quotes an article by another writer who appeared here only recently, Roger Pulvers. The article, in Japan Times, is titled “Lafcadio Hearn: ‘Japanese thru and tru'”. Pulvers provides a thoughtful, clear-eyed run-down of Hearn’s life, of his attitude to Japan, and particularly of his achievements as a writer. He says that Hearn:

was the shadow-maker, the illusionist who conjured up his own visions of Japan and gladly lost himself in them. He strove to leave Japan and return to the United States. Perhaps he realized that it was there that he had created his most accomplished work, attaining something he savored: notoriety. Again an ironical paradox emerges: He is remembered now in United States, if at all, not for his superb reportage on modern America but for his adoration of a long-gone Japan.

Pulvers says that Hearn loved “old” Japan –

He worshipped the static and wanted to see his beloved quaint Japan remain as sweet as it always was in his eye and the eyes of the world, bemoaning all progress: “What, what can come out of all this artificial fluidity!”

– but

loathed the modern Japanese male and what he stood for, and in this he recognized the futility of his task, a futility keenly felt toward the end of his years, where he heard “nothing but soldiers and the noise of bugles”.

Remember, when he died in 1904, Japan’s imperialism was at its height.

Hearn published roughly a book a year for the fourteen years he lived in Japan, but is best known for two of them, Kwaidan: Stories and studies of strange things (from which this post’s story comes) and Japan: An attempt at interpretation. Kwaidan comprises a number of ghost stories plus a non-fiction study of insects. Intriguing, eh?

Yuki-Onna, says the Library of America, means “snow woman”, and is “an ancient spirit who appears often in Japanese fiction, plays, and movies”. Hearn explains in the Introduction to Kwaidan that he’d heard this story from a farmer as a legend from his village. He says that he doesn’t know “whether it has ever been written in Japanese” but that “the extraordinary belief which it records used certainly to exist in most parts of Japan, and in many curious forms.” Wikipedia confirms in an article about this spirit that it dates back to the 14th to 16th centuries, and can be found in many Japanese prefectures including Aomori, Yamagata, Iwate, Fukushima, Niigata, Nagano, Wakayama, Ehime. If you know your Japan, you’ll know that these take us from northern Honshu down through the island and across to Shikoku.

The story is pretty simple, plot-wise, and given it’s just 4 pages long I’m not going to describe it here, except to say that it is about a vengeful snow spirit. Why she is vengeful is not made clear in Hearn’s story, but Wikipedia says that some legends believe she is the spirit of someone who perished in the snow. The legends vary over place and time, particularly in terms of how evil or aggressive she is.

I suggest you read it at the link below, as it will only take a few minutes. Meanwhile, I’m glad to have had this opportunity to remind myself of this intriguing 19th century character. Next, I’d love to read some of those American articles of his that Pulvers praises.

Lafcadio Hearn
First published: Kwaidan: Stories and studies of strange things, 1904.
Available: Online at the Library of America