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Adam Thompson, Born into this (#BookReview)

July 9, 2021

When my brother gave me Tasmanian author Adam Thompson’s Born into this earlier this year, I told him I’d save it for Lisa’s ILW 2021, which I did – and which means I can now thank him properly for a yet another well-chosen gift, because this is a strong, absorbing and relevant read. If you haven’t heard of Thompson, as I hadn’t, he is, says publisher UQP, “an emerging Aboriginal (pakana) writer from Tasmania”. 

Born into this is a debut collection of sixteen short stories about the state’s Palawa/Pakana people, and based primarily in Launceston and islands in the Bass Straight. It reminds me a little of Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Too much lip (my review) because, like it, these stories are punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia. I say contemporary Australia, because most of the stories deal with recognisably First Nations Australia concerns. However, the collection is also particularly Tasmanian – in setting and in dealing with issues and conditions specific to that place.

They may live in two worlds, but they are still mob (“The old tin mine”)

I like to think about the order in which stories in a collection are presented, although I can never be confident of the assumptions I make about the reasoning. How can I, I suppose, as I’m not in the heads of the authors and their editors. The first story here, “The old tin mine”, is an interesting choice: it introduces various issues and ideas which are picked up through the collection and it sets a sort of resigned tone. The issues include the relationship between black and white in Australia, the introduction of city Indigenous kids to country and culture, the clumsy conscientiousness of white people who want to do the right thing, the politics involved, and the world-weariness of older Indigenous people in dealing with all of this. The story is told first person through the eyes of “Uncle Ben”, the Indigenous leader on an “Aboriginal survival camp”. He is tired, and cynical, and not particularly interested in dealing with these

Aboriginal teens. City boys. Three from Launceston, three from Hobart. “Fair split, north and south”, according to the organisation that had won the black money.

But it’s a job, and these jobs are becoming less frequent, so he takes it on.

The second story, “Honey”, is told third person, and concerns the interactions between white man Sharkey, who has a honey business, and his Palawa employee, Nathan. Sharkey is arrogant, condescending and oblivious of how his behaviour might affect Nathan. He asks Nathan for the “Aboriginal word for honey” because he thinks using it to brand his honey would “be a good gimmick for selling honey … ‘specially with the tourists”. Not all stories work out this way, but in this one, Nathan has the last laugh.

“Honey” also introduces another idea that peppers the collection, which is land rights, and non-indigenous Australians’ fear of losing land. The collection, in fact, references many of the issues confronting contemporary Australia’s relationship with its First Nations peoples: land rights; Invasion Day (or “change the date”); dispossession, the loss of Indigenous culture and attempts to reclaim it; social issues like incarceration, alcoholism and suicide among Indigenous people; and the Stolen Generations, to name some of them.

Some stories, however, respond to a particular Tasmanian issue, that regarding the definition of indigenity. As I wrote in my post on Kathy Marks’ Channelling Mannalargenna, Tasmania’s history has resulted in a specific set of circumstances regarding loss of identity, which has caused, and is still causing, complications and conflict over Indigenous identification in the state. One of the stories on this subject is “Descendant” about a bright, politicised but ostracised young schoolgirl who runs her school’s ASPA (Aboriginal Students and Parents) committee. Dorothy is assiduous about who is and is not “P-A-L-A-W-A”, and has family-tree records to prove it. Aboriginality, she says, is about “being”, not “choosing”. The story provides an excellent example of Thompson’s use of imagery to underpin his themes: Dorothy’s prized mug is accidentally broken, and Cooper, the supportive (of course!) librarian, tries to repair it, but

Bold, white cracks now intersected the Aboriginal colours like a tattered spider web.

Thompson’s writing in this collection is accessible but evocative. His dialogue varies appropriately from speaker to speaker, and the imagery, particularly that regarding colour – red, blue and white, representing white Australia, versus the red, black and orange of First Nations Australia’s flag – is pointed but not overdone. Thompson clearly knows his country. His descriptions of the islands, and the plants and birdlife endemic to them, take you there (or, at the very least, teach you about them.)

I would love to write about more of the collection’s stories, but I should leave you some surprises. I will say, though, that Thompson’s wide cast of characters – from young, disaffected palawa to smart activists, from genuine white people, who want to understand, to the smug and/or rich ones (as in the incisive “The black fellas from here“) – ensures that this collection hits home. No reader, really, can hide from the truths here because they touch us all.

White makes you wary (“Aboriginal Alcatraz”)

Born into this, then, is clearly political, but it is not all bleak. Some stories end with a bang or a twist, which skewer their points home, while others are more gentle. The title story, “Born into this“, is one of the more poignant ones. It tells of Kara, who works as a receptionist at an Aboriginal housing co-op. She’s jaded. Her boss is “a tick-a-box Aboriginal” who “could never prove his identity”, and she is tired of the struggle to survive. So, deep in the forest, where she had learnt about country from her uncle, she spends her spare time working away on her own quiet, little subversive project, a project that involves

Natural survivors, like her own family, born into a hostile world and expected to thrive. She took in the surrounding devastation and thought again about her own life.

“Born into this”.

She knows she won’t make a difference, but “fulfilling some cultural obligations in her own small, secret way” keeps her sane.

It would be great to think that books like Born into this could make a difference – and I think they could, if we all not only listened to Indigenous writers like Thompson, but also took on board, really took on board, what they tell us about ourselves.

For more reviews of this novel, please click Lisa’s ILW 2021 link in this post’s opening paragraph.

Adam Thompson
Born into this
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
ISBN: 9780702263118

Monday musings on Australian literature: Recovering Australia’s Indigenous languages (2)

July 5, 2021
2021 National NAIDOC logo.

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2021 Indigenous Literature Week which coincides of course with NAIDOC Week, and, again, I’ve decided to contribute this week’s Monday Musings to the cause. The topic I’ve chosen, the reclamation of First Nations languages, was partly inspired by last week’s Monday Musings on Eliza Hamilton Duncan, but also follows up a post I wrote early last year on the topic.

According to academic Elizabeth Webby, Dunlop was the “first Australian poet to transcribe and translate Indigenous songs, and [w]as among the earliest to try to increase white readers’ awareness of Indigenous culture”. Dunlop also created vocabularies of the local language. Consequently, her work, like that of other colonials, is helping language reclamation projects around Australia. Of course, if settlers hadn’t stolen land and destroyed culture, and hadn’t actively suppressed language, in the first place, this arduous work would not be needed.

Each year NAIDOC week has a theme, and 2021’s is “Heal country, heal our nation” which, the website says, “calls for all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.” Given the significant role played by language in maintaining culture, a post on language reclamation is, I think, relevant to this theme.

‘The living voices of our past giving strength to our future’

This heading is the goal of a 2013-established organisation, First Languages Australia. They are working, they say, to “a future where Aboriginal language communities and Torres Strait Islander language communities have full command of their languages and can use them as much as they wish to.” This is just one organisation working on the goal.

Another is Living Languages, founded in 2004 under another name. They describe their purpose as “to support the sustainability of Indigenous languages and Indigenous peoples’ ownership of their language documentation and revitalisation.”

It is difficult to assess the magnitude of the challenge because so much is lost, but Living Languages says that some 250-400 languages were spoken across Australia, or up to 700 and 800 if you include language varieties and dialects. However, they say, Australia has been “identified as one of five language endangerment hotspots worldwide, with only around 13 languages being passed on to children today”.

As I wrote in my previous post, First Nations communities vary in their attitude to sharing language outside their communities. This statement by the Kaurna people on the University of Adelaide’s language courses webpage clearly states their position:

Kaurna language and culture is the property of the Kaurna community. Users of this site are urged to use the language with respect. This means making every effort to get the pronunciation, spelling and grammar right.

Kaurna people reserve the right to monitor the use of the language in public. Users of this site should consult with Kaurna people about use of the language in the public domain.

Random projects and activities

There’s no way I could document all the projects – big and small – that are happening around Australia, so I’m going to share three (adding to those I mentioned in last year’s post) which exemplify the sorts of things that are happening.

Eidsvold State School Wakka Wakka program

Located in Queensland’s North Burnett Region, this school has developed, says the Teach Queensland website, a “unique language program” that engages the whole school with the local community and in learning the local Aboriginal language, Wakka Wakka. The local First Nations people support this program:

After several years of planning and consultation with Traditional Owner groups, the Wakka Wakka Corporation and the community, Eidsvold State School encourages all students and staff to speak to each other in Wakka Wakka using short phrases.

Mawng Ngaralk language website

Mawng is spoken in the western part of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The site tells us that Warruwi School runs a Mawng language program and supports the 2014-established Warruwi Language Centre which runs other Mawng language activities. Do check out this website, because it contains a dictionary and many, many videos in which local speakers share their knowledge in ways that both document vocabulary and pronunciation, and show how the language is used in song and dance.

Paper and Talk workshop

This was a two-week workshop held in 2019, led by Monash University, in collaboration with Living Languages and AIATSIS. Its aim was “to help revive languages from five Aboriginal communities”: Anaiwan (NSW), Wakka Wakka (QLD), Yorta Yorta (VIC), Ngunnawal (ACT) and Wergaia (VIC). The workshop gave language researchers from these communities “the opportunity and skills to access archives and transform them into usable language resources”. They were, for example, introduced to resources, like an 1800s surveyors’ notebook, in which language were documented by early settlers (like Dunlop).

What about irretrievably lost languages?

Maïa Ponsonnet, who researches Aboriginal languages, though is not Indigenous herself, makes the point that “while there are very good reasons to deplore the loss of small languages, assuming this loss condemns cultural identity may be unhelpful and reductive to those who have already shifted away from their heritage language”. In her article in The Conversation she argues that reclaiming languages is important, but that over-focus on it can be hurtful and, in some circumstances, politically damaging for those whose languages are lost. Language, her research is showing, is “plastic”. Post-colonial languages like Kriol can be “shaped by culture”, she writes. “Even when language is replaced, culture can continue”.

Thoughts, anyone?

Click here here to see all my previous ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings.

Six degrees of separation, FROM Eats shoots and leaves TO …

July 3, 2021

Now we come to July, and we Aussies have one month of winter under our belt. Woo hoo! But, enough weather report, onto our Six Degrees of Separation meme. If you don’t know how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule, as most of you know, is that Kate sets our starting book – and this month it’s a book I’ve read, albeit long before blogging. It’s Lynne Truss’s Eats shoots and leaves, whose subtitle, “The zero tolerance approach to punctuation”, tells you its subject.

As always, I had many thoughts about where to go with this, but I couldn’t resist using Truss’s dedication, which is: “to the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution”. This gave me the opportunity to link to my latest review, Steven Conte’s The Tolstoy Estate (my review), sinceone of the main characters, Katerina, was a Bolshevik supporter of the Russian Revolutions.

Izzeldin Abuelaish, I shall not hate

I love humane people who rise above the enmities that surround them to do the right thing. Conte’s doctor, Paul Bauer, is a fictional one, but a real one is Dr Izzeldin Abulaish who, in his book, I shall not hate (my review) tells of the killing of three of his daughters by Israeli Defence Force shells in January 2009 during a 23-day attack on Gaza, and his decision to not hate but to work for harmony in Palestine and Israel.

Sara Dowse, As the lonely bly

A novel which explores the twentieth century history of Israel and Palestine, looking at the early idealism and the later failures, and arguing for empathy and humanity, is Sara Dowse’s As the lonely fly (my review).

Sara Dowse Schemetime

Now I’m going to do something I rarely do in this meme, which is to link to another book by the same author, to a book that will move us away from politics to the arts. The book is Sara Dowse’s Schemetime (my review). It’s about an Australian filmmaker who goes to LA wanting to make a career in the film industry.

Book cover

The natural link for this is Dominic Smith’s recent historical fiction, The electric hotel (my review). It is about the early decades of the film industry, when entrepreneurs were developing cinematograph technology and touting it around the world.

Cover for Amor Towles A gentleman in Moscow

The main character in Smith’s book is silent film pioneer Claude Ballard, and when the novel opens he is an old man who as been living in LA’s Knickerbocker Hotel for over thirty years. Remind you of anything? It reminded me of Amor Towles A gentleman in Moscow (my review), which is about “pre-revolutionary” Count Rostov who lives (is, technically imprisoned) for decades in Moscow’s grand hotel, Metropol.

This doesn’t link naturally back to Lynne Truss, but it does to my first link The Tolstoy Estate! Yasnaya Polyana is not a grand hotel, but it is a real place used as a setting for a novel, and Bolshevik Katerina was originally an aristocrat like our count.

So, besides that little bit of circularity, where have we been? All over the place – Russia, Israel and Palestine, America, all over the world, and back to Russia. And, reversing my usual pattern, four of my selections are by men, and two by women (the same woman, actually.)

Now, the usual: Have you read Eats shoots and leaves? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate (#BookReview)

July 1, 2021

Steven Conte burst on the scene in 2008 when he won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Literary Award with his 2007-published debut novel, The zookeeper’s war. I always intended to read it but somehow it never happened. Jump to 2020, and Conte’s second novel, The Tolstoy Estate, was published. That’s a big gap, but what he’s produced is a well-researched, carefully-crafted, thoroughly absorbing novel.

What intrigues me more than this gap, however, is that both his novels are set during World War 2, and both deal with Germany in the war. The zookeeper’s war is about how the Berlin Zoo’s owner and his Australian wife managed to keep it going through the war. I wonder what it is about war and Germany that attracts Conte? Or, is it just coincidence?

So many paths to follow

The Tolstoy Estate’s plot is not complicated. Most of the story takes place over the six week period – November-December 1941 – during which a German army medical unit established and ran a hospital in Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate, near Tula, south of Moscow. Arriving at the estate, the Germans, including doctor Paul Bauer, meet the site’s curator, Katerina Trubetzkaya, who is, not surprisingly, hostile. A relationship develops between Paul and Katerina, against a backdrop of deteriorating conditions both on the war-front and in the unit, as its commanding officer Metz’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

Sounds straightforward enough? Yes, but as one of my reading group members said, the novel has so many paths to follow, so many ideas to think about, that it’s impossible to follow them all. I agree, so, here, I will focus on just a couple of them.

I’ll start, however, with a few comments about the style and structure. The novel is primarily told in third person through the perspective of Paul, so our understanding of what happens, our assessment of the characters and their relationships, come through his thoughts and feelings. Fortunately, he is quickly established as a humane, considered person, so we can trust him, as much as we can trust anyone.

SORT OF SPOILER (though not the ending)

Half-way through the novel we jump to 1967, and a letter from Katerina to Paul. This introduces a second chronology which covers nearly a decade from then. Most of it, until the last chapter, is conveyed though a few letters between the two, interspersed with the main wartime narrative.

Why does Conte do this? This is the question I always ask when an author plays with their narrative structure like this. My usual thought is that the author wants to de-emphasise the plot to encourage us to think about something else, but then the question is, what? I suspect that this is partly the case here, and I’ll talk about the “what” soon. Regardless of the “what”, however, the impact of revealing that Katerina and Paul have survived the war, is to slow us down. It encourages us to focus on the development of their relationship against the backdrop of this cruel war, rather than rushing to turn the pages to see what happens next.

As for the paths, the “whats”, there are many. The Tolstoy Estate is about war of course. The history part of this novel is true, in that Tolstoy’s estate was indeed occupied by the Germans for a military hospital, so there is that. And, there’s the exploration, through our two protagonists, of two unappealing regimes, Nazism and Stalinism. I could write more about the nuances of that, but I won’t. Then, there’s its evocation of how humans behave during war, of how some will and some won’t behave with humanity across the enemy divide. We see this in many war novels, so I won’t dwell on that, either, except to say that I liked Conte’s appreciation of the continuum of humanity’s behaviour from the worst to the best. One of the questions on Steven Conte’s website concerns whether we can forgive what we come to understand. I’ll leave that one with you too!

Love is an excellent motivator (Katerina)

Now, though, I want to turn to two paths that particularly interested me – love and literature. Let’s do love first. The Tolstoy Estate is a love story. Both our protagonists have lost their spouses, meaning both are currently free but have experienced love before. However, they are also, of course, technically, enemies, belonging to opposing regimes, both of which can be brutal to those who cross the line. This tests their love.

Love is not one-dimensional, as Conte knows, so he sets their love against other sorts of love, including master-race proponent Metz’s dutiful but ultimately sexless marriage because of the “physiological costs imposed by sexual congress”; the Soviet Government’s conservative, sexist attitude to romantic relationships, evidenced in its reaction to Katerina’s novel; a German officer’s homosexuality that brings about his demise; the bawdy conversations and behaviour of many soldiers. There’s also Bauer’s brief but pointed reference to the soldiers he treats:

Loves or is loved“, he thought constantly as he amputated, concerned less about the truth of the incantation than its usefulness to keeping him alert.

War and love, by definition, make strange bed-fellows. War heightens emotions of all sorts, and forces those who love to think seriously about it, as Paul and Katerina do. Paul’s bawdy but romantic colleague Molineux says that Paul and Katerina’s bond “transcends race, it transcends law”, and yet both Paul and Katerina are aware that the practicalities of love can spoil even a strong bond – which provides the perfect link to the literature path …

Writers document, great men do (Metz)

Contemplating the value and practice of literature underpins the novel, with Tolstoy’s War and peace, of course, providing the pivot. It links to the love path, because Paul and Katerina frequently consider Tolstoy’s evocation of love in the novel. In a letter to Katerina, Paul writes that War and peace reminded him

that love doesn’t always conquer but that, arguably, it’s better that way – that thwarted love is stronger, more enduring than the domesticated kind.

But, beyond love in Tolstoy, Conte’s characters also think about the value of literature. Again, here is Paul in a letter to Katerina, telling her that War and peace had restored his faith in

doing good in the world; because if, as Tolstoy argued, we are all specks in a vast world-historical drama, including those who think they’re in charge, it follows that everyone’s actions are potentially significant, that the humblest person can influence events as much as any general, emperor of tsar.

This counteracts Metz’s argument to Katerina early in the novel that

with his rifle our humblest “Landser” shapes the world in a way your Tolstoy never did.

The old “pen is mightier than the sword” discussion I suppose, but oh so engagingly told!

There are also discussions about the craft of writing – some of which reflect wryly on Conte’s interest, such as Katerina’s research focus being narratology.

But I will end with Katerina’s concern about the fading of the novel in the later 20th century:

Everything fades, I suppose, certainly everything made by human hands, and yet I can’t help feeling bereft to witness this diminution of the novel, which for all its inadequacies has trained us to see the world from others’ points of view. To borrow a Stalinist idiom, the novel is a machine, a noisy, violent thing whose product, oddly enough, is often human understanding, perhaps even a kind of love.

Love … and the novel. A good place to end my post on this compelling and intelligent novel.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also loved this novel.

Steven Conte
The Tolstoy Estate
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2020
ISBN: 9781460758823

Colin Roderick Award longlist 2021

June 30, 2021

I wrote about this award in a Monday Musings back in 2012, but haven’t mentioned it much since. Roderick, as I explained in that post, is a somewhat controversial character in Australian literature. However, the award is worth $20,000 and encompasses a wide range of forms and genres, both fiction and nonfiction, so, I thought it might be interesting to revisit. Awards, like the Stella, which are brand like this, make interesting lists for readers.

But, just to recap … as I explained in my Monday Musings post, the award goes to “the best book published in Australia which deals with any aspect of Australian life”. A bit like the Miles Franklin – except that it can be “any” book.

It is administered by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies (FALS) at James Cook University.

The 15 longlisted titles for 2021 are:

  • Steven Conte’s The Tolstoy Estate (historical fiction, my review coming but here’s Lisa’s)
  • Stephanie Convery’s After the count: The death of Davey Browne (nonfiction)
  • Garry Disher’s Consolation (crime fiction, a sequel to Bitter Wash Road which I reviewed recently)
  • Anna Goldsworthy’s Melting moments (fiction, my review)
  • Jane Harper’s The survivors (crime fiction, Kim’s measured review)
  • Daniel Keighran & Tony Park’s Courage under fire (nonfiction/memoir)
  • Grantlee Kieza’s Banks (nonfiction/biography)
  • Sofie Laguna’s Infinite splendours (fiction, Theresa’s and Kate’s qualified reviews)
  • Tobias McCorkell’s Everything in its right place (fiction)
  • Louise Milligan’s Witness (nonfiction)
  • Kirli Saunders’ Bindi (children’s poetry)
  • Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (fiction, to be read in July)
  • Elizabeth Tan’s Smart ovens for lonely people (short stories, on my TBR, Bill’s review)
  • Jessie Tu’s A lonely girl is a dangerous thing (fiction, Kim’s and my inaugural blog mentee Angharad’s reviews)
  • Mark Wilson’s Eureka! A story of the goldfields (children’s picture book)
Book cover

This year’s extended longlist includes nine works of fiction, four of nonfiction (including a biography and a memoir), and two children’s books. One of these is Eureka!, which, says Books + Publishing, is the first children’s picture book to be longlisted for the award.

For more information, including an excellent description of each of the longlisted books, check out the Foundation’s website.

Do any of these books interest you?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Forgotten writers 2, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop

June 28, 2021

When I started my Monday Musings sub-series on forgotten Australian writers a couple of months ago, I had a few writers in mind, including the first one I did, Helen Simpson. However, a couple of weeks ago, The Conversation published the latest in their Hidden Women of History series, and the subject was an Irish-Australian poet, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop. I figured that, being a poet, she also qualifies for my Forgotten Writers series. I hadn’t heard of her, but she has become well-known in academic circles, because of … well I’ll let The Conversation explain.

Anna Johnston, co-editor with Elizabeth Webbey, of the recently published collection of essays Eliza Hamilton Dunlop: Writing from the colonial frontier, launches her The Conversation article with

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem The Aboriginal Mother was published in The Australian on December 13, 1838, five days before seven men were hanged for their part in the Myall Creek massacre.

Dunlop, Johnston continues, had arrived in Sydney in February and was “horrified by the violence” she read about in the papers. Her poem was inspired by the evidence given in court about an Indigenous woman and baby who survived the massacre. In it, she condemns “settlers who professed Christianity but murdered and conspired to cover up their crime”.

The poem made Dunlop “locally notorious”, but “she didn’t shrink from the criticism she received in Australia’s colonial press”. She hoped

the poem would awake the sympathies of the English nation for a people who were “rendered desperate and revengeful by continued acts of outrage”.

So, who was this outspoken, confident woman?

She was born in Ireland in 1796. Her father was a lawyer, but her mother died soon after her birth. Soon after, her father moved to India, to be a Supreme Court judge, so she was raised by her paternal grandmother. Johnston writes that she grew up in a “privileged Protestant family with an excellent library”, and “grew up reading writers from the French Revolution and social reformers such as Mary Wollstonecraft”. She started writing at a young age, and had poems published in local magazines in her teens.

These poems reflected her interest in the Irish language and in political campaigns to extend suffrage and education to Catholics. After travelling to India in 1820, she wrote poems about the impact of British colonialism. Then, in 1823 she married book binder and seller David Dunlop, in Scotland. His family history inspired poems about the bloody suppression of Protestant radicals in the 1798 Rebellion.

According to ADB, she had previously married an Irish astronomer in Ireland and had two children, one born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, in 1816. They don’t mention what happened to this husband, but they concur with Johnston about her marrying Dunlop in 1823. Johnston says that Eliza and David had five children in Coleraine, and that they were engaged there “in political activity seeking to unseat absentee English landlords”. Clearly, Dunlop was politically engaged from an early age.

The family left Ireland in 1837, arriving in Australia, as mentioned above, in February 1938. Husband David worked first as a magistrate in Penrith, before, in 1839, becoming police magistrate and protector of Aborigines at Wollombi and Macdonald River, where he remained until 1847. ADB’s Gunson says that “as a minor poet Mrs Dunlop contributed to the literary life of the Hunter River circle” and that “her acquaintance with the European literary world gave her a place of prestige, and though neither as talented nor radical as, for example, Charles Harpur, her contribution was original”.

Songs of an exile

She may not have been, as “talented” or “radical” as others, but Sydney University Press deems her a worthy subject. Their promo for the above-mentioned book says that, after the publication of “The Aboriginal mother”,

She published more poetry in colonial newspapers during her lifetime, but for the century following her death her work was largely neglected. In recent years, however, critical interest in Dunlop has increased, in Australia and internationally and in a range of fields, including literary studies; settler, postcolonial and imperial studies; and Indigenous studies.

One of those interested is Katie Hansord, who has an essay in the book and who has written about her on the Tinteán online magazine website. Hansord’s article is titled – surprise, surprise – “a forgotten colonial woman poet”. Hansord says that in addition to being a poet she was “a playwright, a writer of short stories, and a passionate advocate of human rights with a keen interest in politics”. She writes that

Dunlop’s poetry reflects her concerns with both gender and nationalism. It should be remembered that in its original publication, ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ was the fourth poem in the series ‘Songs of an Exile’ which Dunlop published in The Australian from October 1838.

The poem is easily found on the web, and has been included in many anthologies, but it is also in Hansord’s article, linked above. The poem was, as were many of Dunlop’s poems, set to music by Isaac Nathan, and performed in concerts at the time.

However, the point I wish to end on concerns the reception of “The Aboriginal mother” because it was, of course, controversial. Leading the negative charge was, apparently, The Sydney Morning Herald, which essentially believed that Dunlop had “given an entirely false idea of the native character”(29 November 1941), that, in effect, the Indigenous people were not capable of such deep feelings.

Hansord says more about this in her article:

Elizabeth Webby has also pointed out that the Sydney Morning Herald ‘which had strongly opposed the execution of the men involved in Myall Creek was for many years very hostile to her [Dunlop] and her work’ (Blush 45). This hostility seems also to have reflected a growing white masculinist nationalist agenda.

Hansord briefly discusses the construction of “Australianness” during the nineteenth century, a construction that privileged white Australian-born men. For immigrant Irishwoman Dunlop – who was also actively engaged in capturing Indigenous language and translating Indigenous songs – this was clearly not good enough, and she engaged. (You can find an example of an Indigenous poem captured in the original language and translated by Dunlop, in The Band of Hope Journal and Australian Home Companion (5 June 1958)).

Dunlop died in Wollombi in 1880, and is buried in the local Church of England cemetery. There is clearly much more to this woman, but let this be a little introduction to another interesting, independent colonial Australian woman!

Malcolm Knox, Bluebird (#BookReview)

June 26, 2021

Malcolm Knox’s sixth novel, Bluebird, comes with some impressive endorsements. On the front cover is “Charlotte Wood, author of The weekend“, while the back features “Christos Tsiolkas, author of Damascus and The slap” and “Adam Gilchrist, former test cricketer and beach-goer”. Hang on, Adam Gilchrist? What the?

Some of you will know why, but I didn’t. However, I now know that as well as being a novelist, Knox is a respected journalist who has been a cricket correspondent, sport editor, and literary editor. Wikipedia reminded me that he was the literary editor who exposed “the fake Jordanian memoirist, Norma Khouri“. This won him and co-journalist, Carolyn Overington, a Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism.

The thing is, I knew Malcolm Knox’s name, but had read none of his novels or his many works of non-fiction. Consequently, I came to Bluebird cold. I have no idea whether it is typical of Knox’s writing, but, I did enjoy it.

Superficially, it looks like a satire on all those beach communities that pepper Australia’s coasts – the middle-aged men who prefer surfing to working, the country-club set, the councils which sell out to developers, small-town racism and gay-bashing, and so on. You can imagine it, I’m sure. Except that, in fact, it soon becomes clear that while a beach-town might be the setting, Bluebird’s satire is broader, reaching into wider aspects of contemporary Australian life – dysfunctional men and broken families, development, aged care, banking, local government, the list goes on. It’s more that given Australians’ love for the beach, such a town makes the perfect, relatable, setting for his tale.

However, satire can sometime be an intellectual exercise, engaging the mind more than the heart, but Knox achieves both, by creating flawed characters whom we recognise and can engage with, and by telling a story that is just that bit larger than life to make it exciting but not so much that it doesn’t feel real. At first, I was concerned that it was just a little bit too smart-alecky for me, that there were just a few too many biting lines, but I found myself drawn in because I cared about the seemingly hapless 50-year-old Gordon and (some of) his family and friends.

How did they get away with it?

The novel is told in four parts – First Part, Next Part, This Part and Last Part – with each introduced in an italicised section by “Bird’s eye”, a not quite disinterested truth-teller. The story concerns the recently unemployed, recently separated Gordon, and his attempts to keep Bluebird’s iconic house, The Lodge, intact. The Lodge, however, is more than a house; it’s a symbol of all that is both good and rotten in Bluebird, in Gordon’s family, in, I think we could say, Australia. It is a paradox. Bird’s eye, introducing First Part, says:

This house is not an answer but a question: absolute beachfront yet virtually inaccessible, sitting on premium real estate that is somehow not real estate at all, a historic abuse protected by custom.

And the question is, how did they get away with it, or, more pointedly, as Bird’s eye asks, what have they got away with, to, even more pointedly, will they keep getting away with it.

So, through Gordon, the novel explores how its characters (and, dare I say, Australians) have managed to maintain the good life. Gordon lives in his beloved Lodge, sharing the bunk room with his teenage son Ben, who has some sort of “Asperger-ish ADHD-sih, non-specific, nameless disorder-is Thing”, and his goddaughter Lou, who is, arguably, the most competent character in the novel. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Kelly, is also there, occupying the “queen room”. His many unemployed, or minimally employed, friends also hang around the Lodge – unless, that is, there is a surf. And, he has elderly parents, irascible father Ron, who is living, unwillingly, in aged care due to having terminal kidney failure, and mother Norma, “a model for pressing forward without an inward glance”. But, the centre of it all is Gordon, and he is floundering. He has no money, and is marooned by a secret concerning his brother’s death over 40 years ago. The problem is that he is likeable, “a good man” in fact, and people want to help him, even at risk to themselves.

And, of course, there are the bullies – including his soon-to-be ex-step-mother-in-law Leonie who pulls the family financial strings for her own purposes, Council heavy Frontal, and “big man” about town, Tony Eastaugh. None of these want to help Gordon save The Lodge, and thus Bluebird itself.

It’s a complicated story of financial skulduggery set against personal insecurities, jealousies, and just plain ineffectuality, but the novel holds together largely because of its language and humour, Knox’s ability to skewer Australian culture, and his insight into human nature. I loved for example his comment on Gordon and Kelly’s marriage:

Habit, over-familiarity, neglect and inaction killed more lives than cancer.

Change is what I’m ready for (Gordon)

Marriage, however, is not his main target. Rather, it’s Australian men and the way they are letting the side down. Bluebird’s men tend to be ambitious power-hungry bullies or ineffectual past-focused also-rans. There are few in the middle. Overall, it’s the women who are decisive, which is not to say that they are all “better” people. Knox’s attitude to most of his characters seems to be one of frustrated affection. These people, he seems to be saying, are hanging onto the past, but

The past was worn out, not as solid as it was made out to be. Past its best.

The ending, when it comes, is cataclysmic, but not hopeless. Knox wants us to believe that people – that Australia, which seems also to be wallowing in its past – can change. It’s not that the past is all bad, but it shouldn’t drive us.

Introducing the Last Part, Bird’s eye says

This is not the outsider’s story. This is the story of those who are in the middle yet on the margin, the hole in the doughnut, so close to the centre that they have fallen into the void.

The question is, can we get ourselves out? Bluebird is a warm and funny but also biting read. Recommended.

This review is featured by Twinkl in their blog about the latest must-read books. See more recommendations and get involved at Book Lovers’ Top Picks For Your 2021 TBR List.

Malcolm Knox
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760877422

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Refugee literature

June 21, 2021

I had planned another post for this week, but that can wait, as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has reminded me that it is Refugee Week, and I thought that should take priority. Lisa has posted on a book relevant to the week, and includes in her post a link to a reading list of books she provided last year. Do check her posts out, because she also briefly describes the successes and failures of Australia’s treatment of refugees.

Refugee Week was first commemorated in Australia in 1986 in Sydney, and became a national event in 1988. It runs from Sunday to Saturday of the week which includes 20 June (World Refugee Day), so this year it actually runs from Sunday 20 to Saturday 27 June. Its aim, as you can imagine, is “to inform the public about refugees and celebrate positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society” in order to encourage Australians to welcome them and help them become integral part of our community.

Before I get to my main topic of refugee literature, I thought it would be worth reminding us of a book that was not written by a refugee but which, among other things, makes a point about the contributions made to Australia by postwar European refugees. I’m talking Madeleine St John’s The women in black (my review). For baby-boomers, this novel brought back the suspicion with which Australians viewed, for example, the strange food introduced into Australia at the time, like salami, for example! My sense is that we learnt a lesson from this and are now more welcoming of the wonderful new foods refugees can bring to us. But, of course, refugees bring much more than simply food to a country. For St John’s Europeans, this included more cultured or intellectual interests, and greater equality between the sexes.

Recent refugee literature in Australia

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountains

There is a wealth of post-war European refugee literature published in Australia, but for this post I want to focus on more recent literature. And probably the best known recent work of refugee literature in Australia was/is Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains. As it turns out, this Kurdish-Iranian asylum-seeker to Australia has ended up in New Zealand. However, his book, which he wrote on a mobile phone and transmitted in a series of single messages, won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction. It was translated from Persian into English by Omid Tofighian.

Refugee literature comes in various forms – memoirs, of course, of which Boochani’s book is an example, but also novels, poetry and drama. Most commonly, it’s the next generation whose voices are heard, than the adults who came here.

AS Patric, Black rock white city

These “next” generation writers include those who came as quite young children. They are true bearers of both worlds. Anh Do, author of the memoir, The happiest refugee, is an example. He came to Australia as a Vietnamese boat-person in 1980 when he was just a toddler. Nam Le, author of the short story collection, The boat, was a baby when his parents arrived here, also as Vietnamese boat people. Two of the stories in his collection deal specifically with the experience of migration, but all, as I recollect, confront the idea of survival which must surely have been inspired by his family’s experiences.

Another example is AS Patrić, who was a child when he came to Australia from Serbia (and the Yugoslav Wars). He won the Miles Franklin Award with his debut novel, Black rock white city (my review), which graphically portrays the feeling of displacement experienced by refugees.

Alice Pung, by contrast, was born in Australia a year after her parents arrived as refugees from Cambodia. She has written memoirs about her family, including Her father’s daughter (my review).

Indian-born Aravind Adiga’s novel, Amnesty (Lisa’s review), has recently been shortlisted for the 2021 Miles Franklin award. He is not a refugee, and does not live in Australia, but his novel deals with with some of the most complex issues confronting Australia at the moment, that of people coming to Australia via people smugglers, seeking asylum but not deemed to be refugees. This novel forces its protagonist to confront his status, while also looking at how his position in Australia makes this such an issue.

Refugee literature makes many contributions to our literature. One is refugee writers’ willingness to challenge literary norms and genres, and to push boundaries. Boochani and Patrić are particularly good examples of this. Another is the focus they bring to our perception of Australian culture and identity, confronting us with issues like racism and promoting social justice causes. Alice Pung’s writing exemplifies this. Both, though, force us to rethink the status quo, and to see both our literature and our culture through different eyes and we are, surely, richer for it.

I’m afraid that this is a brief post because, as some of you know, I am family and grandchild visiting in Melbourne. However, I hope I have done at least a little justice to Refugee Week.

I’d love to you to contribute to the discussion, with, for example, your own favourite examples of refugee literature – and why you like them.

Favourite quotes: from Marion Halligan’s Fog Garden

June 19, 2021

Some time ago, I started a little ad hoc Favourite Quotes series but I haven’t added to it for some time. This post, I actually drafted back then, but never got around to completely it, but I will now!

One of my favourite Australian writers, though I’ve only reviewed one of her recent books on my blog, is Marion Halligan. It’s fitting therefore, that she feature in this little series. The quotes – and there are four – all come from The fog garden, which was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award and the Nita Kibble Literary Award (which is for “life writing”). I loved it, and felt it deserved these and more accolades.

I read The fog garden in 2002, a year after it came out, and so, unfortunately, a few years before blogging. It’s an autobiographical novel. In other words, it’s a novel, it’s fiction, but it draws from Halligan’s life. It is about Clare, a novelist, and how she copies with grief after the death of her beloved husband. The novel was triggered or inspired by, or a response to – I’m not sure which here is the most accurate – the death of Halligan’s husband of 35 years.

What I love about it is that as well as being about grief, and the wisdom one learns from the tough experiences of life, it is also about fiction. What I love, in other words, is that it’s about life, it’s about writing, and it is also about reading. It asks us readers to think about how we read. It’s cheeky – and those of you who know how much I love Jane Austen, how much I love Carmel Bird, will know how much I love cheeky writers.

So, here is our first person narrator writing about her character Clare:

She isn’t me. She’s a character in fiction. And like all such characters she makes her way through the real world which her author invents for her. She tells the truth as she sees it, but may not always be right.  (p. 9)

I mean, really, you’ve got to love that. It’s the real world, but a version of it invented by the author for her character. Just because it’s a recognisable world, and just because the things Clare says and does are “true” doesn’t mean that they are the things author Halligan said, did and believed. They could be but they aren’t necessarily so, and we should not assume they are so, because this is fiction not a memoir. If Halligan had wanted to write a memoir she certainly would have. By writing fiction Halligan was freer to explore her feelings and to play with where they might take her.

Anyhow, here again is our first person narrator writing about writing Clare:

A reader could think that, since Clare is my character, I can make all sorts of things happen to her that I can’t make happen to myself. This is slightly true, but not entirely … only if it is not betraying the truths of her life and character as I have imagined them. (p. 10)

Of course: once you create a character, that character must be true to what you have created.

And here is a little insight into the challenges of writing. I certainly know about writers’ metaphors that have taken me in wrong directions.

That is the trouble with metaphor, it may take you to places you don’t want to go. (p. 279)

And, finally, one of my favourite quotes from all the books I’ve read, and one I’ve shared before.

Read a wise book and lay its balm on your soul.

If you haven’t read The fog garden, and ever get a chance, do give it a go. It’s a wise – but also lively – book.

Meanwhile, do any of these quotes speak to you?

Miles Franklin Award 2021 shortlist

June 17, 2021

I haven’t posted on the Miles Franklin Award since 2019, and I didn’t post this year’s longlist when it came out last month, but, despite my woeful record – I’ve yet to read any on the longlist – I felt it was about time I returned to Australia’s best known literary award.

Unfortunately, I was driving in the back blocks of northeast Victoria when the announcement was made, with no Internet connection in our room overnight. We have landed in civilisation – hmmm – depending on you definition, and are once more connected! I thought I’d start by sharing the longlist:

The longlist

Book cover
  • Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty (Lisa’s review)
  • Robbie Arnott’s The rain heron
  • Daniel Davis Wood’s At the edge of the solid world
  • Gail Jones’ Our shadows
  • Sofie Laguna’s Infinite Splendours (on my TBR and will definitely be read this year)
  • Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth (Lisa’s review)
  • Laura Jean Mckay’s The animals in that country (my, I wish I’d read this already, given its popularity on awards lists)
  • Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s
  • Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone sky, gold mountain (on my TBR)
  • Philip Salom’s The fifth season (on my TBR) (Lisa’s review)
  • Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile ((on my TBR and will definitely be read this year)
  • Madeleine Watts’ The inland sea

The judges describe the spread as “‘a rich mix of well-established, early career and debut novelists whose work ranges from historical fiction to fabulism and psychologism”.

And now, the shortlist:

  • Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty
  • Robbie Arnott’s The rain heron
  • Daniel Davis Wood’s At the edge of the solid world
  • Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth
  • Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s
  • Madeleine Watts’ The inland sea

Some random observations:

  • Two of the authors – Adiga and Wood – are not Australian-born or based, but meet the award’s criteria because their subject matter is Australian (that is, they present ‘Australian life in any of its phases’). Adiga won the Booker Prize in 2008 with The white tiger, and Wood is apparently the founder and publisher of Splice, a small UK-based press.
  • None of these books are on my TBR pile – wah – though I have been wanting to read Lohrey so this might be the impetus I need.
  • There appears to be less diversity in terms of author background, though Adiga is Indian.
  • There are four women and two men, which is fine, particularly given the award has rebalanced the gender representation well over recent years.
  • None of these authors have won the Award before, but two, Arnott and Lohrey, have been listed before.
  • Two – Pippos and Watts – are debut novelists.
  • Lisa (ANZLitLovers) will be happy as she was mightily impressed with Lohrey’s Labyrinth (see her review above).

Each of the shortlisted writers will receive $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize.

The chair of the judging panel, Richard Neville, said

‘In various ways each of this year’s shortlisted books investigate destructive loss: of loved ones, freedom, self and the environment … There is, of course, beauty and joy to be found, and decency and hope, largely through the embrace of community but, as the shortlist reminds us, often community is no match for more powerful forces.’

This year’s judges comprise, as always, continuing judges and new ones, providing I think a good mix of experience and fresh ideas: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), author and activist Sisonke Msimang, and critics Melinda Harvey, Bernadette Brennan and James Ley.

The winner will be announced on 15 July.

And, for a bit of fun, we saw this on a school notice board as we drove by today:

I always knock on the fridge door just in case salad’s dressing. (Eltham Primary School) 

What do you think – of the shortlist, I mean!?