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My literary week (16), Values and truth

March 13, 2020

Wow, it’s been a year since my last literary week post. How did that happen? I have had many literary weeks since then – haha – including a few that I even thought writing about, but each time something got in the way. This time, though, I’m not letting it …

Family values …

I was inspired to write this post by seeing a performance of Australian playwright David Williamson’s latest (and possibly last) play, Family values, this week. It is quintessential Williamson, I’d say – a satire in which a contemporary issue/ethical or moral concern is explored during an event or tightly defined period, in this case a retired judge’s 70th birthday party for “family only”. (Don’s party, for example, is set during an election night party, The club takes place over a football season, and Travelling north during a family holiday, to name a few well-known examples.)

What Williamson does is use satire to skewer some aspect of modern Australian life and values. In Family values, his target is our treatment of asylum-seekers/refugees. So, we have the successful but conservative recently retired judge Roger, and his tolerant but definitely not down-trodden wife, Sue, preparing for the birthday party. They are joined by their three, all divorced, adult children – daughter Lisa who arrives early with the recently medevac’d and now escaped refugee Saba, born-again Hillsong devotee Michael, and Emily who brings her partner Noelene. Lisa’s plan is to get Saba away to the family holiday house before Emily and Noelene, Border Force employees both, arrive. Of course, she doesn’t, and the stage is set for a family conflagration over values, priorities, and politics – all complicated by longheld childhood grievances.

It was highly entertaining as Williamson always is. I’m sure most of us watching could see bits of ourselves, and/or of our lives, in one or more of the characters. The set was effective, with its central staircase going nowhere, the actors did excellent jobs with their parts, and there were genuinely funny moments, but the satire was a little too obvious and some of the speeches were just that much too preachy and declamatory for me*. Mr Gums found it distressing because of the cruel intractability of our government’s attitude to asylum-seekers, but I’m afraid I was somewhat distracted by the play’s didacticism, despite its heartbreaking theme. However, the play’s heart is absolutely in the right place and I did enjoy the evening.

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountainsCoincidentally, we are currently watching and enjoying the new Australian television series Stateless, which is also about our cruel mismanagement and mistreatment of asylum-seekers. It, though, is drama, and so quite different to Williamson’s satirical approach. All of this has reminded me that I need to read Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains, which will give me a first person account of what it’s like to be an asylum-seeker to Australia.

Miss Fisher … an interlude

We also saw, in the last week, the Australian feature film, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, which was inspired by the very popular Australian television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which itself was inspired by the popular Phryne Fisher 1920s-30s set detective novels by Australian novelist Kerry Greenwood. It was fun, but, although I like much of screenwriter Deb Cox’s work, this story and the production pushed my disbelief beyond my comfort level. However, as always, I did love Phryne’s clothes and derring-do!

Quote of the week

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the bodiesHaving included a Quote of the Week in my last two literary week posts, I’m continuing the tradition. This post’s quote, coming from Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the bodies (my review), is, however, not new:

What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.

Like most, I read Bring up the bodies soon after it came out, but I have just seen this quote in the free little reading guide – The world of Wolf Hall – which I picked up in our local independent bookstore, Harry Hartog, last weekend. It is one of the guide’s two epigrams, and seems strangely applicable to our times! I’ll leave it with you …

* That said, I did love Williamson’s “going forward” joke.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature

March 9, 2020

Hands up if you are familiar with the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature and know who won its major categories this year? I may be out of touch, but it seems to me that these awards (about which I’ve written a couple of times before) are less well-known than some of their other state-based counterparts like the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, the Queensland Literary Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Why is this?

Part of the reason may be that these awards – like the now downgraded (and, you have to think, struggling) Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards – are biennial. Another reason may be that they are announced during the wider-based Adelaide Festival. This Festival was established in 1960 and has to be one of Australia’s best-known arts festivals. Apparently inspired by the Edinburgh Festival for the Arts, it includes various, what I would call sub-festivals, including the Adelaide Writer’s Week, WOMADelaide and the Adelaide Fringe. Interestingly, Adelaide Writer’s Week, during which the biennial literary awards are announced, is held annually. There is an historical explanation for this. The overall Festival and the Writer’s Week were themselves biennial until 2012. Will the Awards catch up one day?

One more thing, before I get onto the literary awards specifically, Wikipedia provides a link to a June 2019 newspaper report announcing that Adelaide Festival, which had that year “eclipsed its previous 2018 box office record by over $1 million [would] receive a further $1.25 million in annual funding over the next three years to help the Festival ‘continue to attract major performances and events'”. In these days of ongoing  funding cuts to the arts, this surely says something about the value of this festival to South Australia – economically and, presumably, culturally.

Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature

So, the Awards – almost. First a bit more about the Adelaide Writers Week which was part of the original 1960 Adelaide Festival. According to the History of the Adelaide Festival of Arts (2010) (downloadable here) this week “became the model for subsequent literary festivals around the world, and its prestige and popularity among writers, readers and publishers has never been surpassed”. Certainly, I know people who have gone – and who love it. Particularly impressive is that many of its events are free. How special is that? However, it is also a largely outdoors event which can be a challenge in Adelaide’s summer.

Helen Garner, The children BachSo yes, now really, the Awards! They were established by the South Australian government in 1986, and, like some other state literary awards, include both national and state-based prizes, as well as some fellowships for South Australian writers.  Over the years, categories have come and gone. The original four categories were Fiction, Children’s Literature, Poetry and Non-fiction, with the original 1986 winners of these being, respectively, Helen Garner’s The children’s Bach (my review), Ivan Southall’s The long night watch, Robert Gray’s Selected poems: 1963-1983, and RM Gibbs A history of Prince Alfred College.

As of 2020, the Awards are being managed by the State Library of South Australia, and currently have a prize pool $167,500 across the eleven categories, including the Premier’s Award of $25,000.

Significant fiction winners over the years have included two-time winners Peter Carey, Frank Moorhouse, David Malouf and Roger McDonald. A few women have won too, but not many. Besides inaugural winner Garner, the other women winners to date have been Kate Jennings, Gail Jones (twice) and Eva Hornung.

Book cover2020 Winners (National)

  • Premier’s Award (est. 1996, chosen from the category winners): Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor: The trials of Morrigan Crow.
  • Fiction Award: Gail Jones’ The death of Noah Glass.
  • Children’s Literature Award: Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor: The trials of Morrigan Crow.
  • Young Adult Fiction Award (est. 2012): Sarah Epstein’s Small spaces.
  • John Bray Poetry Award: Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics.
  • Non-fiction Award: Meredith Lake’s The Bible in Australia.

2020 Winners (South Australian)

  • Jill Blewitt Playwrights Award (est. 1992): Piri Eddy’s Forgiveness.
  • Arts SA/Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award (est. 1998): Jelena Dinic In the Room with the She Wolf by Jelena Dinic. Previous winners have included Margaret Merrilees’ The first week (my review) and Cassie Flanagan-Willanski’s Here where we live (my review).
  • Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship (est. 1994): Aiden Coleman.
  • Max Fatchen Fellowship (est. as Carclew Fellowship in 1988): Sally Heinrich.
  • Tangkanungku Pintyanthi Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Fellowship (est. 2014): No applicants for 2020, but Ali Cobby Eckermann (my posts) won this fellowship in 2014 and 2016. I wonder why there were no applicants this round? Are the requirements too difficult? Is it not being advertised well enough? If you are interested, check page 5 of the 2020 Guidelines.

Any comments?

Six degrees of separation, FROM Wolfe Island TO …

March 7, 2020

It’s March, so soon? Oh well, at least we have another Six Degrees of Separation to look forward to. As always, for those of you who don’t know this meme and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Once again, but I’m used to this now, I haven’t read Kate’s starting book, Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar. I am, I must say, more embarrassed about this than usual, because Treloar is an Australian woman writer and I do like to support them!

But now, crunch-time. Because life has been busy lately, I am going to be lazy. Not only am I going to make this post short and sweet, but all my links will be on words in the title or author’s name, with a little bit of poetic licence taken along the way.

Book coverSo, we start with Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island

and immediately time-shift back to Tudor England and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (my review).

From here, we return to our times and Rodney Hall’s A stolen season (my review).

Now, I just can’t let “stolen” pass without referencing Carmel Bird’s (ed) The stolen children: Their stories (my review).

Children takes me to Helen Garner’s The children’s Bach (my review) …

at which point I beg your forgiveness, because we are going to Rebekah Clarkson’s Barking dogs (my review).

Dogs! Now there’s an embarrassment of riches. Since blogging, I’ve read several books with “dog” in their title, so which to choose? I thought, in the interest of gender diversity, that I should choose one by a male writer, but in fact most of them have been written by men, so, I’m just going to spin the dice and land on … Andrew O’Hagan’s The life and opinions of Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe (my review). I mean how can you resist a title like that!

So, short and sweet as promised. What more can I say, except …

And now, the usual: Have you read Wolfe Island? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

POSTSCRIPT: This went out with last month’s title – that’s what you get for being lazy and copying old posts!

Stella Prize 2020 Shortlist announced

March 6, 2020

Well, lookee here, the Stella Prize shortlist was announced this morning while I was at Tai Chi so I am just getting to it now. And, I am rather pleased because, although I’ve only read one of the six, I am currently reading another, and have a third on my reading group schedule, so that’s half of them without really trying! Not that I don’t WANT to try, but my reading schedule is so packed that I find it HARD to try. I therefore love it when the listed books are ones I plan to read anyhow.

So …

Book coverThe shortlist:

  • Jess Hill’s See what you made me do (nonfiction)
  • Caro Llewellyn’s Diving into glass (memoir)
  • Favel Parrett’s There was still love (novel) (will be read in May) (Lisa’s review)
  • Josephine Rowe’s Here until August (short stories)
  • Tara June Winch’s The yield (novel) (reading now) (Lisa’s review)
  • Charlotte Wood’s The weekend (novel) (my review)

After a rather “out there” longlist, which included several books many of us had not heard of, the shortlist, as often happens with the Stella I think, has narrowed down to a less surprising list. Would most you you agree with that? This is not being critical of the longlist – because I hadn’t read most of those books – but simply saying that the shortlist seems more geared to the books that have been generally well received critically. I like to think that that’s because they shine out …

Anyhow, the judges’ chair, Louise Swinn commented on the shortlist that:

Writers across the gamut of their career appear on the 2020 Stella Prize shortlist, which includes authors who are household names alongside some we are just getting acquainted with. The six books on this year’s shortlist are all outward-looking, and they tell stories – of illness, family life, friendship, domestic abuse, and more – in remarkable ways. If language is a tool, or a weapon, then these writers use their skills with tremendous courage. We found a lot to be hopeful about here, too – not just at the stories being told, but at the quality of the art being produced.

The winner will be announced on April 8.

Any comments?

David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short (eds), The near and the far: More stories from the Asia-Pacific region, Vol. 2 (#BookReview)

March 5, 2020

Book coverThis anthology, like the first The near and the far volume, stems from a project called WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange), an intercultural and intergenerational program which “brings together Australian and Asia-Pacific writers for face-to-face collaborative residencies in Asia and Australia”. The most recent residencies have been in Indonesia (2018), The Philippines (2017) and China (2016). The editors write in their Introduction to this volume that these residencies provide a safe space in which writers come to trust “in a way that is powerful and unusual, that their bumbling work-in-progress and their wild hopes will be met with kindness.” This is probably why, as Maxine Beneba Clarke describes in her Forward, “the writing in this book veritably sings: it is a cacophony of poetry, essay-writing, fiction and nonfiction”.

This volume is structured similarly to the first, starting with the foreword and introduction, and concluding with some notes on WrICE and a list of contributors with mini-bios at the back. There is also, in this one, a conversation between the two editors. The works are again organised into three sections, this volume’s being Rites of passage, Connecting flights, and Homeward bound. For some reason, I enjoyed more of the pieces in first and third sections, than the second. There are 27 stories, with a little over half being by women; three are translated. As in the first volume, each piece is followed by a reflection by the author – on the writing process, their goals and/or their experience of WrICE.

To tame words with ideas (Nhã Thuyên)

Now the stories. Given the project, the writers are of course a diverse group, coming from Australia (including two First Nations writers), Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. I knew the Australians – Ali Cobby Eckermann, Alice Pung, Christos Tsiolkas, Ellen Van Neeerven – but most were new to me, which feels embarrassing, really.

I’m not sure I could ascertain a strong theme running through this collection as I did last time, but there is an overall sense of writers trying “to tame words with ideas” (“Utterances, by Nhã Thuyên, tr. by Nguyên-Hoàng Quyên), of trying to find the right words to articulate their ideas across diverse cultural spaces. I like this image of taming words with ideas. It suggests to me many things, including that words are hard to pin down, and that ideas/emotions/passions are hard to communicate in words. It is certainly something that you feel the writers working at in this book, some of them consciously, overtly, sharing their struggles with us.

I particularly liked the first section “Rites of passage”, with its pieces about, essentially, identity, though the subject matter includes issues like aging, coming out, postnatal depression, father-son relationships. Christos Tsiolkas in “Birthdays” writes of a gay man, grieving after the break-up of a longterm relationship, and facing aging alone. Told third-person, but with an immediacy that has you identifying with the narrator’s unhappy restlessness, his questioning of who he is, and where he is going, makes a perfect, accessible first piece for the anthology.

In “Eulogy for a career”, Asian Australian, Andy Butler explores the challenges of identity in white Australia, of finding his place, particularly as a young Asian-looking boy wanting to ballroom dance! He cynically notes that, after years of ostracism, he is suddenly, in this new pro-diverse world, being offered opportunities. “Progressive white people,” he writes, “can’t get enough of us”. But, he knows and we know how fragile this foundation is likely to be. First Nations writer Ellen van Neerven closes out this section with small suite of poems, “Questions of travel”, riffing on Michelle de Kretser’s novel of the same name. “When we travel”, she writes, “we walk with a cultural limp.” Our identities can be fluid or feral or freer – when we travel – but there are no easy answers to living and being.

In the second section, “Connecting flights”, the pieces are loosely linked by explorations of place and self. Mia Wotherspoon’s Iceland-set short story, “The blizzard”, exposes the moral and ethical complexities of contemporary political activism, while Steven Winduo’s “A piece of paradise” crosses continents, with characters from Papua New Guinea, Australia and the US pondering the possibility of intercultural relationships. Han Yujoo’s “Private barking” is one of the pieces that overtly addresses that challenge of taming words. “Sometimes we need a knife to write. (Or teeth)”, says Korean Yujoo, trying to write with her “little English”.

First Nations author, Ali Cobby Eckermann opens the last set with “Homeward bound”, a home-grounded poem set in a cave where self finds home in place, but knows it’s not secure. Else Fitzgerald’s  “Slippage” is a cli-fi short story, in which grief for the environment is paralleled by grief for a lost love. The very next story Lavanya Shanbhogue Arvind’s “A long leave of absence” is also about a lost love, this one due to a father’s forbidding the marriage, resulting in the narrator turning to alcohol. For each of these writers, home is fraught.

There are several pieces in this section that I’d love to share, but the one I must is deaf writer Fiona Murphy’s “Scripta Continua”. I must share it because it reiterates much of what Jessica White writes about in Hearing Maud (my review). This five-part piece takes us from the idea of “conversations”, which Murphy often feels like she is “peering into, rather than partaking in”, through the “spaces” (and silences) deaf people frequently inhabit, the fatiguing “attention” so necessary for communication, and the “writing” that helped her start to understand herself better, to “Auslan”, the sign language system that brings new, less fatiguing, ways of conversing and inhabiting space!

The final piece, “Wherever you are” by Joshua Ip, is a real treat. A long poem comprising 28 quatrains, it consistently flashed my memory with phrases and ideas that sounded familiar. Well, of course they did, because, as he explains in his closing reflection, “Each quatrain is a response to each writer’s gift, in sequence”! So 27 pieces, 27 quatrains in response, with a concluding one of his own. How clever, and what respectful fun many of them are. “Words span and spin the globe”, he writes. If you are interested in such words – touching, probing, confronting ones – I recommend this book.

Challenge logoDavid Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short (eds),
The near and the far: More stories from the Asia-Pacific region, Vol. 2
Melbourne: Scribe, 2019
ISBN: 9781925849264

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Guardian Australia’s Unmissables

March 2, 2020

Although I’d seen it before, it was BookJotter Paula’s latest Winding Up the Week (#110) post that reminded me of The Guardian Australia’s Unmissables series. Initiated last March, Unmissables aims to highlight 12 new releases they deem “significant”.

Before I share the books highlighted to date, though, I’d like to talk about the project’s funding because, as most of you know, how quality journalism is paid for is, currently, a critical issue. The Guardian, unlike some other newspapers online, is not paywalled. Instead, it asks readers to support them financially, by either subscribing, which I do, or, “contributing”, which, in effect, means donating without tax deductibility. Clearly, though, that’s not enough to produce the breadth and depth of content that we readers like. Consequently, they also turn to “outside” sources. They have at least three models: “supported by”, “paid content/paid for by”, and ‘”advertiser content/from our advertisers funding”. Unmissables comes under the first one, and is “supported by” the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. This method is, unlike the other two, “editorially independent”. They say:

Before funding is agreed with a client, relevant senior editors are consulted about its suitability and the editor-in-chief has the final say on whether a funding deal is accepted. A client whose branding appears on editorial content may have a role in suggesting what kind of topics are covered, but the commissioning editor is not obliged to accept ideas from the funder. The content is written and edited by Guardian and Observer journalists, or those approved by GNM [Guardian News and Media], to the same standards expected in all of our journalism. GNM will not show copy to funders for approval.

I’ve written about the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund a few times before, including in a dedicated Monday Musings post. From my observer’s point of view, it seems like this fund is doing some good things to support and promote our literary culture.

Now, though, the books …

Author event: Heidi Sze on her book Nurturing your new life

March 1, 2020

Book coverA book primarily intended for postpartum mothers is not really the sort of book Whispering Gums’ readers would expect to see here, but let me explain. Melbourne-based Heidi Sze started her food blog, Apples Under My Bed, the same year I started mine. However, that’s not our link. Rather, it’s that later that year, Daughter Gums also started a blog, through which she met Heidi – first online, then in person. Through that connection, a few years on, Daughter Gums ended up working in the Melbourne-based company co-founded by Heidi’s husband. Got all that?

Anyhow, the point is that over the last few years, I have been following Heidi, mainly via her Instagram account heidiapples. I have watched her gorgeous two children come into being – and then her third “darling child” (as Jane Austen would call it), her book Nurturing your new life: Words and recipes for the new mother. Note the double meaning of the title, “new life” referring both to a new child, and to a woman’s new life as a mother. “Matrescence, the process of becoming a mother” is, in fact, what the book is about.

Consequently, when I received Paperchain bookshop’s email announcing Heidi’s author tour event there, I knew I had to go and meet her in person. (Of course, Daughter Gums had already given me the heads-up, so I wasn’t going to miss it.)

The event …

I arrived early, hoping to say hello to Heidi before it started, as I had to get off promptly afterwards. I recognised her immediately, and was thrilled to be so warmly greeted when I introduced myself. An added bonus was that her two children, Joan (4) and Walt (18 months), and husband Ben were there too, so I got to meet the whole lovely family. Joan, though, as she should in a book shop, was more interested in finding out where the children’s section was. I approved!

The event basically comprised Heidi telling us about herself, how the book came into being, her intentions for the book, and how she structured and wrote it to meet those intentions. It was a small audience, comprising mostly mums and dietitians/nutritionists, given Heidi is a professional dietitian with a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics from Monash University.

Would-be authors might be interested to know how she came to write this, her first book. She explained that a literary agent, who had been reading her blog and liked what she was writing, contacted her and suggested she write a book! Obviously, this isn’t going to happen to every blogger, but it shows that well-written clearly focused blogs can lead to other things – in Heidi’s case, also to being a recipe columnist for ABCLife (a lovely editor of which I also met at the event.)

Back to the book, though. It took Heidi seven months to prepare her book proposal, which included planning out the chapters and what each one would cover. She obviously did a thorough job because she got a book contract with HarperCollins.

Heidi also shared her career trajectory, explaining how, after the birth of her first child, she moved from general nutrition to a pre and postpartum focus. She also explained how in her early private practice she found she was doing as much counselling as specific nutrition advice. Through this, she had become increasingly aware of the damage that diet culture does. With her awareness of this and of the hard time women give themselves in general, Heidi underpins her book with one important message – that no two experiences are the same, so comparing yourself with others is not helpful. (A message relevant not just to new mums, eh?) She recognises, however, that it’s hard to live by this with “all the noise out there”.

Heidi supports this message in her book with practical advice for new mothers, two of which are that new mothers need support (Chapter 3) and that self-care is critical (Chapter 4). “We are not meant to do this alone”, she realised early in her new-motherhood. Indeed, the trickle-down effects of no support are immense, she said. And she’s right of course. Each generation does it differently, but each generation needs to recognise this important fact. It does take a village to raise a child. You are not a failure as a woman or a mother, if you can’t do it all because, in fact, you CAN’T do it all.

Related to the idea of support is the idea that new mothers need to take care of themselves, that fitting in self-care is not a luxury, but “a necessity and should be treated as such”. So, to tak self-care as an example of how the book works, Heidi not only provides sensible suggestions for how to achieve it, but, understanding from her own recent experience how hard it can be, she nurtures her readers along, encouraging them not to reach for the stars but to work out what’s manageable for them. Analyse your day, she says, to work out when you might slot in some time for yourself; think about when and how your partner can help; and so on. Self-care, she says, can be as simple as having a quiet rejuvenating shower. It’s partly in the mindset. In the end, she says:

Just do what you can and pray the stars align more often than not. And remember, you may need to make sacrifices – be it accepting piles of laundry or cancelling non-essential obligations – so that you don’t sacrifice yourself.

I didn’t find it hard to let the housework go, I must say!

Of course, being a nutritionist/dietitian, she includes recipes. Heidi said her goal was to create recipes that were easy and nutritious, that provided left-over opportunities for later meals, and that use up ingredients to reduce shopping expeditions. The recipes are great, and include things like banana oat smoothie, kedgeree (something I love), and slow-cook beef casserole.

If you have a new mother in your life, this warm, practical, non-judgemental book is for her – and, it wouldn’t hurt dipping into it yourself for ways to help. And, of course, if you are a new mother, this book is definitely for you.

Challenge logoAuthor Event: Heidi Sze on Nurturing your new life
Paperchain Bookstore, Manuka
27 February 2020