Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013

Australian Women Writers Challenge
As last year, I’m devoting my last Monday Musings for 2013 to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. This challenge, instigated by Elizabeth Lhuede in response to growing concern in Australian literary circles about lack of recognition for women writers, was so successful in 2012 that Elizabeth, with the help of a team of volunteers, decided to continue the challenge in 2013. I am one of those volunteers – responsible for the Literary and Classics area – and, of course, am also a challenge participant. It was a quieter year for the challenge as we settled into a routine, but that doesn’t mean nothing memorable happened. So, before I round-up my own challenge I’d like to comment on a few of the highlights for me.

The main excitement was, I think, the announcement of the inaugural Stella Prize. The prize was not created by our Challenge, but it grew out of the same concerns that inspired the Challenge. Marg (Adventures of an Intrepid Reader) attended the award ceremony on behalf of the Challenge and wrote a post on the experience. The winner, Carrie Tiffany (for her novel Mateship with birds), impressed us all by sharing a portion of her prize with the shortlisted authors. A lovely gesture recognising the complex and uncomfortable nature of literary competition.

In October, as a special “event”, the Challenge focused on women writers of diverse heritage, and asked four authors to write guest posts. If you’d like to read these posts, they are:

  • Tseen Khoo: on her frustration about “narrow interpretations of writing by Asian-Australian women writers”
  • Alice Pung: on, interestingly, “Ruth Park, class, and marginalisation”
  • Malla Nunn: on her experience as an African migrant turned Australian writer
  • Merlinda Bobis: on “the necessity of creating and defining ‘home’ both for herself, as a writer, and for her readers”.

Finally, one of the features I particularly enjoy about the challenge is seeing Australian women writers support it (and each other) by reviewing books by other women writers. Annabel Smith, Amanda Curtin and Jessica White are three who have been particularly active this year.

If you are interested in the challenge, you can check it out at the link above, and, if you’d like to join up for 2014, you can fill out the form on this page.  This year, it is possible to join up as a reader or as a reviewer. The challenge can also be found on Facebook, Twitter (@auswomenwriters), GoodReads and Google+.

As I explained in last year’s highlights post, the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is my only challenge. Once again, I signed up for the Franklin-fantastic Dabbler level, which is that I’d read (and review) at least 10 books by Australian women writers in more than one genre/category. Here is my list (with links to my reviews) for this year.








I have enjoyed taking part in the challenge – for being part of a team of committed people keen to spread the word about the breadth of Australian women’s writing, and for being introduced to that breadth. I am learning a lot more about Australian women’s literature than I could possible have learnt by beavering away here on my own. Roll on the 2014 challenge.

Linda Jaivin, Found in translation: In praise of a plural world (Review)

Linda Jaivin, Found in translation Book cover

Courtesy: Black Inc

Reading synchronicity strikes again! In the last couple of months, the issue of language, translation and culture has been crossing my path – in Diego Marani‘s The last of the Vostyachs, in Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free, and on Lisa’s blog post about the AALITRA Symposium on Translation. I was consequently more than happy to accept a review copy of the latest Quarterly Essay, Linda Jaivin’s Found in translation.

Now, as some of you know, I have mixed feelings about reading books in translation. I want to read them because I want to read not just about but from other cultures. Not being fluent in all the languages of the world, the only way I can do this is to read works in translation, but when I read a translated work I am very conscious that there is a mediator between me and the work. This bothers me. Linda Jaivin, herself a translator, knows exactly what I mean:

… it is absurd to speak of issues of literary style, rhythm – or any aspect of a translated work aside from its structure, characters and plot – without acknowledging that the language of the text is at once a creation of the translator and an interpretation of the author …

And she gives good examples to support her statement. I was pleased to see her acknowledge this, because she knows of what she speaks! But, this little point is only a very small part of Jaivin’s wide-ranging, entertaining but also passionate essay. Jaivin, if you haven’t heard of her, is a multi-skilled woman: she subtitles Chinese film and television and translates Chinese text; she has worked as an interpreter; and she has written novels, stories, plays and essays.

As a reader and lover of words, I enjoyed Jaivin’s discussion of the technical and philosophical challenges faced by translators. She peppers her discussion with an eclectic but fascinating array of examples. And she quotes other translators, such as Edith Grossman who wrote that

a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation … no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly.

Take swearing for example. How we swear is highly cultural. Swear words, Jaivin writes, “expose what is forbidden, what is permitted and what is held sacred” in a culture, and consequently “can  throw differences in worldviews into sharp relief”. However, you’ll have to read the essay, if you want to see her examples!

I was intrigued by her argument that translations of classics go out of date! So, this means that the Spanish will always read the same Don Quixote but English speakers are very likely to read a different translation depending on which one is currently in vogue.

“… a culture doesn’t grow just by talking to itself …”

But, the critical point of her essay is not the act of translation. As the title of her essay implies, Jaivin is passionate about pluralism, and more, about cosmopolitanism. By this, she means not just living side by side, not just accepting each other, but “sharing a common vision”.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeFor Jaivin, “translation” is not a narrow concept. Its implications extend far beyond the “simple” translation of words from one language to another, because attached to language are meanings and ideas. When ideas are translated – via words – from one culture to another those ideas change. Jaivin describes how concepts such as Confucianism and yes, even democracy, change when they cross cultures. This can lead, she says, to misunderstanding but it can also provide “room for the kind of creative interpretation that allows cultures and the conversations between them to grow and evolve”.

She argues that, because of Australia’s particular history and geography, and because Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language in Australia after English, “Australia is … in a unique position to translate the shift from the ‘American century’ to the ‘Asian one’ …”.

Building successful international relationships, she believes, requires genuine communication, which includes knowing, recognising and respecting other languages. It

does not require the weak to adopt the language of the strong – as reliance on English threatens to do, given its global and frequently imperial reach.

Jaivin argues that learning a foreign language should be a compulsory part of year 12 and university education, because “we need to have every possible line of communication open to us” if we are to successfully traverse the changes coming.  Not everyone agrees. What do you think?

Linda Jaivin
“Found in translation: In praise of a plural world”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 52
Collingwood: Black Inc, November 2013
ISBN: 9781863956307

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)

Gabrielle Gouch, Once, only the swallows were free (Review)

Gabrielle Gouch, Once, only swallows were free

Courtesy: Hybrid Publishers

Do you differentiate memoir from autobiography? I do. For me, a memoir, such as Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free, deals with a specific aspect of a person’s life, such as a sportsman writing about his career when he retires from it or a person writing about her growing up, like, say, Alice Pung‘s Unpolished gem. An autobiography, on the other hand, I see as something more holistic, something written near the end of one’s life and summing up its entirety. What do you think?

Gabrielle Gouch was born in Transylvania, Romania to parents who’d both fled anti-Semitic Hungary. She moved elsewhere in Romania with her family before they emigrated to Israel, without her older half-brother, when she was around 20. A few years later, she emigrated on her own to Australia which has remained her home ever since. This is the basic chronology of her life, but Gouch is not really interested in telling us this story chronologically – and in fact, she’s not really interested in telling us the story of her life. What interests her is the brother, Tom, left behind. She wants to know about his life during and post communism in Romania. She also wants to know about the gaps in her knowledge of the family.

Gouch therefore doesn’t tell the story in a simple chronology. While she clearly signposts where you are as you read, I found it a little disconcerting to start with, until I felt familiar with the places and people she was writing about. This, however, could be due to other things going on in my life as I started this book. The memoir starts in 1990 with her first return to Transylvania after “the collapse of communism. The eternal and invincible communism”. A return that took place 25 years after she had left. As the book progresses, she visits Cluj several times, catching up with her brother, learning about her family. It’s a sad story – not surprisingly. Tom’s mother, the much beloved, vivacious Hella, died in childbirth. His – and eventually Gabrielle’s – father, Stefan, married the nanny, refugee Roza, hired in to look after the physically handicapped Tom. (As far as I can tell, his condition is hemiplegia, probably caused by the forceps birth). Roza and Stefan went on to have two children – Gabrielle and, somewhat later, Yossi – but country girl Roza was never accepted by Stefan’s well-to-do family.

The book proper starts in 1962 with the family expecting permission to migrate to Israel to arrive any minute. Of course, it doesn’t – and it is not until some 40 or so pages and three years later that they are finally able to leave. They leave without Tom, now well into his twenties, but exactly why this is so is not understood by Gouch. During the course of the book she finds out why – and she finds out what Tom’s life was like under the communist regime. It’s a very interesting story, and once you master the time shifts across the book’s seven parts, it’s a very readable one. The very short Part 2, for example, returns to the opening of the book, her return in 1990. Then Part 3 jumps to 2002 and another trip of hers “home”. From then on the focus is her time with Tom and the stories she gradually pieces together.

Gouch is a good writer. Her language is expressive, but not over-done. That is, she has some lovely turns of phrase that capture moments and people well. Here, for example, she describes her family’s reaction when her mother says something surprising:

We looked at her as if she had made her way into our home by the back door somehow, a woman we had never met before.

And I like this simple description of children:

Well, children are like shares, you never know how they will turn out.

There are two main threads in the book, one being life under communism, as experienced by Tom, and the other being the life of the emigrant, as experienced by her family. The book is enlightening for people interested in either of these topics, but I’m going to highlight the second, the emigrant’s life, because she explains it beautifully – from the tough life her parents experienced in Israel to her own experience of dislocation from culture. She writes, as she starts to reconnect with her brother:

Noone ever told me that you cannot turn physical distance into emotional one, you cannot forget your native country, you cannot give up your mother tongue. It deadens you inside.

She gives one of the best descriptions of the relationship of language to culture that I have read. She meets an old professor who had chosen to stay living under the repressive regime because, he said, “This is my native land, my language. I belong here.” She writes:

His words lingered. ‘My native land, my language.’ For most people, the sound of Hungarian is awkward; for me it is poetry and delight. When I say ‘flower’ in English I refer to a plant with petals and colours. But the word in Hungarian, virág, sounds to me melodious and joyful. Yes, you can learn to speak a language, you can even learn to think in a language but will you feel the same joy and sadness at the sound of those words? Feel the black desperation or be uplifted by hope? Will the word love evoke the same tenderness and ardour? I don’t think so.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeGouch also writes about “history”, about the impact on people of living through some of history’s trickiest times, as her family had. Her description of her father’s life – a loving father who had worked hard – is heart-rending:

A man who was a Jew but not Jewish enough, an Israeli but not quite, a Hungarian Jew among Romanians and a Jew among Hungarians. Finally he left this world with its divisive nationalisms, ideologies and religions which had marred most of his life. He was just another man on whom history had inflicted its painful and murderous pursuits: Nazism, the Second World War, the communist dictatorship, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli religiosity. History had match-made him, history had controlled his life. It was over. He joined the infinite Universe.

I’ve possibly quoted too much, but Gouch’s words are powerful and worth sharing.

“Knowledge”, Gouch’s father once told her, “is your only possession”. Once, only the swallows were free is a story of discovery for Gouch, but for us, it provides a window into a particular place, time and experience that most of us know little about. The knowledge, the understanding, we gain from reading it is a precious thing.

Gabrielle Gouch
Once, only the swallows were free: A memoir
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2013
ISBN: 9781921665998

(Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers)

Melissa Lucashenko, Sinking below sight (Review)

In this week’s Monday Musings about the Walkley Awards, I noted that Melissa Lucashenko had won the award for Long Feature Writing for her essay “Sinking below sight: Down and out in Brisbane and Logan” in the Griffith Review. I’ve now read the essay, and thought I’d share it with you. I’ve reviewed Lucashenko before, an essay and a short story. I really must get to one of her novels one day!

With her mixed European and indigenous Australian heritage, Lucashenko is well placed to tackle significant contemporary issues and see them from multiple perspectives. The last essay of hers that I reviewed, “How green is my valley”, dealt with stewardship of the land and the threat imposed by climate change. In “Sinking below sight” her subject is poverty. Lucashenko’s essays make engaging reading. Instead of dry reportage, she starts from the personal, and from that draws conclusions that make sense. And so, while “How green is my valley” drew from her experience on a farm in northern New South Wales, this essay draws from her return, after losing her farm through divorce, to the town of Logan, one of Australia’s ten poorest urban areas.

You’ve probably noticed that her subtitle alludes to Orwell’s autobiographical work Down and out in Paris and London which chronicles his experience of poverty. Similarly, Lucashenko writes that she’s been poor before, so “I had the skill set”. But, this essay is not about her. She starts by setting the scene, describing this “Black Belt” region as one in which

Welfare recipients and the working poor … don’t necessarily realise they are hard up. More accurately, many don’t realise just how poor they are, since everyone in their lives is battling.

She then moves on to the main topic of her essay, which is to find out “How do my Black Belt peers manage? How do single mums, in particular, get by on current levels of welfare? And what dreams are possible for the Brisbane underclass in 2013?” To answer this interviews three women currently living in poverty – Selma (27), Marie (38) and Charmaine (49) – and discusses their situations.

Selma, a Yugoslavian of Serbian and Croatian parents, has four children under ten and a partner who is in and out of jail. Having been a refugee and then involved with an abusive Aboriginal man, Selma has some clear views on her situation:

What I don’t like in society … is the judgments put on Indigenous and refugee and domestic violence people. I was in that situation for nine years. They say you make a choice, but I don’t ever remember choosing to be beaten up! From the age of seventeen ’til about two years ago, domestic violence was part of my everyday life.

She blames poverty for violence, saying that “poverty breeds hate”. Lucashenko suggests that the abuse she experienced “had roots also in the trauma and racism of the refugee experience.”

Marie is also a mother of four, with an “on-again, off-again partner”. She is a member of the “working poor” so not quite as poor as Selma. She grew up in a troubled home, had been sexually molested as a child, and was living independently by the time she was 14 years old. She, like Selma, had a history of “severe emotional and physical abuse from her previous partners, who were all, bar one, Anglo-Australian men”. Lucashenko writes:

Marie spoke to me of feeling enormous rage about the past abuses in her life, rage which sits constantly just beneath the surface.

The third woman is Charmaine, “blond, slim and still able to laugh despite a life that would crush most of us [and] the white Australian mother of four Aboriginal kids”. She too was raped and molested as a child, and ended up in a violent relationship in which she stayed too long.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeWhile recognising that her examples are more anecdotal than statistical, Lucashenko nonetheless draws some conclusions. They include:

  • Underclass expectations, which see people who grow up with nothing, expecting little
  • The importance of public housing in providing some “minimal prospect of safety”
  • Loneliness and isolation, which drive single mums back to “untenable situations”
  • Violence and mental illness in parents and partners, which entrench poverty for women
  • Childhood molestation and/or rape, which all three women had experienced
  • Women seeking relief in drugs, which of course can initiate new downward trajectories

Her three women, Lucashenko finds, have hopes for the future. Selma and Charmaine are studying, because, as Lucashenko writes

Realising that poverty is a creation of society and its choices, these two women also know that their lives might shift through higher education.

Pragmatic Marie has a saving plan. Their situations though are tenuous. To achieve their goals, they’ll need strength. Better still, though, would be if they got effective financial and other practical support.

Lucashenko opens the essay with the epigraph that “the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. It’s justice”. Her essay may not be statistically significant from an academic perspective, but anyone who reads contemporary social commentary knows that what she writes rings true – and this, clearly, is why she won the Walkley.

Melissa Lucashenko
“Sinking below sight”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 41, 2013
Available: Online at the Griffith Review

Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov poems (Review)

Canberra poet Lesley Lebkowicz has made a couple of brief appearances in my blog: first in my post on The invisible thread anthology, and then when she won this year’s ACT Poetry Award. I was consequently more than happy to accept for review her latest book, The Petrov poems.

English: Evdokia Petrova at Mascot Airport, Sy...

Evdokia being escorted by two Russian diplomatic couriers to a plane at Mascot Airport, Sydney (Presumed Public Domain, from NAA, via Wikipedia)

It’s intriguing that nearly 60 years after the events, we are still interested in the Petrovs. In fact, I have written about them before, in my review of Andrew Croome’s historical novel, Document Z. Most Australians will know who they are, but for those global readers here who don’t, the Petrovs were a Russian couple who worked at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra in the early 1950s. Vladimir (Volodya), Third Secretary, and his wife Evdokia (Dusya) were both Soviet intelligence officers (or, to put it baldly, spies). They defected in 1954. The defection was particularly interesting because Vladimir defected first, and Evdokia two weeks later at the airport in Darwin after some dramatic scenes at Sydney’s Mascot airport.

At first glance, The Petrov poems looks like a collection of poems but in fact it is a verse novel, albeit one comprising many short individually-titled poems. These poems are organised into four “chapters”: Part 1, Volodya defects; Part 2, Dusya defects; Part 3, The Petrovs at Palm Beach; and Part 4, The Petrovs in Melbourne.

I must admit that I wondered, initially, why Lebkowicz had decided to write about the Petrovs, given that they have already been picked over in novels, non-fiction, theatre, and television. But, as soon as I started reading it, I could see why. Lebkowicz gets into the heart of these two characters, bringing them back to ordinary human beings who were caught up in something that was both of and not of their own making. It is a rather pathetic story. There are no heroes here – and yet, as happens with these sorts of things, it captured the world’s attention for a short time.

Now, before I comment specifically on this book, I’d like to quote another Canberra poet Paul Hetherington from an interview with Nigel Featherstone in the online literary journal Verity La:

One of the ways I recognise the poetic is when I find works in which language is condensed, ramifying, polysemous and unparaphraseable. Part of what I wish to do when writing poems is to make works that speak in such ways – but to do so without resorting to any kind of trickery or artificial obscurity.

While I wouldn’t use words like “ramifying” and “polysemous”, and while we can paraphrase the ideas to a degree, this is pretty much what Lebkowicz achieves in The Petrov poems. In just 80 pages or so she manages to not only tell the story of their lives but get to the nub of their hearts and psyches – as much, anyhow, as anyone can do for another person. We learn that Volodya is not succeeding at spying:

He wants to succeed but stumbles. Failure
follows him like iron torn from a roof and
rattled along the wind.
(from “Glass I”)

We learn that he loves Dusya (“Dusya is his place in the world”), but that he loves booze, his dog and prostitutes more. He seems weak, but he’s a man struggling. With Stalin’s death and the arrest of his boss, he fears reprisals when he returns to Moscow. Here he is at the moment of defecting (which he does, after disagreements on the subject, without telling Dusya):

Once again he’s going to be wrenched from the soil.
He remembers his father – struck by lightning, buried up to his neck
by foolish men, and dying in the freezing night.
Then chaos and not enough food. Uprooting a full-grown plant
is no easy thing: so many roots
are wound through the earth. He mutters the Russian words
for sadness and home and ruffles his Alsatian’s fur.
(from “Loss”)

Dusya, on the other hand, is a stronger character, but she has suffered severe losses in her life, including her first love and her daughter:

This is something Dusya does not allow herself to think: how her
life might have been if Romàn had not been arrested. […]
If she had gone on taking happiness for granted. Living with
Romàn had been like walking along a winter street and arriving
in a field of warm poppies. If Romàn had not been broken in a
labour camp. If Irina had not died –
(from Romàn I)

While she understands Volodya’s fear, she fears even more what might happen to her family if she defects. At Darwin airport she doesn’t want to make a decision: “If only/this government man would abduct her”. But of course he can’t.

We then watch them as their relationship falters, first during ASIO’s interrogation, and then the years of living together in Melbourne, officially in disguise but known nonetheless. (“The whole street knows they are Petrovs -/too many photos, too much publicity”).

While I’m not a Petrov expert, I’ve read enough to feel that Lebokowicz’s interpretation is authentic. She explores what happens when the political interferes with the personal; she recognises the pull of culture and the despair that losing one’s home can engender; and she sees that corruption is not confined to communism:

so when ASIO falsifies (No! Not falsifies
amends, adjusts, even corrects) the documents
he brought from the Embassy – of course he assents
(from “Bones”)

Australian Women Writers ChallengeThese are wonderful, readable poems. They are poetic but, to quote Paul Hetherington’s goal, without “trickery” and “artificial obscurity”. The imagery is strong but clear. I particularly liked the way Lebkowicz varies and plays with form. None of it is rhymed, but there are sonnets, couplets, poems with multi-line stanzas but closing on a single dramatic line, and others. There are poems with short lines or terse rhythms, indicating action or stress, and poems with long lines conveying thoughts and reflections. There is also a shape-poem, “Torment”, in which the zigzag shape mirrors Dusya’s distress (“Her life is a staircase that switches directions”).

Like any good historical fiction – if a verse novel can be called that – you don’t need to know the history to understand the story told here. And like any good historical fiction writer, Lebkowicz has produced something that enables us to reconsider an historical event from another perspective and to understand the humanity below the surface of the facts. An excellent and moving read.

Lesley Lebkowicz
The Petrov poems
Sydney: Pitt Street Poetry, 2013
ISBN: 9781922080141

(Review copy supplied by Zeitgeist Media Group)

Bianca Nogrady, The end: The human experience of death (Review)

Bianca Nogrady, The end book coverHave you thought about your death? About how and where you want to die? These are the questions Australian science journalist Bianca Nogrady asks us to consider in her recent book, The end: the human experience of death. I’m not a morbid person, but when Nogrady contacted me to ask whether I’d consider reviewing her book, The end, it didn’t take me long to say yes. Like Nogrady I did witness, a couple of years ago, something I would call “a (pretty) good death”. That I felt it was so, intrigued me. I was therefore interested to read what Nogrady had to say.

And what she had to say was fascinating from beginning to end. In her introduction, she says:

This book could just as easily have been Everything you wanted to know about death but were afraid to ask. Death is fascinating, compelling, and it consists of much more than simply the end of a biological life-form. In seeking to understand death, we are seeking to understand life.

The rest of the book is structured logically according to the sorts of topics we are likely to ask about, starting with why we die, and then moving on to issues like defining death, where, when and how we die, spiritual and out-of-body experiences, and religion. Nogrady looks at these issues from all the likely points of view –  medical, sociological, psychological, philosophical, legal and ethical. She organises her information well, and the chapters (and subchapters) flow very naturally from each other.

So far, I have probably made it sound like a well-organised rather dry read – but that’s not how it is. Not only did Nogrady do a lot of secondary research (as the Notes at the end attest) but she also interviewed a lot of people. As a result, the formal information garnered from her research is supported by people’s stories, which also add colour and life to the facts. Many are of course sad – we are talking death after all – but this is not a sad book.

The most complicated section of the book is the second chapter on “Defining Death”. Nogrady takes us carefully through the different “definitions” – specifically, cardiac death and brain death (which, I learnt, can be further subdivided into “whole brain death” and “brain stem death”). She shows how the definition issue has been complicated by medical advances enabling us to keep the body alive and, of course, by the organ transplant process. Royal North Shore Hospital’s Intensive Care Specialist Dr Ray Raper suggests that death is:

a continuum; a graded box with one end as ‘being alive’ and the other end as ‘being dead’ … If you look at the domains of the transition between life and death, they’re spiritual, functional and structural and they’re biological, and the most important ones are the functional ones.

Death, in other words, is a process. If your fingernails are still growing when you are in the coffin, then, says Arizona State University Professor of Philosophy Joan McGregor, the questions needing answers relate to what are we preserving and why do we value it. I’ll leave this discussion here because there is no single solution – or not at present anyhow. This is murky ground indeed, but Nogrady manages to traverse it with clarity. I will probably have to read the book a few times though for the concepts to stick!

She also discusses euthanasia, teasing out misconceptions. She explains the differences between physician-assisted suicide, voluntary euthanasia and terminal sedation. She also explores the rise in palliative care as a profession, covering related issues like death doulas and volunteer workers in palliative care hospitals (or hospices). And of course she talks about near-death experiences, and those death-time phenomena that science can’t explain such as clocks stopping, machines behaving erratically, and deathbed visions.  The final chapter discusses faith and belief. Death is cultural, but, as she discovered, there is as much similarity as there are differences in end-of-life rituals.

It’s a funny thing to say, I suppose, but this is an enjoyable book. It’s neither superficial nor so detailed that you get bogged down. There is a lovely balance between expert opinions and anecdotes. I can imagine reading it again – or parts of it. It’s a shame, though, that there isn’t an index, which seems to be common in non-fiction books aimed at a general market. I guess it’s all about cost.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeIn her epilogue, Nogrady returns to her own experience, to how the death of her grandmother had caused her to want to better understand death. Writing the book, she says, made her think about “the value of planning, or at least thinking about how we want to die”. Death is, after all, a “one-way journey”. We do it alone, and it may well be, she argues, our best chance “find out who we are at the core”. One man who spent a long time thinking about his death, because he had a degenerative, terminal disease, was Australian public intellectual Donald Horne whose last book, written with his wife Myfanwy, was Dying: A memoir. He wrote:

My final drifting away, via a morphine dose, I would want to be among my memories, with Myfanwy whom I love holding my hand.

Think about your death, plan for it, is Nogrady’s final message to us. If you’re ready to take up her challenge, The end would be a good place to start.

Bianca Nogrady
The end: The human experience of death
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2013
ISBN: 9781742752051

(Review copy supplied by the author)

Christina Stead, For love alone (Review)

In a recent communication with local author Nigel Featherstone about reviewing, he reminded me of Peter Rose’s advice for new reviewers for the ABR. One of the points Rose makes is:

with major books, ones that have been reviewed extensively in the newspapers, submit reviews that add to our understanding of the book, not just repetitious codas to or echoes of earlier reviews.

This stands also, I think, for classics, for books that have become part of the “canon”. Stead’s For love alone is such a book. My problem then is how to say something about this book that isn’t same-old, same-old. I could be lucky here though, because while Christina Stead is part of the Australian literary canon she’s probably not as well read or as well-known as she should be.

To gain some idea of her reputation amongst the literati, just look at these comments … Patrick White described this book as ‘A remarkable book. I feel elated to know it is there’. Now that is really something isn’t it? Helen Garner has said ‘I could die of envy of her hard eye’, David Malouf wrote that ‘Christina Stead has the scope, the imagination, the objectivity of the greatest novelists’, while American critic Clifton Fadiman called her ‘the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf‘. He has qualified his praise with ‘woman’, but nonetheless, you see what I mean. What can I add to a discussion of a writer of this ilk?

Enough introduction. Those of you who don’t know the novel are probably wondering by now what it’s about. The title sounds a bit melodramatic, and the basic plot-line could suggest it, but in fact the book is low on drama. You don’t read Stead for page-turning excitement. The novel is set in Sydney and London, from 1933 to 1937. It concerns Teresa Hawkins, the 19-year-old daughter of an unloving, self-involved father. Neither she nor her three siblings are happy at home but seem tied to it, mostly for economic reasons. The novel opens with Teresa and her sister Kitty attending the wedding of their cousin Malfi, setting the scene for Teresa’s quest for love – for a real love, though, not for “some schoolfellow gone into long trousers”. Unfortunately, while she is an intelligent and resourceful young girl, she is also naive. She sets her sights on her Latin teacher, the 23-year-old Jonathan Crow*. Consider the name, and you might gain some insight into his nature!

“She believed firmly in the power of the will to alter things and force things to an end”

It’s hard when reading the novel not to think of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (surely it’s relevant that Teresa is also called Tessa?) and, even more, of Edith Wharton‘s heroines. However, while society’s rules and conventions underpin the plot, Stead is more interested in her characters’, particularly Teresa’s, psychology. What does Teresa mean by love, what is its impact on her, and how far will she go for it? Very far, we soon discover. She denies herself sustenance almost to the point of death, not once but twice, in the novel. Why?

Well, let’s look at Teresa/Tessa. Early in the novel, she’s idealistic. She will not, she says, compromise her life. “I’ll never give in” (p. 33) she says to her aunts, and a little later says to her cousin, “I’d work my fingers to the bone to keep my lover” (p. 127). As she becomes immersed in her love for Jonathan Crow, she enacts these vows: “I am killing myself for a man” (p. 314), she realises. “Love is hard” (p. 357). And yet, she continues for many more chapters, to believe in her idea of love (in which women can’t expect happiness) and in Jonathan. This, to her, is how love is. It’s an intriguing portrait of a woman who is strong and intelligent, and yet unable to let go of something that is patently going nowhere. When the inimical Crow describes her as “a true example of masochism and also a perfect example of mythomania”, it’s hard not to agree.

Teresa, then, is not a simple character. Her commitment to Jonathan is complicated: when opportunities arise for greater intimacy, she in fact pulls back. It’s significant that several times through the novel she mentions Ulysses:

she could sail the seas like any free soul, from Ulysses to the latest skipper of a sixteen-footer rounding the world.

Eventually, though, she discovers “true love … the love without crime and sorrow” but, as ABR editor Peter Rose also says “never give away the denouement”, I will leave it here. I’ll simply say that the ending is satisfyingly open and true to Teresa’s character.

“The world was hers and she had no doubt of the future”

The novel is, essentially, a bildungsroman. It’s Teresa’s coming of age, intellectually, psychologically and physically. Her youthful confidence takes quite a battering as she confronts the realities – presented by society and by Jonathan. She realises that society’s rules are counter-human:

Why the false lore of society? To prevent happiness. If human beings really expected happiness, they would put up with no tyrannies and no baseness; each would fight for his right for happiness. (p. 532)

This is not a social history. Despite the descriptions of poverty, the analysis of societal marriage conventions, the discussions about money and power, Stead is not writing a Dickensian novel. Rather, it’s about Teresa’s struggle to know herself as a mature loving women, something that is stunted for some time by her relationship with the slippery Jonathan: “In one speech he would be sardonic and naive, cruel and gay, tender and cold” (p. 380) And yet, Teresa cares for this man, and forgives, and forgives, and forgives again his erratic, careless, misogynistic treatment of her. In fact, she appears to be so in his thrall that her employer James Quick begins to wonder whether she is as intelligent as he’d believed:

What can she be, to tolerate such a contemptible, calculating worm […] this intellectual scarecrow (p. 477, 480).

However, she is, of course, intelligent and in true bildungsroman-style does experience “true” love. But this is Stead and it’s not simple. At one point her new love tells her:

he will send her to university – make a woman of her, make a brilliant woman of her … He would take her to Paris, and elsewhere, no-one who knew her now, would know her then; he would make her over entirely.

Oh dear …

Australian Women Writers ChallengeThis is a delicious book – rich in ideas, gorgeous in writing, passionate in conception, and complex in psychology. The more I delve into it, the more I want to say. Perhaps, I will another day.

Postscript: By coincidence, I finished For love alone just as the ABC’s Australian Story broadcast the strange story of revered Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley, her librarian husband and his daughter by his first marriage, Susan Swingler, whom he left in England without telling her the truth. The first thing that crossed my mind as the story – I have Swingler’s book, unread, on my shelves – unfolded was “the things people do for love”. Jolley’s novels, like this one of Stead’s, are emotionally intense and explore some of the darker sides of familial and romantic relationships.

Christina Stead
For love alone
Carlton, The Miegunyah Press, 2011 (orig. pub 1945)
ISBN: 9780522853704

* The novel is autobiographical, but by no means autobiography. Here is an article on Keith Duncan who inspired Jonathan Crow.

Dorothy Johnston, Eight pieces on prostitution (Review)

Dorothy Johnston, Eight pieces on prostitution book cover

Lifted, with approval I hope, from Johnston’s website

A few months ago I wrote a Monday Musings on the Australian Society of Authors’ digital publishing initiative, Authors Unlimited e_Book portal. At the time I decided to try it out and bought Dorothy Johnston‘s collection of short stories, Eight pieces on prostitution.

The collection comprises 7 short stories and a long story or novella. One of the stories, ‘Mrs B’, I read earlier this year in Meanjin‘s Canberra edition. Some of the other stories have been published before too: ‘The Man Who Liked To Come With The News’ (The State of the Art, 1983), ‘Commuting’ (Island, issue 52, Spring 1992, and elsewhere), and ‘The Studio’ (Southerly, Winter 1996).

The first thing I should say about this collection is that it is not salacious reading. That is, it’s not erotica. Johnston’s interest is the lives, the experience, of prostitutes as people. Who are they? Why are they doing what they are doing? How do they negotiate their relationships, professional and personal? How do they live the life they’ve chosen and are they happy?

Johnston’s prostitutes are neither glamorous nor tarty, and most work for themselves or in small establishments. They are not the prostitutes of popular imagination. That is, they tend not to work in fancy parlours under control of a madam nor in that sleazy underworld borderland managed by pimps. They are, instead, either ordinary employees or small businesswomen. Some are career prostitutes, others are university students or single mothers who need to support themselves, while still others, like Eve in ‘The Studio’, are a little more mysterious:

She lives in a small flat. She chose the national capital because she imagined it to be a city where she could fade into the background, where she could hide.
Johnston’s characters are often wistful or even a little sad, but they are never pathetic. They are intelligent, and Johnston respects not judges them. They are not powerless, either, though sometimes the power they have is limited to their domain and can be tenuous. They can be a little lost, or perhaps just at a cross-roads in their lives. Maria in ‘The Cod-piece and the Diary Entry’ is uncertain about the world and her place in it. She thinks, when she moves and loses a client:
Looking back, she could not shake the feeling that she’s been on the point of understanding something important while in Harry’s company, that understanding had been no more than a breath away.
Sandy in ‘Names’ admires university student Gail’s strength and resilience:

She never let herself fall into a chair like I did when she came back from a client, slumping my stomach and letting the smile drop off my face.

There is a continuity between these characters and the three women in her novel The house at number 10 which I reviewed earlier this year. Like Elizabeth Jolley, Johnston is not afraid to re-use or develop characters across her oeuvre. I rather like that.

The pieces are set in places known to Johnston – Canberra and Melbourne. We get a clear sense of those cities, but even more we are let into the rooms the prostitutes inhabit – the ones they work in, the ones they relax in between clients. We learn about the things that are part of their daily routine. Sophie, for example, in ‘Commuting’, finds that when she steps outside work
petrol fumes are a relief after hours of perfumed towels and bubble bath.
The final piece is the novella ‘Where the Ladders Start’. The title comes from Yeats’ poem, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’:
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

It concerns a three-woman brothel established by Sue, who’d been dreaming for years of a “better system”. It’s “a co-operative … Tough that word, but they’d risen to its challenges”. Now though, the dream is being severely tested as they cope with the death of a client, on the first page, from erotic asphyxiation, “the choking game”.  The story explores the “one for all, all for one” ideal. Are there limits to trust, and how far should you take loyalty, particularly when it starts to be to your own detriment? Johnston sets the story at the beginning of the new millennium adding an ironic overlay to the situation confronting the women. What sort of millennium are they setting up for themselves by their response to the death?

As in all her stories, Johnston’s view of human nature here is warm but realistic, clear-eyed. She pits the “never let a chance go by” attitude against the desire to protect, care and trust, and then tests that against the need for self-preservation.

Johnston’s language is a delight to read. She’s precise but expressive, using imagery with a light touch:

The freedom to ask each other questions danced and shimmied in the air.

She can be quietly ironic:

Laura went on sitting in the kitchen like a Buddha, or more accurately a simpleton, a girl who’d left her mind someplace and forgotten to go back for it.

Is Laura simple or not is the question we ponder through most of the story.

In dealing with a mysterious death, “Where the Ladders Start” introduces us to that other string on Johnston’s writing bow, the crime novel. It’s a clever story, well-plotted, nicely maintaining a tension between mystery and clarity. Like most of the stories, there’s no simple resolution. Life, Johnston shows, is a messy business.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. While there is a commonality between the women, giving the collection a lovely coherence, there is also difference. Each character is unique, each story engaging. If there’s an overall theme, it is one of survival, or perhaps more accurately, resilience. Her women get on with life. They make decisions, some good, some bad, some we are not sure about, but, and here’s the important thing, they don’t stand still. Do read it. At $9.95, I reckon this is a steal.

Dorothy Johnston
Eight pieces on prostitution
Australian Society of Authors, 2013
Availability: Online download for $9.95 from the ASA site

Romy Ash, The basin (Review)

Romy Ash has made quite a splash with her debut novel, Floundering. It was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award, among others. I  haven’t read it yet, but I have read a couple of her short stories that have appeared in the Griffth Review, one of which is “The basin”.

Lake Argyle

A tiny section of Lake Argyle

For those who don’t know, the Griffith Review is published quarterly, with each issue focusing on a particular theme. The issue “The basin” appears in is titled “What is Australia” which is rather apposite given my Monday Musings post this week on Writing the Australian landscape. Ash doesn’t identify the “place” in which the story is set, beyond telling us that there’s a dam which is described in a pamphlet as “the biggest inland body of water in Australia”. Well, that gives it away. It is clearly inspired by Lake Argyle in the Kimberley region of northern Australia. The lake – an artificial one created by damming the Ord River – is huge. I’ve never seen a lake (in Australia anyhow) quite like it.

Ash’s story is about Jess who has come to the region with her husband, Max, and their daughter, Frankie. Jess is not happy, something that is physically represented by her increasing weight: “every bit of her wobbled”, “Sitting there Jess felt fatter”, “her thighs rubbed together”, and so on. “You were skinny, before”, an old farmer tells her.

Max, however, is happy. “We’ve never done so well”, he tells her. But all is not well in this man-made Eden (there are sly references to “apples”) and not all men are happy. It’s not normal for this “dry country” to have so much water. A farmer tells them:

The most beautiful country you’ve ever seen, gone. Them gums, they’re drowned under there. Ever heard a gum drown?  They creak. All the animals. It’s not like fire – them animals can’t sense it coming – they was drowned, sure enough. The surface of the water was just insects. Snakes curled and died. They washed up at the sides. It didn’t look like it does now. It was putrid.

Putrid perhaps, but natural is the implication. I have written about the drowning of this landscape before in my post on Mary Durack’s poem “Lament for a drowned country”. The Duracks’ own homestead was drowned to create Lake Argyle.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeAsh uses feminising imagery to tell her story – with many references to the colour “pink” (galahs, inside of mouths, sunrise, hams) and to the “basin” of the title. Water, often a literary device associated with life, is a complex image in Ash’s story. People are told not to swim in the dam because it’s the town water. Jess and Frankie do, but then Jess will only drink bottled water, refusing to drink the town water. Understandably! A different sort of water features in the story’s resolution.

Although Ash doesn’t explore it, she reminds us of indigenous people’s association with the land when she says that “after the flooding the town had been renamed Burrngburrng-nga, an Indigenous name. Every time she heard someone say it they pronounced it differently and quietly, unsure.” Google tells me that it means “The water boiled” in the Wagiman language (from Katherine in the Northern Territory).

This is a story about the costs – personal and environmental – of mankind’s belief in its ability to control nature. It’s about values, and whether making money is enough to sustain happiness. It’s about the unhappiness that can result when people are dislocated from their roots – either because they move or because their place has been changed beyond recognition. Place – it has such a complex relationship with our physical, emotional and/or spiritual well-being, doesn’t it?

It’s not a particularly dramatic story, but it is a quietly effective one that I can see fitting nicely into a volume intended to encourage us to think about “What is Australia”.

Romy Ash
“The basin”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 36, Winter 2012
Available: Online at the Griffith Review

Michelle de Kretser, Questions of travel (Review)

Hardback cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

Hardback cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

Every now and then a book comes along that is so sweeping in its conception, that it almost defies review. Such a book is this year’s Miles Franklin Award winner, Questions of travel by Michelle de Kretser. Consequently, I’m going to focus on one aspect that particularly spoke to me – and that is her exploration of place and its meaning/s in contemporary society.

“Soon everyone will be a tourist”

As the title suggests, the novel is about travel – but travel in its widest sense. In fact, without being too corny, it is, really, about the journey of life. As our heroine Laura, thinking about her married lover Paul, ponders:

Perhaps she was an item on the checklist: the wild oats of Europe, the career back home, marriage, mortgage, fatherhood, adultery, the mandatory stopping places on the Ordinary Aussie Grand Tour, with renos*, divorce and a coronary to follow.

That made me splutter in my coffee …

First, though, a brief overview of the plot. The story is told chronologically, alternating between the Australian Laura and Sri Lankan Ravi. Both were born in the 1960s, and the novel chronicles their lives until 2004 when they’d be around 40. Laura, under-appreciated by her family (cruelly described by her father as “the runt of the bunch”) and aimless, travels the world before returning to Sydney in her mid-30s, still rather directionless, but now an experienced freelance travel-writer. Ravi grows up in Sri Lanka, marries and has a son, but a shocking event results in his coming to Australia in 2000 as an asylum-seeker, the same year that Laura returns. You might think at this point that you know where the novel is heading, but you’ll be getting no spoilers from me!

And so we have two significant types of traveller – the tourist (with some business travel thrown in) and the refugee/emigrant. De Kretser explores these comprehensively, and with, I must say, thrilling insight. Thrilling is an unusual word in this context, I suppose, but I can’t think of a better one to describe my reaction to the way de Kretser, point-by-point, unpicks the world of travel, skewering all sorts of assumptions, expectations and pretensions as she goes. I almost got to the point of cancelling my next overseas trip! After all, as Laura discovers, “to be a tourist was always too arrive too late”. How many times have you been told that x place was better in the 80s, only to remember that in the 80s you were told it was better in the 60s!

“Geography is destiny”

So Ravi is told by his teacher Brother Ignatius. This, for all the serious and satirical exploration of travel and tourism, is what the book means most to me. Brother Ignatius tells his students that “History is only a byproduct of geography”. While we could all have fun exploring a chicken-and-the-egg argument, I’d find it hard to deny its fundamental truth.

Laura spends most of the book travelling, or thinking and writing about travel. She’s the quintessential modern person, believing:

What was the modern age if not movement, travel, change?

Living in England she sees the long-standing connections people have to their place, while

Her own people struck Laura, by comparison, as a vigorous, shallow-rooted plant still adapting itself to alien soil.

She returns to Australia, following the death of the gay man she’d loved, hoping for meaning, connection. Geography, place, home had asserted itself … as it usually does. But life doesn’t prove to be much easier. Struggling to find her place, she finds once again that “noone was asking her to stay”.

Meanwhile, Ravi struggles to adjust to his circumstances. Grieving for what he’s lost, he (with his “eyes that had peered into hell”) goes through the motions of living and working. People such as his landlady and her family, and his work colleagues, are kind – enough – but de Kretser shows how skin-deep, how superficial, our practice of diversity and, worse, our humanity is. We do not easily accept people from “other” places. “Otherness”, de Kretser proves, “is readily opaque”. Australians, for example, ask Ravi which detention centre he’d been in because, of course, as an asylum-seeker that’s where he’d been! And, if he hadn’t, was he a “real” refugee. (One of the book’s many other themes, in fact, is “authenticity”.) Ravi, it has to be said, doesn’t help himself. He doesn’t share his history (should he have to?) and, fearing obligations, he resists any help that isn’t essential.

“Place had come undone”

While Laura and Ravi struggle with where they are, they also confront the fact that by the late twentieth century place isn’t only physical. Ravi had discovered, back in Sri Lanka, the world of “disembodied travel”, though his wife Malini had proclaimed “Bodies are always local”. This imagery, seemingly light at the time, carries a heavy weight. Later, finding settling into his new geographical location difficult, Ravi starts to find escape and even solace in virtual places, including visiting people’s homes via real estate sites. De Kretser doesn’t miss any opportunity to explore the ways we “travel” and it never feels forced. It all fits, emulating the way travel fits into our lives.

For Laura, the virtual intrudes mostly through work where she is a commissioning editor for Ramsays, a travel guide company. As the 21st century takes hold, the e-zone division of her company starts to increase in importance. Some of the novel’s best satire is found in the portrayal of corporate culture at Ramsays. It’s laugh-out-loud, sometimes excruciatingly so.

“Time was a magician, it always had something improbable up its sleeve …”

While the novel’s subject matter is travel, in all its guises and in what it says about how we relate to place and each other, the overriding theme is that literal and existential question, What Am I Doing Here? It tackles the big issues that confront us all every day – Time, Truth, Memory, Death and, of course, the most fraught of all, Other People.

Towards the end of the novel, Laura realises that:

… the moment that mattered on each journey resisted explanation … because it addressed only the individual heart.

We could say the same about a great book … and so I apologise for my paltry attempt here to explain de Kretser’s witty, warm and powerful novel. If you have any interest in contemporary literature and its take on modern living, this is the book for you.

For an equally positive perspective, check out Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) excellent review.

Michelle de Kretser
Questions of travel
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2012
ISBN: 9781743317334

* Aussies commonly abbreviate words with “o” or “ie” endings. “Renos” therefore refers to “renovations”.