Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2014

awwchallenge2014As I’ve done over the last two years, I’m devoting my last Monday Musings for the year to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. This challenge, which most of you probably know by now, was instigated by Elizabeth Lhuede in response to concerns in Australian literary circles about the lack of recognition for women writers. I am one of Elizabeth’s band of volunteers – responsible for the Literary and Classics area – and, of course, am also a challenge participant.

The challenge has had another successful year with continued commitment by a wide range of reviewers. In 2015, we will be moving to a self-hosted site and plan to produce a single searchable database of all reviews logged since the challenge started in 2012. This will provide an excellent entree to a wide variety of Australian women’s writing across all forms and genres that has not been easy to access to date.

As last year, the Challenge ran some special events during the year, including a focus on indigenous writers, writers from diverse backgrounds, and writers with a disability. These events have included interviews and guest posts, and I thought I’d share some with you here, because they are worth reading and because they demonstrate the depth of diversity the Challenge reaches for:

  • Honey Brown (Women writers with a disability): on living with paraplegia and the surprising links between creativity and coping with adversity.
  • Eleanor Jackson (Queer women writers): on how being a “bisexual, biracial female writer” affects her art.
  • Ambelin Kwaymullin (Indigenous women writers): containing reviews of 5 works by Aboriginal women (including one by an Aboriginal community) which “offer insights into Aboriginal culture and existence”.
  • Donna McDonald (Women writers with a disability): on the struggle for rights for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and how exhausting it is.
  • Yvette Walker (Queer women writers): on two queer writers – Elizabeth Bishop and EM Forster – who have inspired her.
  • Jessica White (Women writers with a disability): on her deafness which brought isolation and dislocation but some consolations too!

If you are interested in the challenge, you can check it out here. I don’t believe the sign up form is ready for 2015, but keep an eye on the site. We’d love you – whether you are female or male – to join us next year. The challenge can also be found on Facebook, Twitter (@auswomenwriters), GoodReads and Google+.

As regular readers know by now, the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is my only challenge. This year I posted 30 reviews for the challenge, three more than last year. My breadth is similar to last year, except interestingly, I reviewed no poetry this year, whereas last year I contributed three poetry reviews. What happened? However, I am pleased that I managed to read four books from my TBR pile for the challenge. Now that is something worth crowing about! Anyhow, here’s my list (with links to the reviews):






Again, I have enjoyed taking part in the challenge – and plan to take part again next year, both as volunteer and participant. I particularly want to thank Elizabeth and the rest of the team for making it all such a cooperative, and enjoyable experience. I look forward to 2015.

Thea Astley, Drylands (Review, of sorts)

I read Thea Astley’s Drylands many, many years ago now, so what I’m going to share here – inspired by my post earlier this year on confronting Australian novels – are the notes I made when I read it. They are not particularly well-formed, because I wasn’t planning a review at the time, though I must admit that I did spend some time skimming it as I tried to massage my notes into some shape. Too hard not to! It’s her last novel, and it earned Astley her fourth Miles Franklin Award (shared with Kim Scott’s Benang).

Drylands is subtitled “a book for the world’s last reader”. It’s one of those tricky books that looks like a collection of short stories but is, albeit perhaps loosely defined, a novel. Its structure comprises sections titled “Meanwhile” by the so-called writer of the stories, Janet, alternated with stories about inhabitants of, or visitors to, a dying town called Drylands:

a God-forgotten tree-stump of a town halfway to nowhere whose population (two hundred and seventy-four) was tucked for leisure either in the bar of the Legless Lizard or in front of television screens, videos, Internet adult movies or PlayStation games for the kiddies.


No one was reading anymore.

It’s a town “being outmanoeuvred by the weather. As simple as that. Drought. Dying stock.”

The main subject of these stories are three men (Franzi Massig, farmer Jim Randler and the indigenous Benny Shoforth) and three women (Evie the writing teacher, Lannie Cunneen, and Joss the publican’s wife). This is all quite neat, except that we are thrown somewhat by the fact that the “Janet” character may be a conceit dreamed up by Evie, who says she will “write a story … about a woman in an upstairs room above a main street in a country town, writing a story about a woman writing a story”. Since Janet is an inhabitant of Drylands while Evie is not, it makes sense that this might be Evie’s work, not Janet’s, making Evie both character and observer*. Another spanner in the narrative-voice-works is that two of the stories – those of Franzi Massig and Joss – are told first person. I might be reading too much into it, but I wonder if Astley is using this uncertainty to mirror the disorder she sees in society, if that makes sense.

Drylands explores many of the issues important to Astley. The two overriding ones are words and their importance/power, and the impoverishment of the spirit (often related to our inhumanity). Subsumed in the latter are some of Astley’s recurrent issues – gender and race, dispossession and power imbalances. She rails against the shallowness and small-mindedness that lead to poor treatment of “other” (indigenous people, women, less educated people, the ageing, etc), to “the powerlessness”, as Benny calls it, “of poverty and colour”. Here is a husband coming to drag his wife out of her writing class to get him his lunch:

He was hurling words at his shrinking wife like clods or bricks and she was not dodging but receiving them like a willing saint, enduring abuse like a terrible balm.

I wonder what Astley would have written about our treatment of asylum-seekers had she still been around, but unfortunately she died in 2004.

Thea Astley is, as you’ve probably gathered, an unsettling writer – and one with some very strong viewpoints. Besides being unimpressed by how women, indigenous people, and ‘oddballs’ (or outsiders) are treated, she’s also not too fussed about computers, television, and our sports-mad society. For these reasons I’m inclined to agree with Kerryn Goldsworthy that there’s a dystopian element to her vision. I didn’t pick it at first because I tend to see dystopian novels as being speculative or fable or allegorical, as being, in other words, about what “might be” rather than what “is”. The handmaid’s tale is a dystopian novel that is not specifically set in the future but neither is it set in a recognisable “real” world. Lord of the flies and Animal farm are dystopian views of the world that are not set in the future but, arguably, neither do they present a realistic community/society/place. Drylands, though, is recognisably our world, but a pretty grim version of it, which suggests dystopia. It’s probably worth noting here that Drylands was published in 1999, that is, at the end of the millennium.

Regardless of formal definition, though, Drylands, like dystopian novels, is pervaded by a sense of hopelessness. There are likable people – many – but life isn’t easy or happy for them. There are, however, some positive or redemptive hints, particularly for Clem and Joss. Janet, the linking character, on the other hand, can only glimmer the fact that there might be something out there:

There was something out there, but she doubted she would ever discover. The idiocy of her wasted years made her laugh even more.

There were no endings no endings no

awwchallenge2014The writing in Drylands, though sometimes colourful, is sparer, more restrained than we are used to from Astley – and just right for a bitter tale about lack of literacy, loss of reading skills, and the implications thereof. Janet’s mother tells her that “being unable to read is being crippled for life”. Janet, writing her story, worries whether she’s getting her narrative right, but decides it’s “better for readers to frolic with their own assumptions from the words spoken, the deeds done” – which is, perhaps, the ultimate irony if everyone has lost the ability to read! If you only ever read one Astley, you couldn’t go wrong with this one.

Thea Astley
Ringwood: Viking, 1999
ISBN: 9780670884704

* There is a scene in “Stranger in town”, where Evie briefly meets the eyes of the woman (whom we know is Janet) living above the newsagency.

Helen Garner, This house of grief: The story of a murder trial (Review)

Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

Courtesy: Text Publishing

Well you might ask why you would want to read a book about the trial of a man accused of murdering his three sons by driving his car into a dam and escaping the car himself? Indeed, Helen Garner was asked why she would want to attend such a trial – and write about it. But Helen Garner is made of strong stuff, having previously written The first stone about the sexual harassment of two girls at Melbourne University’s Ormond College and Joe Cinque’s consolation about the trial of a woman accused of murdering her boyfriend via a drug overdose. I’ve read and appreciated both these books, along with novels and short stories by Garner, and so was keen to read this, her latest.

For those of you who don’t know the story, here’s Wikipedia’s summary of what happened:

… as Farquharson was returning his children to their mother after a Father’s Day access visit, his white 1989 VN Commodore vehicle veered across the Princes Highway between Winchelsea and Geelong, crashed through a fence and came to rest in a farm dam where it filled with water and submerged. His three children, Jai (10), Tyler (7) and Bailey (2), were unable to free themselves and drowned. Farquharson managed to escape and alerted another driver who took him to nearby Winchelsea. Police divers recovered the boys’ bodies about 2 am the next day. They were still inside the vehicle and unrestrained by seatbelts.

Farquharson claimed that he did not intend to kill his children, that he had blacked out during a coughing fit (a condition known as cough syncope). However, he was tried and found guilty, tried again after winning an appeal and found guilty again, and was then refused leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia.

Garner sat through both trials, the first one lasting around 7 weeks, and the second one 11 weeks, and managed to condense it all into 300 pages of lucid prose. One of the reasons I was keen to read the book was to see what approach she’d take. In The first stone and Joe Cinque’s consolation, Garner’s opinion is pretty clear from the beginning – and I didn’t fully agree with her (for very different reasons in each of the books). However, in This house of grief, Garner is more measured. She doesn’t want to believe that Farquharson is guilty – “longed to be persuaded” otherwise – but is gradually swayed by the evidence to believe it must be so. She doesn’t engage emotionally with the participants in the intense way she did in Joe Cinque’s consolation, but she is emotional. How could you not be in such a case? There are two reasons I like Garner – her tight, evocative prose, and her fearless honesty. And so, in this book, she tracks her own response as she listens to the evidence – from her disbelief that a father could do such a thing, and her sentimental desire to believe Farquharson, to her horrified admission that any doubt about it is “no more substantial than a cigarette paper shivering in the wind”.

So, let’s get back to the original question. Why read such a story? There are a few reasons, but I’ll discuss my two main ones. The first is to gain insight into, and understanding of, human behaviour. Why do people do what they do? It’s so easy to judge people out-of-hand, but even horrific events have nuances, and I want to understand those. Not to excuse, because it’s impossible to excuse taking the lives of those in one’s care, but to be able to empathise in some way. Isn’t this what literature is about?

Garner achieves this by not demonising Farquharson. As she watches him in court, and listens to the evidence – professional, personal, expert – she presents a picture of a man who was “emotionally immature, bereft of intellectual equipment and concepts, lacking in sustaining friendships outside his family”. At the end of the first trial, the judge speaks kindly to Farquharson, and Garner writes:

Farquharson nodded to him, courteous and present. For the first time I saw him as he might have been in ordinary life, at work, at school. It touched me. Again I felt shocked, as if this response were somehow illegitimate.

(Interestingly, Garner did not accord such recognition to Anu Singh in Joe Cinque’s consolation. Yes, different case, very different people, but the principle still stands I think.) A little earlier in the trial, Garner quotes “a tough American prosecutor” who’d said to her:

‘If I were appearing for him, I’d try to make his family see that loving him doesn’t have to mean they believe he’s innocent’.

But, how tough that would be, eh?

My second reason is to understand the workings of courts and justice. I have never (yet anyhow) been called for jury duty. Oh my, oh my, after reading this, I’m even more desperate that I never am. Although it’s pretty obvious that the right verdict was achieved in this case, the process was not reassuring. Garner’s reporting of evidence and cross-examination reads very like those court dramas you see in film and television. There’s drama, police mistakes, twisting of the truth, character assassinations, conflicting expert opinions – and, in this case, a lot of complicated and sometimes obfuscatory technical evidence about cars and tire tracks and steering inputs, about arcs and gradients. And it goes on for weeks.

Garner keeps it interesting by focusing on the people and their reactions, reporting some dialogue, and summarising the critical (which, she makes clear, is not always the most relevant) points of evidence. Her descriptions of the defence and prosecution team are drawn with a novelist’s eye for character. Sometimes Morrissey, the defence barrister, is “as jumpy as a student undergoing an oral exam”, while at other times he’s “less flustered … more in control of the content and tone of his discourse”. His “waxen” appearance at the second trial is quite different from the beginning of the first when he’s presented as a hearty “spontaneous, likeable man” whose “stocks were high”.

She also pays a lot of attention to the jury. Of course we cannot know what they thought or discussed but Garner watches them, noting when their attention flags and when it picks up, when emotions get the better of them. She writes, for example, of one witness that “the jury liked him … he was one of the witnesses they instinctively trusted”. During her report on the second trial, she quotes American writer, Janet Malcolm who wrote that “jurors sit there presumably weighing evidence but in actuality they are studying character”.

Partway through the book, Garner comments that the question “Did he do it?” is the “least interesting question anyone could ask.” Later, between the first and second trial, she quotes a grandmother from another murky situation in which a father was suspected of killing his children via a house fire. The grandmother asks:

‘What’s worse? — living with suspicions and various possibilities and never knowing the truth, or living with the truth of something too horrible to contemplate.’

Books like Garner’s enable us – nay, force us – to contemplate such questions. They show us that trials are less about retribution, perhaps even less about justice, but more about the truth. What we are to do with the truths we so glean is another question – but that question, Garner suggests, is our “legitimate concern”, and I agree.

awwchallenge2014Helen Garner
This house of grief: The story of a murder trial
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922079206

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Ethel Turner, Tales from the “Parthenon” (Review)

Ethel Turner, Tales from the Parthenon

Courtesy: Juvenilia Press

Hands up if you’re an Aussie and didn’t read Ethel Turner’s Seven little Australians in your childhood. Surely no hands have gone up? Seven little Australians, her first novel, was published in 1894 when she was 24, and was an instant hit, eventually becoming a classic. According to Wikipedia, it was, in 1994 (and may still be), “the only book by an Australian author to have been continuously in print for 100 years”. It seemed only right then that I should choose Ethel Turner‘s Tales from the “Parthenon” for my third foray into the bundle of juvenilia books I bought back in April from Juvenilia Press.

Like Juvenilia Press’ other publications that I’ve read to date, Tales from the “Parthenon” contains a wealth of supporting material besides the actual juvenilia, including an in-depth introduction, notes on the text, endnotes and footnotes, an appendix, and a list of references.

Ethel Turner (1870-1958) and Mary Grant Bruce (1878 – 1958), whose juvenilia was the first I wrote on, were contemporaries, and, according to the Introduction, “dominated the market for children’s fiction in Australia”. However, while Bruce focused on the bush, and the national character as exemplified by bush living, Turner, whose career started earlier, had, says the Introduction, “already moved away from that tradition and firmly established her fiction in suburban Sydney”. The Introduction also tells us a little about Turner’s early writing career, at school and then immediately post-school. At school she and her sister, Lilian, established a magazine Iris when the school’s newspaper, Gazette, which was edited by another Australian writer-in-training, Louise Mack, rejected Ethel’s contributions!

Turner left school in 1888, and in 1889 she and her sister established another magazine, the Parthenon, which ran from 1 January 1889 to 4 April 1892. An impressive effort methinks for two young women. As you will have now gathered from the title of this volume, it is from this magazine that Pamela Nutt and her team have chosen works to represent Turner’s youthful writing.

While the focus on urban/suburban life and settings is one point of interest in Turner’s writing, another is her awareness of gender issues (though she wouldn’t of course have used such language). This is made clear in the Parthenon’s first issue in which they identified their goals. They wrote that their great grandmothers had learnt to write and spell, and their grandmothers had added “French, the harp and pianoforte, and the use of globes”, but

now the desire for knowledge in rapidly growing: deeper and deeper, woman goes into the mazy labyrinth, untrodden before by any but men’s footsteps,—culling the flowers of knowledge,—yes, and enjoying them, and appreciating them even as much as men do.

Ethel Turner was active during the first wave of feminism in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. While this early wave didn’t reject women’s domestic role and function, it did argue for women’s rights and recognition of intellectual equality. Turner fits within this paradigm. The Introduction suggests that her novel Miss Bobbie, of which an earlier serialised version appeared in Parthenon, promotes “vigour and independence” in young women but situates this within a world still framed by “patriarchal expectations”.

The Introduction mentions a third way in which Turner contributes to Australia’s literary tradition: incorporating Australian elements into traditional English fantasy. The pieces in this volume have been well-chosen to reflect all these aspects of her writing. They are all children’s pieces – “Gladys and the fairies” (in 2 chapters), “A dreadful pickle” (in 3 chapters), both published in 1889, and chapter 3 of “Bobbie” from 1890. And all feature spirited if not naughty girls. Jane Gleeson-White, in her Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works, quotes Turner’s opening to Seven little Australians:

Before you fairly start this story, I should give you just a word of warning. If you think you are going to read of model children, with perhaps a naughtily inclined one to point a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately … Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are.

Gleeson-White’s point is that Turner may have been called Australia’s Louisa May Alcott, but her children are very different. And these juvenilia pieces show her moving down that path. Gladys is “dreadfully spoilt” and behaves tyrannically. However, time in Shadowland and Fairyland, forces her to rethink her ways, though not before she collapses in a typical Victorian faint! It is here we find English fairies in a new environment. Turner’s fairy queen rides in a chariot comprising “part of an emu’s egg, wondrously carved” with elfs* following, “dressed in yellow and riding locusts”.

Midge, the protagonist of “A dreadful pickle”, is also spoilt, and, like Gladys, treats her governess badly. However, she has a kind heart along with her independent spirit, and “wants to help poor people like those in London”. The story takes a Dickensian turn when Midge finds herself out of her depth and alone with some of these poor people. There’s some fun wordplay in this story – and I was intrigued by the note on the word “pallor” telling us that Turner used the American spelling that was popular in Australia at the time. The things you learn!

Then there’s Bobbie. We only have one chapter of her story. Bobbie, like Gladys and Midge, is in a household of boys, but in her case she’s been left there by her father who is travelling in Europe with his new wife. From the little excerpt we have, she seems to be a more developed character than Gladys and Midge, that is, less the typical spoilt child, but she too gets in a pickle when her perverse behaviour brings on teasing from one of the boys, with disastrous results. The notes on this story point out that Turner and Mary Grant Bruce “created strong female characters who challenged the Victorian stereotype of the submissive female”.

So, once again, I’ve enjoyed reading a well-known writer’s juvenilia, not just for evidence of the writer to come, but also for the insight provided into Turner’s times and the role her work plays in the development of Australian literature. These may be stories for children, written by girls, but the value of material like this for students of literature shouldn’t be underestimated.

My previous Juvenilia Press posts are on Mary Grant Bruce and Eleanor Dark.

awwchallenge2014Ethel Turner
(ed. Pamela Nutt, with students from Year 11, the Presbyterian Ladies College Sydney)
Tales from the “Parthenon”
Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780733433740

* Turner’s plural form, not mine!

Jill Sanguinetti, School days of a Methodist lady: A journey through girlhood (Review)

Jill Sanguinetti, School days of a Methodist ladyWhen I read a memoir, particularly one by an unknown person like Jill Sanguinetti’s School days of a Methodist lady, my first question is why was this memoir written? Sally Morgan’s My place, for example, explores how she discovered her indigenous origins and why her family had kept this hidden, while Frank McCourt’s Angela’s ashes chronicles the extreme poverty of his childhood. Not surprisingly, many memoirs, like these two, examine the writer’s childhood – that formative time in our lives – and Jill Sanguinetti’s is no exception.

So, why did Sanguinetti write her memoir? In her opening letter to the reader she says she’s written it for the MLC community, for young people “struggling to grow through life’s complexities”, and for herself to air “a dark and musty corner of my soul”. This breadth is a bit of a shame because it means the memoir doesn’t have a core purpose that propels it along like, say, Morgan’s and McCourt’s. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the book, mainly because of its subject, Sanguinetti’s school days. The main focus is her four years as a boarder at Melbourne’s prestigious MLC (Methodist Ladies College), but it starts with her childhood in the small country town of Kyabram in northern Victoria.

Now, I wasn’t a boarder and I didn’t attend a prestigious private school, but I am a baby-boomer, as is Sanguinetti. This means that, although I went to government schools in two Queensland towns and then Sydney, and although I’m a later baby-boomer, we shared a similar world, and I enjoyed wandering down memory lane with her. I remember the freer childhood of a 1960s country town, and singing hymns with my sister after church. I remember the Billy Graham Crusades (though unlike Sanguinetti, I didn’t attend one). Elvis was well established by the time I was a teen, so my rock ‘n roll memories are of the Beatles, Credence Clearwater Revival and the Stones, but our ways of enjoying them through our radios was similar. And I remember the formality of schools in those post-war decades. Sanguinetti tells all this with a simple, straightforward clarity.

What helped keep my interest, too, was the memoir’s structure. While it is roughly chronological, starting with the family’s move to Kyabram in 1951 when she was 6, and ending with her leaving MLC in 1961, most of the chapters in between are thematic allowing her to explore these aspects of her life in more depth. And so there’s a chapter on church (“My family at church”), and one on friendships (“The gift of girlfriends”), a chapter on school discipline (“Discipline and resistance”), and another on boys (“The embarrassing problem of boys”). And so on. I particularly enjoyed her chapter on four inspirational teachers (“Matriculation: Four Great Teachers”). Don’t we all have them? This departing from a formal chronological structure, yet still moving the time on, enables the book to function as a meaningful social history of the time within the broader narrative.

I started my post with “my first question”, but I do have others about memoir-writing, a major one being how writers manage to remember so much. My memory of my childhood is woeful, patchy at best. I appreciate that when you get down to it memories come, but still … Well, Sanguinetti covers this issue both directly and indirectly in her book – within the main text and in her Acknowledgements. Her own memory is of course critical, but she was lucky that her parents kept the letters she (and her sister) wrote home while at boarding school. How useful for a childhood memoir, methinks, to have gone to boarding school! There is a trap in this, though, because your memory can be swayed by what you wrote in your letters. Indeed, Sanguinetti quotes, from one of her letters, an experience from her schooldays, and then writes:

I have no recollection of the dormitory prayer circle and doubt that it lasted long.

What significance, then, should we grant this experience in her memoir? How often, I wonder, does this happen in memoirs without our knowing? The significance depends a bit on the intention of the memoir. If it is intended to be a social history of a place or time, or a nostalgia piece, then it’s probably just as significant as events more clearly remembered, but if the memoir’s focus is the experiences that formed the writer, does something not remembered carry equal weight as one consciously remembered? (Hmm … let’s not answer that lest we become mired in psychological theory!) I should add here that Sanguinetti had other sources  – written and oral – for her work. Some are mentioned in her Acknowledgements, and others in her useful, well worth reading, Chapter Notes.

Now, let’s return to my original question: why did Sanguinetti write this memoir? Throughout the book she hints at or foreshadows something darker, and we gradually realise it is depression of some sort. Around the middle of the book (“Angst”), she says that “I believe today that it was the sustained stress that harmed me in the long term, rather than separation from home or the privations of boarding”.  This chapter ends with:

I was up and down like a yo-yo, revelling in the buzz and stimulation of school life one moment, and languishing in anxiety, regulation and grey ordinariness the next. I knew that other girls whose marks were not brilliant did not tackle their work with the same intensity as I did, nor did they get in a muddle, or be all up and down as I was. And why was I blighted with ever-stiffening fingers and crazy handwriting. What was it about me?

While she suggests misery, and mentions that her sister “too, started to show signs of depression”, she doesn’t develop this or make us “feel” her pain, which makes it easy for us to dismiss it as “typical” adolescent ups and downs. However, from a reference, in the post-school concluding chapters, to a breakdown, it was clearly more than that. For her, she says, the memoir “would free myself from that particular set of ghosts” left from her MLC experience, but for us it is a well-written, analytical, and yes, interesting story about Australian school and society in the 1950s to early 1960s.

Thinking about all this, I was reminded of Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a woman’s life in which she worries that in autobiographies “nostalgia, particularly for childhood, is likely to be a mask for anger”. This is not a nostalgia piece, though – it’s too real in her evocation of boarding-school hunger, cold and lack of freedom to be that – but it does feel as though she throttled back. Indeed, she says as much through her choice of epigraph:

Perhaps the only point about autobiography is to remember a world which, by the time of writing, has changed so much as almost to vanish, and to record the succession of changes … How to look back, not in anger, but in reflection, is a problem I had to solve. For the small, enclosed world I began in had its concealments and anguishes as well as joys. (Judith Wright)

Sanguinetti, I realise, headed me off at the pass, before she began. She’s done what she intended – and done it well. Still, a little anger mightn’t have gone astray.

awwchallenge2014Jill Sanguinetti
School days of a Methodist lady: A journey through girlhood
Melbourne: Wild Dingo Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780980757095

(Review copy courtesy Wild Dingo Press)

Clare Wright, The forgotten rebels of Eureka (Review)

Book cover, The forgotten rebels of Eureka

Courtesy: Text Publishing

Wah! Once again I delayed reading a much heralded book until my reading group did it*, and so it is only now that I’ve read Clare Wright’s Stella Prize winning history, The forgotten rebels of Eureka. The trouble with coming late to a high-profile book is how to review it freshly. All I can do, really, is what I usually do, and that is write about an aspect or two that particularly interested me. Since other bloggers have already beautifully covered one of these, the history**, I’m going to focus on Wright’s writing and the approach she took to telling her story. I won’t be doing this from the angle of historical theory, as I’m not an historian, but in terms of her intention, and her tone, style, and structure.

If you’re not Australian, you may not have heard of the Eureka Stockade. It was a significant event in colonial Australia’s march to democracy and independence, involving the British army and police attacking a stockade created by miners whose grievances included the payment of a compulsory miner’s licence and the fact that this licence, which they saw as a form of taxation, did not give them the right to vote in the legislature. It has traditionally been framed in masculine terms, but Wright discovered, somewhat by accident while researching another project (as historians do!), a new angle – the role of women in the rebellion. There were, she found, over 5,000 women on the goldfields:

Women were there. They mined for gold and much else of economic value besides. They paid taxes. They fought for their rights. And they were killed in the crossfire of a nascent new order.

Consequently, in her book, Wright draws on extensive primary and secondary sources to explore and expose the lives of these women and the until-now-unheralded role that she believes they played in the goldfields, particularly in the lead up to and aftermath of that fateful day of 3 December 1854.

Wright opens the book with three epigraphs, one of which is particularly illuminating in terms of my subject. It’s by Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey and states that “every history of every country is a mirror of the author’s own interests and therefore selective rather than comprehensive”. Having been interested in historical writing since studying EH Carr’s What is history at university, I like the admission that histories are inherently subjective, regardless of how well researched they are. The historian makes decisions about what s/he will research, what the limits of that research will be, and how s/he will interpret that research. It’s common sense. How can it be otherwise? And so, in this history, Wright’s specific interest in the role of women means that all her research – even research into men’s activities – is viewed through that prism. There’s another implication, too, regarding selectivity: with her focus being specifically the women, we cannot read this book as a comprehensive history of the Eureka Stockade. It complements, or expands, or even jousts with other works.

None of this is meant negatively. I thoroughly enjoyed the read. My point is simply that it’s important, as it always is, to be aware of what we are reading – and I like the fact that Wright recognises this. So, what we have here is, to the best of my knowledge, a thorough but selective history. The text is extensively referenced, with 25 pages of meaningful endnotes and nearly 20 pages of bibliography, and there is a useful index. These are things I look for in a good nonfiction work. The book is logically structured, by theme and chronology, and its (creatively titled) chapters are divided into three main parts: Transitions, Transformations and Transgressions. You can sense a writer’s touch in the alliteration here.

And it’s the writer’s touch I want to turn to now, because Wright has achieved that difficult mix – a well-researched but readable history. It has been written, I’m sure, with an eye on a general, but educated audience. The language is often breezy and even jokey (perhaps a little too much) at times, and yet is replete with classical, Shakespearean, biblical and other literary allusions. She uses metaphor, such as “the cornered lizard bared its frills” to describe the hoisting of the famous Australian flag in the days before the attack. Her descriptions are evocative, and often visceral. You feel you are there in the crowded “tent city” that was Ballarat:

The arrival of the extra troops meant squashing more stinky little fish into an already overpacked tin … From the outside, it seemed like the tightrope was about to snap.

Her stories of the childbirth experiences of Sarah Skinner and Katherine Hancock are devastating to read.

Indeed, I would place this book in the narrative non-fiction tradition. It has a strong narrative drive, with a large cast of characters, some of whom stay with us, some of whom pass through. They include Ellen Young whose poems and letters in the Ballarat Times articulate the mining community’s distress and sense of injustice; hotel-keeper Catherine Bentley who, with her husband, earns the ire of the diggers by consorting with government officials; theatre-owner and actor Sarah Hanmer who donated more to the rebels’ cause than anyone else; and newspaper publisher Clara Seekamp who takes the helm when her husband is arrested for sedition. These women provide significant evidence for Wright’s thesis that women played more than a helpmeet role in the intellectual and political life of Ballarat.

In addition to “developing” these characters, Wright uses other narrative techniques, such as:

  • plot cliff-hangers (much like a screenwriter, which she also is, would do) and pointed aphorisms at the end of chapters
  • foreshadowing to suggest causation: “Even female licence holders expected a modicum of representation for their taxation—as dramatic events would later demonstrate”
  • repetition of ideas and motifs to propel her themes. Take, for example, the Southern Cross. It functions as “a hitching post for existential certainty when all else was in mortal flux” during immigrants’ sea journey from the northern hemisphere to the south (Ch. 3, “Crossing the line”) and is later picked up as a symbol for the rebels’ flag “as the one thing that united each and every resident of Ballarat” (Ch. 11, “Crossing the line (Reprise)”).

As an historian, Wright is confident and fearless, expressing clear opinions, either as direct statements, or indirectly through her choice of language. She calls the Bentleys’ murder trial, for example, a “morality play”. She asks questions; she offers close analysis of her sources, such as noting that the use of the word “demand”, rather than “request” or “humbly pray”, conveys the diggers’ frustration with authority; and she makes considered deductions by testing textual evidence against her understanding of the times and the work of other historians. She discusses discrepancies in reportage, such as the different witness reports of the fire at the Bentleys’ hotel. But she also, as other bloggers and my own reading group have commented, draws a long bow when she suggests the full moon and menstrual synchrony may have been a factor in so many men leaving the stockade on the night of the attack. She provides some evidence for this synchrony as a phenomenon, and offers other reasons for the desertion, but it feels a little out of left field.

At times her nod to the popular and her push for dramatic effect jars, but Wright’s argument that women played an active role at the diggings and in the stockade is convincing. I’m not surprised she won the Stella Prize, because this is engaging reading that is underpinned by extensive scholarship and clear thinking. It’s exciting to see a work that doesn’t just explore the role of women in history but that puts them right in the action.

awwchallenge2014Clare Wright
The forgotten rebels of Eureka
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922182548

* I bet you can hardly wait until next month now!
** Do check out historian bloggers, the Resident Judge and Stumbling Through the Past, and litblogger Lisa of ANZLitLovers.

Annabel Smith, The Ark (Review)

SmithArkSelfPubI must start by thanking Western Australian short story writer Glen Hunting* for recommending Annabel Smith’s The Ark in his comment on a recent Monday Musings post. Hunting wrote that it “is self-published and available as a print book, e-book, app, and has its own interactive website”. I was intrigued so checked it out. My initial reaction was “hmm, is this for me?” But, I’ve wanted to read Smith for a while, so decided where better to start than with this innovative project? I bought the iPad app version and was entertained from the first page. Lisa (ANZLitLovers), who reviewed it just after I started reading it, felt the same.

The Ark is, for want of a better description, dystopian speculative fiction presented in the form of a modern epistolary novel with interactive options. I say “modern” epistolary because the story is told through a variety of textual communications – emails, a blog, memos, reports, minutes of meetings, and news articles. It is divided into two books, of which the first is told, sequentially, through four characters, one on the outside followed by three inhabitants – Kirk Longrigg, CEO of SynBioTec Australia which established the Ark; Ava, a wife, mother and deferred PhD student-expert on despots; Roscoe, the 15-year old son of futurologist Mia; and Pilot, a botanist. At different points in the book we are invited to investigate the Ark via links though which we can tour the bunker, hear the inhabitants, add our own contributions or fan-fiction. I liked the graphics used to depict the Ark, but didn’t spend a lot of time exploring these interactive elements. I suspect different readers, depending on their interests, will behave very differently in this regard. Perhaps game-players will engage more with the interactive features? The good thing is that the book is flexible. It’s not necessary to engage in these digressions, but it can, I’m sure, enhance your enjoyment if you are so inclined.

Roscoe's Blog

Roscoe’s Blog

Not surprisingly, an important element of the book is its design. Each different type of communication has its own visual style – the “dailemails”, the more private person-to-person “Gopher”, the supposedly secure “Headless Horseman”, Roscoe’s “Kaos Kronikles” blog, BLiPPs, and so on. Once these become familiar, they signpost the context in which each communication is occurring. As I was reading, I couldn’t help thinking what fun Smith must have had coming up with all the names and acronyms (like GARDEN, the Growth Apparatus for Regenerative Development of Edible Nourishment) used in the Ark.

But please, I hear you asking by now, what is it all about? The story is set between 2041 and 2043, but commences with a brief newspaper report in 2093 announcing that:

Seventeen people have been recovered from a bunker built into Mount Kosciuszko in south-east Australia, where they have been living in total isolation for almost five decades, since the government collapse in the wake of the post-peak oil chaos in 2041.

There is more to the Ark than that though. It was not principally about saving people – as the presence of the botanist may clue you into. The Ark was in fact a seed bank or “National Arboreal Protection Facility” aimed at preserving seeds for an uncertain future. This aspect of the novel reflects Smith’s concern about climate change, something that is reinforced when we discover that the Mount Kosciuszko area in Australia’s high snow country is now rife with sandstorms! But, there is another theme to this novel, besides this specific climate change one. It’s a more universal one to do with charismatic-cum-despotic leaders. Consequently, it is Ava, the expert in despots, who is the first of the inhabitants to carry the story after Kirk’s opening section which concerns a disagreement between him and the Ark’s project manager, Aidan Fox, regarding Aidan’s unauthorised lockdown of the site for security reasons. For some time, we don’t know who to believe. Smith complicates the issue by Ava’s possibly being unreliable due to having suffered mental problems in the past.

Anyhow, the plot thickens. There’s adultery, a few deaths, and some excursions outside. As more things start to go wrong, conflicts arise regarding freedom and human rights versus security… It’s clever, but believable, and fits comfortably with other dystopian novels about people trapped in isolated locations or in alien futures, and it also draws on what we know about the experience of people in religious cults.

This is a plot and ideas-driven novel rather than a character-based one, which is partly due to Smith’s goals and the genre she is working in, and partly a factor of the multi-voice epistolary form which does not lend itself to in-depth characterisation. I say this, though, not as a criticism. It’s a good read, and doesn’t suffer for this lack of character focus, much as I love character-driven novels. It’s just that the characters are generally more “types” than fully realised individuals – the conniving henchman, the willing nurturer, the trusting hardworking followers, the loyal but open-minded offsider. There is, too, an opening for a sequel that could explore, for example, how the seventeen members engage with the world they enter (or reenter) in 2093.

As regular readers know, I’m not a keen e-Book reader. I’ve read a few books on my Kindle, but this was the first complete book I have read on my iPad. It was fine, partly because the form did not mean pages of dense text to confront on a glary screen, but I was disappointed that although I could bookmark pages of interest, I could not make notes on the text as I can on the Kindle or on “regular” books on the iPad. I do like my marginalia, but I guess it’s dependent on how the content is generated. Oh well.

Have I told you enough? I hope so. It’s well worth a read if you like dystopian fiction and/or if you are interested in experiencing different ways of telling stories in our digital world. I’d never want straight prose novels to disappear – and I don’t believe they will – but the arts should also be about experimenting and playing with boundaries, and this is what Smith has done here. Good for her.

awwchallenge2014Annabel Smith
The Ark
Self-published, 2014
ISBN: 9780646923109

* Glen Hunting’s story “Martha and the Lesters” appeared in Knitting and other stories, which I reviewed a few months ago.

Kate Forsyth, Stories as salvation (Review)

One of the best things about being involved in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is hearing of writers whom I may not otherwise have come across, or, if I had, who may not have registered strongly with me. One such writer who regularly pops up in the challenge is novelist Kate Forsyth. The reviews that keep coming in for her books, particularly for The Wild girl and Bitter greens, have intrigued me, but I haven’t yet found an opportunity to read these novels. I did, however, find time to read the short memoir, “Stories as salvation”, Forsyth wrote for the Griffith Review some months ago now.

Forsyth’s story is both common and unusual. It’s common because it is a tale of a young girl who turned to books and stories as solace during a childhood characterised by much ill-health and many hospital stays. How many memoirs have we read that tell this story?

Stories. My only source of sunshine, my only solace. I would read all day and as late into the night as the nurses would let me … Stories were escape. Stories were magic.

But, it is unusual too, because, like most such stories, hers has its unique elements. Her health problems started when she was two years old with a vicious attack by a family dog which, among other things, destroyed one of her tear ducts. She barely survived that attack, and then suffered multiple serious infections requiring hospitalisation, due mostly to this tear duct problem. She subsequently became, she said, at the age of eleven, “the first Australian to have a successful implantation of an artificial tear duct”. She includes in this memoir her poem “Scars” which was first published in Quadrant in 1994 and which evokes the visible and invisible scars of her experience, their power and her power over them.

What I found most interesting in this essay-length memoir was her clear articulation of how her childhood reading had informed the writer she is today. I am always interested in how writers end up writing what they write, and what their intention is (regardless of whether their intention is what I might take away from their writing.) For Forsyth, her introduction to Grimms’ Fairy Tales when she was seven came “to haunt [her] imagination”. She was particularly attracted to Rapunzel who

too was locked away from the world against her will. She too was lonely and afraid. Her tears healed the eyes of the blinded prince, as I so desperately longed to be healed. The uncanny parallels between Rapunzel and my life seemed to have some potent meaning.

And so, later, she started writing. Her first novels, commencing with The Witches of Eileanan in 1997, were firmly in the fantasy genre. In them, she says, “the themes of imprisonment and escape, wounding and redemption, appear again and again”. However, it seems Rapunzel stayed in her mind. She started researching the origins of the story, and realised that she did not want to write it as “an otherworld fantasy”:

I wanted to capture the charge of terror and despair that young girl must have felt. I wanted to remind readers that women have been locked up for centuries against their will in this world.

Our world.

ForsythBitterGreensSo the resultant novel, Bitter greens (2012), is set in a real place at a real time. It could not, therefore, she says, rely on magic to explain all the mysteries in the story. She also explains how this research led her to “undertake a doctorate on the subject, with Bitter greens as the creative component.” It also led her to write The Wild girl about Dortchen Wild who was a neighbour of the Grimm family and who told Wilhelm Grimm “almost one quarter of the eighty-six tales collected” in the brothers’ first edition. (Just to be clear, though … she was one of many from whom the brothers collected.)

Now, I have to say that I am not particularly interested in Forsyth’s fantasy series, but these two books, which tend more to the historical fiction genre, do fascinate me. I will try to get to them one day. Meanwhile, I’m intrigued by what Forsyth loves in a story:

romance, passion, tragedy, struggle, and, finally, triumph.

I do like those things – who doesn’t – but I don’t need “triumph”. I don’t dislike books with this result, but I am happy with stories that are more equivocal, that make me wonder at the end. Life isn’t always, in fact often isn’t, triumphant – and I am more than happy for the arts to reflect that reality. Moreover, I’m not sure what Forsyth thinks, but I think stories can, by their very existence, provide “salvation” without offering “triumph”.  What do you think?

BTW, I was intrigued to read in her Official Biography that Forsyth is a direct descendant of Charlotte Waring, the author of the first book for children published in Australia, A Mother’s Offering to her Children. Waring was the mother of Louisa Atkinson, about whom I have written.

awwchallenge2014Kate Forsyth
“Stories as salvation”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 42, 2013
Available: Online at the Griffith Review

Cate Kennedy (ed), Australian love stories (Review)

Cate Kennedy, Australian Love Stories cover

(Courtesy: Inkerman & Blunt)

Four hundred and forty-five stories! She read four hundred and forty-five of them! I’m talking about Cate Kennedy, the editor of Australian love stories. These stories were the response to Inkerman & Blunt’s call for Australian writers “to share their love stories, fictional or true”. Having no experience in these things, I don’t know what they expected, but 445 sounds like a good response to me! The final anthology contains just 29, and they are all, not surprisingly, good reads. This is not to say that I loved them all equally, but certainly none jarred for being ordinary or clichéd. Not only is the writing high quality, but Kennedy’s selection has produced a collection that is diverse in subject matter and style. It wasn’t hard to read four or five in a sitting.

If you’ve read my previous reviews of short story collections, you’d know that I’m always interested in the order of the stories. Well, this anthology has been overtly structured, with “like” stories grouped under headings. Each heading, cutely I suppose but nonetheless effectively, draws from a story within the group. So, for example, the heading “A sweetly alien creature” comes from the second story in its group, Susan Midalia’s “A blast of a poem”. I’m easily amused, I know, but I did look forward to spotting the heading-title as I read each group. There are seven of these groups, each containing four stories, with one exception that had five. In her Introduction, Kennedy, herself an award-winning short story writer, says that “Donna Ward [the publisher] and I arranged the stories into a kind of narrative arc of the way love comes, creates its own disorders, then transforms itself and us [in] the process.” This arc, though, isn’t an obvious one, like, you know, young love, broken love, old love. It’s more fluid than that.

And so, the first story, Bruce Pascoe’s “Dawn”, is about an older couple who have been together for a long time. The narrator, the man, clearly still adores his wife, and watches her, caresses her, in the early hours of the morning. While the birds come to life and sing in the day, she sleeps on. He knows her well, knows what he can do, how far he can go, before he will irritate her and break the spell:

So I don’t touch that bone. It would be over. She presses in closer to me and her breasts slide heavily against me and a thigh rises over mine and she squirms again, adjusting, moulding herself to me, fidgeting this limb and that, this foot against that, settling. It is not yet over.

This is a beautifully observed piece. It thrilled and inspired me – and gave me confidence that if the collection started like this, I was going to be in good hands.

What I particularly enjoy about an anthology like this is that it can give me a taste of writers I’ve been wanting to read for a long time (such as Bruce Pascoe, Tony Birch and Lisa Jacobson), or reacquaint me with writers I have read before and enjoyed (such as Irma Gold, Leah Swan, and Carmel Bird), or, perhaps most excitingly, introduce me to writers I don’t know at all (such as  J Anne DeStaic, Sally-Ann Jones and Sharon Kernot). But, here’s the thing. How to write about a collection in which pretty well every story moved me? I don’t want to simply generalise and tell you that they covered the whole gamut of love – from straight to same-sex, from romantic love to parental, from lasting to broken love, from supportive love to betrayal and revenge, from love across nations to love at home – though the anthology does do all these. And I can’t really describe every story in the book. So, I’ll just choose one from each section to give a flavour.

I’ve already mentioned Bruce Pascoe’s “Dawn” so will leave it at that for opening group titled “A sensuous weight”. The second group, “Why cupid is painted blind”, includes stories about love that can be passionate, obsessive, overwhelming. J Anne deStaic’s “Lover like a tree” is a devastating story about a woman in love with a man in love with his drugs (and yes, also with her). DeStaic conveys this two-edged love, his need for the drug as strong as her need for him, with sensitivity and without judgement. It is what it is.

The next four stories, in “Adrift in shards and splattered fruit”, explore same-sex love. They are not the only stories to touch on this issue, which was pleasing to see. Confining them all to one section would have insulted today’s reality. Debi Hamilton’s “The edge of the known world” is about missed opportunities, about the one who loves and the other who doesn’t see it:

Carmelita. Carmelita. There. I like to think her name. If you want to hear a love story I can write you one. If you want a story in which someone breaks someone else’s heart, this is the story for you.

We are warned early in the story, and yet the end still saddens.

From this group we move to “There are tears, there is hubris, there is a damnation and regret”. These stories are about difficult loves, sometimes past loves. It’s a powerful and varied group, but I’ll choose Sally-Ann Jones’ “Hammer orchid” to represent it. It spans thirty odd years in the lives of a young woman and an indigenous man. It starts “when she was eight and he was sixteen” and ends when they are fifty and fifty-eight. Set in Western Australia, it tells the story of a young girl’s crush and a young man’s recognition of the boundaries that need to be maintained. It gently encompasses issues like the patronising “naming” of indigenous workers (“Bill” is called “Biscuits” by his employers), knowing country, and environmental protest, all tied together by Levis and a silver belt buckle – but, beyond that, my lips are sealed.

“A sweetly alien creature”, as you might guess from this group’s title, explores parental love. Of course, like all love, this doesn’t run smooth. There’s a story about a false pregnancy (Rafael SW’s “Small expectations”), and another in which Lola promises to marry Henry and give him a baby if he’ll let her have a cat (Caroline Petit’s clever “The contract”). There’s Irma Gold’s only-too-believable story about “The little things” that can bring it all asunder, and Natasha Lester’s succinct piece about losing the language of adult love, postpartum (“It used to be his eyes”).  And then there’s Susan Midalia’s “A blast of a poem”, a bittersweet story about what happens when conception doesn’t happen on demand. What then?

I hope I’m not boring you, but we are nearly there! The penultimate group, “Firm as anchors, wet as fishes”, looks at how health issues can challenge or get in the way of love. There’s cancer of course, and I had to laugh at Sharon Kernot’s resourceful wife in “Love and antibiotics” when she tells her husband she has chlamydia. Allison Browning’s “These bones” is, we learn from the biographies, an excerpt from her current novel-in-progress. It’s about Enzo, a gay man with dementia. He’s in a care facility and misses waking up next to Nev. He might have dementia, but he still manages to escape the facility, despite its security-coded doors:

Today is a gardening day, the kind where no gloves are needed because the earth is warm and kind to the skin and the dirt feels soothing on the flesh.

We do meet Nev at the end, and he is as tolerant and loving as Enzo remembers and deserves. I’m intrigued now about the novel.

The last section, “The unbroken trajectory of falling” is – and you’ve probably been waiting for this – about love gone very wrong. There’s adultery of course, and breakups. There’s even a murder. Kennedy clearly decided that there would be no whimpering at the end of her anthology. No, we would go out with a bang. And so, if Pascoe opened the collection with a lyrical evocation of mature love, then Carmel Bird’s “Where the honey meets the air” brings it to a close with a breathless piece that barely stops for a comma, let alone a full-stop. Here, Sugar-Sam, in a stream-of-consciousness featuring word-play galore and “mincing metaphors”, chronicles his relationship with Honey-Hannah. It’s wickedly funny, with allusions high and low, little digs at our modern ways of communicating (“the merrymedia, social and anti-social”), and pointed references to contemporary issues. It is surely not a coincidence that Tasmanian-born Bird’s character marries into a family called Gunn. He describes the family’s taking over their wedding:

when Her Family swept in and tied us up in knots, ribbons, bows and a certain amount of barbed wire, and whirled us up the aisle …

Lurking in the language, behind its breezy tone, are, as you can see here, hints of something else. “I should have warned you”, he says at one point, “about how this narrative will tie itself in the knots of several metaphors and coincidences and things”. It certainly does that. By the end we are left fearing that Sugar-Sam has indeed tied us up in knots. A clever, satisfying, not definitively resolved story. What a way to finish.

All in all, a wonderful read. If you don’t want to take my word for it, do check out reviews by John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante and Karen Lee Thompson.

awwchallenge2014Cate Kennedy (ed)
Australian love stories
Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2014
ISBN: 9780987540164

(Review copy supplied by Inkerman & Blunt)

Olivera Simić, Surviving peace: A political memoir (Review)

Olivera Simic, Surviving peace

Courtesy: Spinifex Press

I hadn’t heard of Olivera Simić when Spinifex Press offered me her book, Surviving peace: a political memoir, to review, but her subject matter – the Bosnian war, to put it broadly – was of particular interest to me, so I said yes. You see, I worked for several years with a woman who, like Simić, was also “survivor” of that war, and while she’d talked a little about it, I was hoping this book would fill in some of the gaps. It sure did – and then some.

Simić was born in the former Yugoslavia, and lived through the Yugoslav Wars (1991-1999). She was nineteen years old and living in Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) when the Bosnian War (1992-1995) broke out. To keep her safe, her parents sent her to friends in Serbia for the duration of the war. She was living in Serbia* in 1999 when NATO bombed it –  Operation Merciful Angel** (really!) – as part of the Kosovo War (1998-1999). These aren’t her only traumatic experiences, but I won’t give her whole biography here.

According to her Spinifex author page, Simić is now “a feminist, human rights activist and academic at the Griffith Law School, Australia”. She teaches international law and transitional justice, suggesting that her personal experience of war and peace is underpinned by thorough academic grounding. The book has an extensive bibliography, which not only substantiates her arguments, but provides an excellent resource, both fiction and non-fiction works, for further reading on the subject.

So, how does an academic, working in an area in which she has been personally involved, write and teach about it? Surviving peace is described as a memoir so, as she says in her Preface, “the personal ‘insider’ perspective assumes the lead” in this book, but she also wants to increase understanding of war trauma and its impact on people’s lives. She’s a feminist, and brings a feminist sensibility to her academic work, one which accepts that personal experiences provide legitimate evidence in research. She believes, as I do, that there is no such thing as “objective knowledge”. Consequently, this “memoir” can also work as a scholarly study of the consequences of war, of the challenge of living post-conflict, of, as she describes it, surviving peace.

One of the features that makes this book more than “just” a memoir, is that it’s not told in a simple linear chronology. She does start with the beginning of the war in 1992, and end pretty much with the present, but in between she structures the book more thematically, so I’ll do that too, roughly aligned with her themes.

Where are you from?

In Chapter One Simić describes how within a decade of Tito’s death, Yugoslavia had changed from a place of “collective identity” in which ethnicity was not an issue to being an ethnically divided society that descended into war and genocide. She now “identifies”, reluctantly, as a Serb (Bosnian Serb/Orthodox Christian), formally separated from her old compatriots, Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats (Roman Catholics). “The war”, she says,”erased my country, my language, my youth”. Her discussion of how language has played out in this breakdown of society is fascinating – but her description of the impact of having an identity “forcibly attached” to her, is painful:

The ethnic identity that I have been reduced to in peacetime has become a chain around my neck that threatens to choke me. It determines everything I do, say and write … Every time someone starts to enquire about my ‘ethnic identity’ I find myself walking a minefield of people’s judgements and closed-mindedness.

Of course, she’s not the only one caught in this trap – and she supports her discussion of the issue with academic writings and the personal experiences of others. Later in the book she describes how her father changed from communist to “ultra-right nationalist”. He now mixes only with Serbs, and has “nothing to discuss” with Bosniaks and Croats, among whom he’d had close friends pre-war. It’s impossible not to generalise, and draw truths, from the “stories” she tells, truths about constructing ethnicity which extend far beyond Bosnia and the Balkans.

Speaking the truth – and moral responsibility

In Chapter Two, titled “Traitor or truthseeker”, Simić discusses why she is driven to write about atrocities – particularly the Srebrenica massacre – committed in “my name” by her people. It has brought her into direct conflict with her father. “Truth” she shows is a relative thing – if we didn’t know it before. Each ethnic group has its own truths about what happened, making it “almost impossible to have respectful conversations about politics and war in today’s BiH”.

I found this section particularly interesting, because its generalities extended, for me anyhow, beyond the Bosnian War to indigenous relations in Australia. She discusses her feelings of “moral responsibility” for acts committed in her name, and argues

Of course, I cannot be held accountable for atrocities perpetrated by members of my ethnic group; that is their burden. However, I can and do feel a responsibility to demand justice and examine crimes committed by ‘my clan’.

That makes perfect sense to me. Simić quotes Hannah Arendt as saying that every government should assume “political responsibility for the deeds and misdeeds of its predecessors, and every nation, for the deeds and misdeeds of the past”. She also quotes Bernard Schlink (of The reader) who wrote that the past can “cast a long shadow over the present, infecting later generations with a sense of guilt, responsibility and self-questioning”. Oh yes! I do hope we here in Australia are finally recognising this … (Interestingly, she also raises the issue of survivors feeling they have sole ownership of their experience and that only they have the right to talk about it. This reminded me of our discussion on this blog earlier this year about whether white writers can write indigenous characters.)

Simić talks of “dirty peace”, which she defines as a time when killings have stopped but ‘war’ is still being fought. In BiH, for example, those who speak uncomfortable truths – and she gives examples – are ostracised and threatened. She talks about forgiveness (which I discussed earlier this year in another post) and argues that real peace is unlikely to be achieved until once-warring parties can sympathise with each other. Reconciliation, she says, means something more than simple co-existence.

“The answer to violence can never be more violence”

Simić is a pacifist and abhors violence. She details in the memoir her own painful experience of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). It is the most personal, intimate part of the book. Her PTSD primarily stemmed from her experience, as a civilian, of the NATO bombing. She is particularly bitter about NATO’s actions. She discusses it at some length, including both her personal experience, and the “facts”. She doesn’t excuse what the Serbs did in Kosovo, but argues “there must be other ways”. What those other ways might be, however, is not the subject of this book.

Her discussion of modern warfare, in fact, is chilling – and reminded me of Andrew Croome’s inspiration for his novel Midnight empire. The more remotely war is conducted, the easier it is for those conducting it to not see the real people, real lives, being affected. In this new warfare, the number of “ungrievable lives”*** multiplies.

The ramifications of war, then, are enormous, besides the loss of life and destruction that occur during the violence, besides the PTSD suffered by combatants and civilians afterwards. She writes of her own life as a refugee, of dislocation in the lives of others, of a “peace” that for many is no life at all. Some of this she conveys in Chapter Four through letters between three women, including herself, which bear direct witness to violence and its aftermath.

Incorporating truth into history

You’ve probably gathered by now that I found this a deeply engrossing book. It is unapologetically written from the point of view of a survivor. Quoting academic Elizabeth Porter, Simić believes that stories provide the basis for incorporating truth into history. I like this because for me history is more than facts and events, more than great men and their actions. It comprises the truths drawn out of – generalised from – people’s lived experiences. Nonetheless, there were times when I wondered if Simić were pushing her personal barrow a little too far, but then remembered that this is, first, a memoir.

I’m never one to say you must read a book. However, if the subject interests you, then Surviving peace would be well worth adding to your pile!

awwchallenge2014Olivera Simić
Surviving peace: A political memoir
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781742198941

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

* I mistakenly wrote Sarajevo in my original version of this post.
** The name reported to Simic by a pilot, but this name, used briefly in Yugoslavia, was a misnomer.
*** Janet Butler’s term for whole populations “barely considered as human” by those conducting or reporting on war.