Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeFor some years now, I have devoted my last Monday Musings of the year to the Australian Women Writers Challenge* – and this year I am continuing that tradition! Sorry, if you hoped for something else. With the New Year – I love the sound of 2020 – just two days away, I wish all you wonderful Whispering Gums followers a wonderful year to come in whatever form you would like that to take.Thank you, too, for supporting my blog with your visits and comments.

Now, the challenge … it has continued to go very well. The full database now contains reviews for nearly 6,100 books across all forms and genres, from all periods, of Australian women’s writing. This means that the number of books reviewed on our database increased in 2019 by 900 books, or 17%, which is about the same increase as last year. In my area of Literary and Classics, we had roughly the same number of reviews posted as last year.

My personal round-up for the year

It was not, I have to say, my best Challenge year, as I posted only 25 reviews over the year, about 25% less than last year. I’m not sure how that happened, but c’est la vie. It was clearly a different sort of reading year. Anyhow, here they are, with links to my reviews:

Book coverFICTION




  • Nhulunbuy Primary School, with Ann James and Ann Haddon, I saw, we saw (picture book)


Book coverThis year, fiction (including short stories) represented around 57% of my AWW challenge reading, which is similar to last year. I read no poetry or verse novels again this year, and I read fewer Classics than last. However, I did read three classic short stories by Capel Boake for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Gen 2 week as well as Louise Mack’s novel. On the plus side, I read more indigenous writing this year – two anthologies, a picture book, and Melissa Lucashenko’s Miles Franklin award-winning Too much lip (as well as some male authors who shall not be mentioned here!)

If you’d like to know more about the Challenge, check it out here. We are also on Facebook, Twitter (@auswomenwriters), and GoodReads. Do consider joining us. All readers are welcome.

Finally, a big thanks again to Theresa, Elizabeth and the rest of the team. I love being part of this challenge, not only because it equates with my reading goals but also because the people involved are such a pleasure to work with. See you in 2020.

And so, 2020

Challenge logoThe 2020 sign up form is ready, so this is also my Sign Up post for next year. As always, I’m nominating myself for the Franklin level, which is to read 10 books by Australian women and post reviews for at least 6 of those. I expect, of course, to exceed this.

Do you plan to sign up?

* This challenge was instigated by Elizabeth Lhuede in 2012 in response to concerns in Australian literary circles about the lack of recognition for women writers. I have been one of the challenge’s volunteers since 2013. Theresa Smith (of Theresa Smith writes) now oversees the day-to-day management of the blog, but Elizabeth is still an active presence.

Melanie Myers, Meet me at Lennon’s (#BookReview)

Book coverI was keen to read Melanie Myers’ debut novel, Meet me at Lennon’s, because it is set during the Brisbane of my mother’s early teens, that is, wartime Brisbane when her school, Somerville House, was commandeered in 1942 by the Australian Military Forces and served as a US Army Headquarters for the rest of the war. I grew up knowing this story, so was keen to see what Myers made of it, particularly since not many literary fiction novels, as far as I know, have tackled Brisbane during those times. Ariella van Luyn spends some time there in Treading air (my review) and David Malouf’s semi-autobiographical novel Johnno, which I read a long time ago, covers those years. However, being five years younger than my mum, Malouf was only 11 when the war ended, so his perspective is necessarily different.

Myers’ focus is the lives of women during those strange, heady days when women experienced new freedoms through filling the jobs left by men. Added to this was the excitement and glamour of the American GIs in town resulting in increased socialising at bars, like the titular Lennon’s Hotel, and dance venues, like the Trocadero.

It’s something isn’t it? It’s hard not to get caught up in the fever of having a common purpose. Uniforms everywhere and everyone feeling what they’re doing is important and useful. And the Americans, let’s not forget them. For all their braggadocio, they’ve certainly brought a touch of glamour to our little colonial outpost. (April 1943. p. 233/4)

But it was a dark time too. It was a time of austerity and rationing. There was tension between the Australian men and the Americans whose cashed-up glamour, with their gifts of “nylons” and fur coats, attracted the women. There was racism towards black American soldiers. And there was sexual violence against women. This is the complex world that Myers explores in her historical novel, Meet me at Lennon’s.

However, this novel is not straight historical fiction because Myers has taken the increasingly-common dual narrative approach, alternating between the 1940s and the present, when protagonist Olivia Wells is struggling, not only with her PhD on the life of a now-forgotten feminist author Gloria Graham, but also with her abusive (as it turns out) boyfriend, Sam, and the reappearance of her estranged father. Just like her 1940s counterparts, Olivia meets an American man. The stage is set in chapter 1 …

You might be getting a glimmer now of why Myers chose the dual narrative approach? It serves to compare the lives of women in the 1940s with those of women now, asking us to consider what, if anything, has changed? Myers undertook extensive research into wartime Brisbane, looking particularly at police and newspaper reports of crimes against women, as well as the infamous Battle of Brisbane. She uses this research to create stories of several young women in the 1940s, stories she winds around a plot based on an unsolved crime – the River Girl murder. Through these women we learn, for example, that crimes by Americans were mostly passed to their Military Police and quietly handled, with justice rarely being obtained for the victim. Such was the River Girl’s fate. Can Olivia and her friends solve it now? There is, then, also a mystery at the heart of this novel.

Myers does a lovely job of recreating the times. Her characters not only engaged me, but they felt authentic. There’s sturdy sensible Alice, who, having worked pre-war as a house-maid for rich people, sees the opportunity, now that she’s in a well-paid job, to buy a fur coat, just like her former employer had owned. To her horror, however, she soon realises that fur coats were “the gift of choice for women whom American servicemen ‘favoured'”. There’s Gwendolyn, engaged to the uninspiring Robert, but now having fun, as the much more exciting Dolly, with the “energetic” Corporal Charles Feely. There are several more, including those in the present time. One of the book’s challenges is keeping track of the characters and clocking the clues that might connect them.

Myers plays about a bit with her dual chronologies. Chapter 4, for example, is divided into three sections, September 1942, July 1942, then August 1942. The aim, I assume, is to reduce the focus on plot tensions, by preparing us for characters’ actions and feelings. In September 1942, Alice burns the above-mentioned fur coat she buys in July 1942. She also remembers a violent act by her brother when they are children, which prepares us for meeting him in August. And Chapter 12 is set in 1993, when we meet again, as an older woman, Alice’s friend Val from 1942. It works fine – and indeed meeting the lively Val again in 1993 provides some light relief, while also moving the more serious issues on.

The writing is generally sure and expressive. Myers writes some evocative descriptions, such as “a confident early sun fixed on warming the rest of the day ahead” and “the vaulted plaster ceiling of Reckitt’s blue was badly deteriorated and hadn’t felt the caress of a paintbrush in decades”. However, for me at least, she does overdo the similes. While, individually, most are fresh, they often felt irrelevant and distracting, such as “like a starlet’s eyelids, the brownout covers …”, “unfolding like a crumpled flamingo, Clio …”, and “the details landed like clumps of pelted sand.” Too much, I’m afraid.

Meet me at Lennon’s, which won the Queensland Literary Awards’ Glendower Award for an Emerging Writer in 2018, is a good and meaningful read about a significant and little covered period in Australia’s and Brisbane’s history. Early in the novel, Olivia’s American acquaintance Tobias refers to the racist segregation of black American soldiers during the war years, and sees a wider relevance:

“A place has got to come to terms with its ugly history, is what I think. Otherwise it metastasises like a cancer cell. And from what I understand, ugly history goes back a lot further here than just the war.” (p. 10)

In the end though, it’s the lives of women which are the central concern of this novel. The final chapter commences with a letter written by Rhia (Gloria Graham) in 1975. She admits that she had hoped to “undo” what had been done to Olive, the River Girl. However, she comes to realise that “there are some evils that no art form can make better, fix or even soothe”. Perhaps she’s right, but novels like this can keep the important issues front and centre – and there’s value in that.

Theresa Smith also appreciated this novel.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeMelanie Myers
Meet me at Lennon’s
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
ISBN: 9780702262616

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Amanda O’Callaghan, This taste for silence (#BookReview)

Book coverShort story collections are rarely recognised in literary fiction awards, but Amanda O’Callaghan’s debut collection, This taste for silence, was shortlisted for this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. The judges described it as “inventive in its themes and by an author unafraid to enfold her readers into unsettling reading experiences”. I would agree. This taste for silence is full of unusual turns that force us to see an issue or event from a different – and often unsettling – angle.

In an interview conducted by Readings, O’Callaghan says:

I certainly did not write these stories with any theme in mind, although once I saw the whole manuscript it was clear that themes were emerging all on their own. It soon became apparent that I liked writing about people with secrets. Your description of “unspoken histories” is perhaps closer to the mark; I do like thinking and writing about characters who, for a variety of reasons, cannot articulate how they feel, or what’s happened to them. Or what they’ve done.

As a result, this collection has been given an over-riding title – which I rather like – rather than being  titled for one of the stories contained within. Like O’Callaghan’s interviewer above, I too would have said that the book is more about unsaid things than about secrets, though of course, the former often implies or results in the latter. Some of these unsaid things may be deliberately so – or deliberately withheld for a time – while others are things, as O’Callaghan says above, that people can’t easily articulate.

So, to describe the book. It contains twenty-one stories, ranging  from flash or micro fiction pieces to the last and longest story, “The painting”, which runs for 40 pages. Fifteen of the stories have been published before, many through flash fiction competitions. Two of the longer stories were published in the (sadly) now-defunct Review of Australian Fiction. One of these is the opening story, “A widow’s snow”. It provides a perfect introduction to the collection because not only does it introduce the reader to the main ideas O’Callaghan explores in the collection, but it also exemplifies her skilled command over narrative. By this I mean the way she can string the reader along with little hints about what is really happening without ever letting our focus drift away from character to plot. Plot is not the important thing for O’Callaghan. Rather, it’s how, as Eddie ponders in “The painting”, characters cope with the “endings of things”.

Endings, then, are a thread in this collection, and, let’s not be coy about it, by “endings” I mean death, because most of the stories deal with death in some way. Murder, suicide, euthanasia, drowning, miscarriage, war deaths – along with the more usual deaths from illness – occur. Most of these deaths, though, don’t occur in the actual story. Two deaths, for example, are referred to in “A widow’s snow”, but both have happened before the story commences. The story starts lightly enough:

Roger, Maureen decided, is the kind of man who would appreciate an old-fashioned pudding. She flicked through the best of her recipe books, toyed with ideas like apple tart with a rich pastry crust – Gerald’s favourite, so not really an option – and all manner of sponges, even soufflés. She braved the mole-eyed newsagent (twice divorced, blinking at the door for a new, early-rising wife) and bought a couple of cookery magazines.

What an assured start to a story – and to a collection. There’s the humour, the hints about Roger’s character and Maureen’s hopes, and the straight but evocative language. The domestic details in the unfolding of this surprisingly shocking story are on point, skewering character and nailing the tone perfectly. In this story, it’s Roger who has the secret and Maureen who must decide how she’s going to cope with it. After this story, we know to be prepared for anything, and yet, I was still surprised, more than once, as I read on.

“A widow’s story”, told third person, is one of the longer pieces. It’s followed by a flash fiction piece, “Un uncommon occurrence”, which won the Allingham Flash Fiction Competition in 2015. (You can read it on their site.) This story is told second person and is, ironically, about what women are so often told is a “common” happening. You can probably guess what this is. The third story, “The turn”, is also told second person. It won the Carmel Bird Award for New Crime Writing, also in 2015. This is quite a macabre story, one that unsettles the reader by encouraging us to engage with the narrator until we get to the point where have to accept that we’ve been taken in … and yet, even then, we are forced to think around all the corners.

And so the stories continue, introducing us to a wide cast of people, young and old, male and female, some of them confronted with the ordinary, and others with the extraordinary. One of the impressive things about this collection, in fact, is the variety of characters and situations O’Callaghan presents to explore these gaps and silences. One of the stories I loved – which I won’t name so it won’t be spoiled if you read it – is told in the voice of a hoarder. As in most of the stories, its narrator’s true situation is only slowly revealed, in this case because she knows her behaviour is not socially acceptable. Once again, we are encouraged to see her from multiple angles rather than from the more usual, and simplistic, judgemental one.

The interesting question hanging over most of the collection’s characters is when or whether to speak the unspoken. Roger, in the first story, seems to decide that if there’s going to be a future in his burgeoning relationship with the titular widow, he needs to come clean. Other narrators, most of them first person, can’t help but let their story out, sometimes in a confessional tone, sometimes to relieve or share their pain. The practical, can-do Justin in “Legacy”, for example, is permanently scarred by his good deed, pondering “who would have thought practicality could be such a deadly characteristic?” The underlying point to the collection, then, is that unsaid things are tricky – left unsaid they can burn you up or lock you out from others, but, sometimes, saying them can have the same result.

So This taste for silence is a compelling but provocative book that forces us to confront the silences in our lives, to consider them from multiple perspectives and ask whether they work for ill or good. Our hoarder, for example, thinks the latter. Her story ends with her returning to her silent ways: “The house feels glad again, released. It hums with the joy of things ending”. Is it reasonable for us to disagree, much as we might like to? I suggest you read the book to see what you think.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAmanda O’Callaghan
This taste for silence
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
ISBN: 9780702260377

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Kim Scott, Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956 (#BookReview)

Book CoverDo you have a favourite house that you lived in? I do. It’s the lovely old Queenslander my family lived in for most of my primary school years. It was in Sandgate, Brisbane, and I still have vivid memories of those days, and that house and garden. Kim Scott, the author of Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956, also has such a house, the one her family moved into in Katherine when she was three years old. It was a 1956-built Type D1 N.T.A. (Northern Territory Administration) house and she loved it so much that many years later, she bought herself a similar house, a Type L “New Series” house.

The thing about these houses – like my Queenslander – is that they were built for the tropical climate. For a start, they were elevated, and had louvres, both of which facilitate the management of airflow so essential to cooling. The effect of this is that they are comfortable to live in – and are energy efficient – but what Scott most loves is “the feeling of the outside coming in” that comes with this design. It’s none too soon, I’d say, to produce a book about building environmentally-suited houses, particularly when, even in Katherine apparently, the ubiquitous brick house has been taking over. Scott is very aware of this as she writes in her introduction:

My hope is that the historical significance of these first, high quality, permanent houses, which are a key part of Katherine’s housing career will be recognised. Additionally, I hope they might spark some interest in the construction of houses that are more suitable for living in the tropics and for the remote living conditions of outlying communities. Houses that use easily available, sustainable materials and are designed with a smaller footprint, specifically to make the most of the environment, as an alternative to the brick and concrete housing built today.

Now, a book like this risks being very dry but, while a lot of information is imparted in this just-over-100-page book, Scott’s personal engagement with the subject enables her to inject the book with some local flavour, with a sense of who lived in (including her own family) and built these houses. The book is logically structured, and liberally illustrated as you really want in a book like this. There are copies of original plans, old and contemporary photographs, and artist’s illustrations by Scott herself. The book starts with a brief history of tropical architecture in Australia, including the work of Beni Burnett in Darwin in the 1930s. (We loved seeing his houses there, in Myilly Point.) She then writes about land ownership in Katherine and the Commonwealth government’s housing program for Katherine, before getting onto more practical matters:

  • the house designs and plans;
  • the building contractors;
  • the building materials; and
  • the provision of essential services (like water, electricity, sewerage and rubbish collection).

In her final chapter, “Living in Commonwealth houses”, she shares her family’s experience of living in these houses, using both her own memories and documentary and verbal evidence from her family.

Scott also refers, at times, to the “local Aboriginal people”, noting, for example, some ongoing hurts “from Aboriginal families who owned titled property in Katherine but could not produce the title after the war, so lost their land”. Early in the book she notes that there is no heritage protection for the government tropical houses still remaining in Katherine. Maybe this book will provide an argument for rectifying this oversight!

It’s clear that this book was a real labour of love, one that Scott worked on for a long time. One of the things I greatly enjoyed about reading it was her sharing of her research process, not only because it was interesting but because it also assures the reader that the work is as authoritative as she could make it. There were many reasons why the book took a long time to write, one of which was being told, falsely as it turned out, that the original houseplans for these government designed and built houses had been lost during Cyclone Tracy. She engaged family members in the on-the-ground information gathering process in Katherine; she scoured archives and libraries in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth, as well as Darwin; and she read books on the subject, such as David Bridgman’s on Beni Burnett (BCG Burnett, architect). I loved her comment, after describing yet another serendipitous discovery, that she “was beginning to feel the whole process was dependent on the serendipity phenomenon”. I suspect that research is often like this, particularly in the early stages of projects that don’t have obvious (or easily available) paths to follow.

In her Conclusion, Scott returns to the points I quoted from her Introduction, but this time with a more personal spin. She writes:

If we had continued to build tropical housing that was specifically designed for Katherine’s climate, we would today have a town with a unique architectural style. One that perhaps may have drawn more people to our town and projected a more open, inclusive image of Katherine. I have seen the town develop from elevated, open homes with little privacy and security, with windows and doors flung open, to solid brick houses with their thick walls and windows tightly shut and barred. I know what image I would rather see.

Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956 is a self-published book, but Scott has done the sensible thing and used a graphic designer and an editor. The result is a book that is nicely produced and that makes an excellent contribution to both the history of Northern Territory architecture and the local history of Katherine. Scott’s labour of love has, I’d say, borne worthwhile fruit of which she can be proud.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeKim Scott
Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956
Katherine: Kim Scott, 2019
ISBN: 9781642045420

Elizabeth Kuiper, Little stones (#BookReview)

Book coverAnnouncing their 2019 longlist back in February (see my post), the Stella Prize judges said that they “wished for more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers: narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference”. Elizabeth Kuiper’s debut novel, Little stones, may not exactly fulfil this wish for subversion and difference, but it is set in Zimbabwe, and that’s certainly a start.

The main story concerns 11-year-old Hannah’s life as the daughter of divorced parents – and what ensues when her mother decides to leave Zimbabwe, wanting to take her daughter with her. Her father’s up till then somewhat controlled anger against her mother intensifies, and he does all he can to prevent this happening, despite the fact that he has shown little commitment to the real business of loving and rearing a child.

It’s not a particularly new story, but this one has an added layer; it’s the early 2000s and Hannah and her parents are middle-class white Zimbabweans living under Robert Mugabe’s increasingly violent regime. Life is not easy for her family, which includes her tobacco-farmer grandparents, with African nationalism ramping up against what Hannah comes to recognise as “crushing colonisation”.

The story is told first person by Hannah, and this is both its strength and weakness. Strength because Hannah, though intelligent and observant for her age, is a naive narrator. She can only see through an 11-year-old’s eyes, while we, of course, know or can guess what is really happening, whether this is the political violence and corruption happening in the background (and sometimes even closer) or the more personal conflict happening between her parents. So, for example, early in the novel she hears her mother and grandparents talking, yet again, about the Warvets, whom she understands to be “a big family who wanted to steal farms from everyone in Zimbabwe”. Finally, she insists on being heard:

Mum,’ I insisted. ‘I don’t want us to give our farm away to another family.’
‘Another family?’ Mum sought clarification.
‘The Warvets.”
Mum looked around the room, first at Nana, then Grandpa, and let out a sigh. She explained to me that the War Vets were not an extended family. They are a large group of people called the ‘War Veterans’ who mobilised to take back what they saw as their land.

The naive narrator voice achieves a few things. It conveys how unsettling it is for children to be living under stresses that they don’t fully understand, but it can also keep the tension down a little because the full horrors are not made explicit to us (albeit we can guess them.) Hannah is a lovely character, whose special and sustaining relationships with her best friend Diana Chigumba and the family’s Shona housekeeper (not “maid” says her mother) Gogo, are delightfully conveyed. She can, being 11, be naughty, but she’s at heart a sensitive, loving, well-adjusted child.

However, this voice can be a weakness too. It’s difficult to sustain the voice of a child – and unfortunately, perhaps, I’ve just read Tim Winton’s The shepherd’s hut which does it extremely well. Here, I felt that at times Kuiper’s Hannah used language and concepts that an 11-year-old would not use. We are told she’s intelligent, and good with language, but still I wasn’t always convinced. Here, for example, she talks about the guardianship court case her mother is fighting:

In the past, I would have tried to offer whatever morsel of advice I could manage, but as the court case progressed I came to realise that most of the time she was talking about herself, and so I absorbed her rhetorical questions as a necessary and cathartic part of the process for her.

This, and examples like it, seem rather sophisticated to me in both expression and idea. The question is, are we supposed to believe that this is 11-year-old Hannah telling the story as it happened or older Hannah telling the story? I’m not sure it’s always completely clear, but I felt it was intended to be the former.

All this brings me to the question of whether Kuiper’s story would have been better told as a memoir, because I understand that the novel is, like most debut novels, autobiographical. Of course, I don’t know where the facts of her life end and the fiction begins, but it’s a question that I pondered as I read. And, also of course, memoir would bring its own challenges for Kuiper that she may not have wanted to confront. I don’t blame her for that.

Anyhow, this is a minor quibble if you are prepared to go with the flow, which I decided to do. Kuiper handles well the challenge of conveying the difficulty of the situation for Hannah’s family as white Zimbabweans in an increasingly tense and dangerous atmosphere. She shows that it’s not all about race, or simply about race. There’s the issue of different races – Shona versus Matabele – and there’s class. Hannah’s best friend Diana, for example, comes from a well-to-do black family. Kuiper also handles convincingly the parallel, and perhaps most significant for Hannah, issue of separated parents wrangling over their daughter. The descriptions of Hannah’s father’s increasing manipulation of the system to get his way are infuriating if not chilling – but oh so real. Hannah, in fact, has to grow up fast if she is to survive this dual personal and political unrest she finds herself in.

Little stones is, then, essentially, a coming-of-age story, which also works as a Young Adult-Adult crossover novel. It offers something special to readers in both these areas because its perspective is a rare one for us to read here; because it is told with a lovely vitality and attention to the details of a life lived under complex political and personal circumstances; and because it manages to tread that fine line that shows rather than judges. And that, I think, is impressive.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeElizabeth Kuiper
Little stones
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
ISBN: 9780702262548

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Jessica White, Hearing Maud (#BookReview)

Book coverHybrid memoir-biographies take many forms. For a start, some are weighted more to biography while others more to memoir. As I wrote in my post on Jessica White’s conversation with Inga Simpson, most of those I’ve read “have been mother-daughter stories, the biography being about the mother and the memoir, the daughter. White’s book is different. The biographical subject is Maud, the deaf daughter of the late nineteenth-early twentieth century writer Rosa Praed (1851-1935)”. However, Bill (The Australian Legend) responded in the comments that “I’m pretty sure Hearing Maud is another mother/ daughter memoir. On two levels”. In a sense he’s right.

I say “in a sense” because Maud is not White’s mother. However, two mother-daughter threads do run through the book, Maud and her author mother Rosa, and Jessica and her mother. But, unlike those more direct mother-daughter memoirs in which the daughter focuses on the mother’s story while also throwing some light on her own life, in White’s book the two mother-daughter stories work in some way as foils for each other, but, more significantly, the focus is on the two daughters’ lives. As with most memoirs – hybrid or otherwise – there is a larger intent behind Hearing Maud than simply telling the story of a life or lives. It involves exploring deafness.

As I reported in the conversation post, White talked about “coming out” as a deaf person. I wrote how “living in the country amongst a large extended family, she’d been, essentially, sheltered from fully experiencing her deafness”. This resulted in her growing up as “a hearing person” albeit a “bad” one! It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she started to think about herself as deaf, and to understand its impact on her life, particularly in her longstanding sense of loneliness and isolation.

Before, however, you start suspecting that this is going to be another misery memoir, let me get to the book. It starts with a Prologue, in which White tells us how she lost most of her hearing around the age of four, due to meningitis (or, more accurately, the treatment for it.) She then says, and it is this idea that underpins her story:

My life came to be defined by what the ancient Greeks termed a pharmakon, that which is a poison and a cure.

She goes on to say that the way the pendulum swings, between these two, depends on the time and culture in which the deaf person lives. For Maud, deafness was “a bane”. It led to her being committed to an asylum at the age of 28 and being left there until she died 39 years later. For White, on the other hand, it led to her becoming a reader and then a writer, because these “assuaged my persistent loneliness and gave me a sense of purpose”. What White goes on to do in her book is provide a mini-history of attitudes to deafness and deaf people over the last century and a half, exploring the ways in which both personal (including family) circumstances and social attitudes and policies can deeply affect the course of a deaf person’s life. Of course, life is a lottery for all of us – we are all affected by time and place, family and culture – but for those with a disability, there are additional layers that further reduce their control over their outcomes. (Interestingly, probably because of when she was born, White doesn’t discuss the whole nomenclature issue. In the early 1980s, for example, it was not acceptable to call people “deaf”, they were “hearing impaired”.)

Now though, I want to talk a bit about the writing. Hearing Maud is White’s third book (I’ve reviewed her second, Entitlement), and it shows. It shows in the novelistic language that brings life to the story. It’s never overdone, but there are scattered images that beautifully convey her feelings, such as this comment after her first real conversation with another deaf person, when she was 32:

Once again I have the sense of something settling into place, like a bird alighting in a tree, its wings relaxing. When I say goodbye and walk back past the sandstone buildings to the bus stop by the lakes, my step is buoyant.

You can feel the emotional release, can’t you.

It also shows in the confident handling of the multiple storylines – hers, and Maud and her mother Rosa’s stories. The stories are told generally chronologically but are interwoven with each other, so we start with White’s childhood ending a little before this book is completed, and similarly we move through Maud’s life. However, there are some backwards movements when something in the life of one raises an issue in the life of another. It does require some concentration from the reader, but the segues are natural and clear. Describing her childhood, for example, White tells of the times she spent in the bush, and how “the solitude was a balm”, enabling her to daydream about the boy on whom she had a crush. This leads her directly to  Rosa Praed – “Whenever I read Rosa’s novels, I reconnect with this heady mix of romance and the bush” – and a discussion of Rosa’s focus on the bush in many of her novels. Similarly, a discussion of the importance of letter-writing to her – being an “unthreatening way … to make connections” – leads to an extended discussion of Maud’s letters, and from that to Maud’s education and the history of deaf education in Europe in the late nineteenth century. There’s a lot of information here, but it’s so well integrated into the narrative that you learn almost despite yourself!

Finally, White’s skill shows in her control of tone. This is not a dry non-fiction work, despite the amount of information it contains, but a story about real people. White’s tone balances the formal (grammatical sentences, endnotes, and so on) with the informal (first person voice, and expressions like “I imagine Maud walking to the museum”). She also conveys her passion for her subject, and sometimes her frustration and anger, but doesn’t let it flow over into diatribe. However, she’s very clear about her intention for the book, as she tells her sister:

‘I’m tired of being taken for granted. I want people to know how hard I’ve worked – and how hard most people with disabilities have to work – to get where I am. I want them to hear Maud’s voice [hearing Maud!] and to know that, although things are much better, deaf people are still expected to act like hearing people. I want them to see how difficult it still is, when it shouldn’t be…’

I hear you Jess, loud and clear!

Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) and Bill (The Australian Legend) have also reviewed this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJessica White
Hearing Maud
Crawley: UWAP, 2019
ISBN: 9781760800383

Sue Ingleton, Making trouble: Tongued with fire (#BookReview)

Book coverIn my recent post on Jessica White talking about her hybrid memoir-biography Hearing Maud, I commented that I’m intrigued by the ways in which biography is being rethought in contemporary literature. When I wrote that, I not only had White’s book in mind, but Sue Ingleton’s Making trouble. You can probably guess why from its sub-sub-title: “an imagined history of Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C. Moon”.

“An imagined history”? And yet, it is classified on the accompanying media release as “Non-fiction (biography, history, crime)”. What does all this mean? Making trouble is about two English women, Harriet Elphinstone Dick (1852-1902) and Alice C. Moon (1855-1894), who, in 1875, left England for Australia. As the media release says, they were champion swimmers at a time when women did not swim in the sea; they refused to wear the corsets that women had been told were necessary to hold themselves up; and they were in love at a time when – well, you know the story. The problem, however, is that there is not enough documentary evidence for a traditional, formal biography. Ingleton writes in her Prologue that there were

no letters, no direct descendants both women being childless, no personal communications, only some newspaper stories, advertisements and sections of a thesis written in 1985.

In other words, their achievements are primarily documented in newspapers (“may the gods bless TROVE”, Ingleton writes): through ads for gymnasiums and physical education lessons, articles on talks and lectures, and death notices. Ingleton also had access to a master’s thesis by Lois Young titled Feminism and the physical sex sex education, physical education and dress reform in Victoria, 1880-1930).

To flesh out their lives, to give sense to these determined, influential women, Ingleton fills in the gaps using her imagination and her understanding of the history of the time. Describing herself as a “detective in time”, she had no choice, she writes, but to call this book “an imagined history” or, what is defined elsewhere, “speculative biography.” There is, in fact, a growing awareness, perhaps even acceptance, of this speculative approach to biography, but it’s tricky. At what point does such a work tip over into historical fiction?

Writing on the Australian Women’s History Network about her imaginative book The convict’s daughter, historian Keira Lindsey shares the contradictory responses she received to her requests for endorsement. One historian said she had “fearlessly carved a new path between history and fiction,” while another was “infuriated that she had gone “beyond the historian’s remit”. Clearly then, it partly depends on the reader. Some of us have more tolerance for straying from fact than others. But the writer’s approach and style also affects how readers respond.

Lindsey, for example, did not footnote, but she referenced the sources “with an index and bibliography”. She also provided “chapter notes at the end of the book for those wanting to know which portions of the book were fact and which were not”  and she explained her approach in an Afterword.

Ingleton took a different approach. She writes a Prologue and provides endnotes. I haven’t read The convict’s daughter so can’t comment on how Lindsey’s approach worked, but I did like Ingleton’s Prologue, albeit she argues that there are three components to her work – the Fact line, the Fiction line, and the Spirit world which, she says, can result in the revelation of “hidden facts” or “invisible truths”. This takes us into somewhat strange territory for a biography, speculative or otherwise, but in fact it doesn’t intrude too disconcertingly into the narrative proper.

“a barely documented history”  (Ingleton)

So, to tell the story of her two women, Ingleton interweaves more formal writing, which conveys the facts as she knows them, with a narrative style that is much closer to historical fiction. It generally works well, by which I mean you can usually tell which is fact, or draws on fact, and which is invented or imagined. While I’m happy to accept the use of imagination to fill in gaps, I did feel some of the imagined sections went a little too far into the historical romance fiction vein. I understand why, though. Ingleton is, among other things, an actor, director and stand-up comedian, and so is drawn to dramatic action. She also wanted to convey the love and romance between these two who dared to be different. How to do that in the absence of letters, was her challenge.

Now then, to the women, and why they’re worth reading about. Have you heard of them? Probably not, which is not unusual for women’s stories. Dick and Moon were, says Ingleton,

early pioneers* of physiotherapy, healthy diet, gymnastics and swimming for women and girls, biodynamic farming, journalism, breaking the barriers of women creating their own businesses and most importantly they were lesbians living together – the final bastion against the Patriarchy.

They also fearlessly advocated for sensible women’s attire, that didn’t cripple them physically and mentally. It’s an amazing story really. We follow them from England, to Australia, back to England when Moon’s father falls ill, and back to Australia. We see them build their gymnasium business in Melbourne, develop a teaching practice in schools, and establish a farm at Beaconsfield. Then we see Moon, devastatingly for Dick, cut loose and move to Sydney where she builds a career in journalism, only to die, before she’s 40, in seemingly mysterious circumstances, circumstances for which Ingleton believes she has an answer and builds a fair case.

All this is set against the backdrop of the burgeoning women’s movement in Australia – it was the time of the New Woman and the suffrage movement. Although Dick and Moon “were never deeply connected to the suffrage movement”, they did move in some of the circles mentioned by Clare Wright in her You daughters of freedom (my review), and “certainly were outspoken in the area of women’s rights over their own bodies and minds”.

Making trouble is an unusual book, but Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C. Moon are two women who played a significant role in promoting women’s rights and proving, by their achievements, that women are as capable of living independently as men. They should be better known. Ingleton has done us a service in bringing them to our attention with such passion and flair.

* Not long after, another woman, Marie Bjelke Petersen (1874-1969) also pioneered physical culture for women, and was accused of dressing mannishly.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeSue Ingleton
Making trouble: Tongued with fire: An imagined history of Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C. Moon
North Geelong: Spinifex, 2019
ISBN: 9781925581713

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

Ros Collins, Rosa: Memories with licence (#BookReview)

Book coverMemoirs are tricky things. There are readers who love them, readers who hate them, and readers like wishy-washy me who sit in the middle. I sit in the middle because, for a start, I don’t like to say “never” when it comes to reading. I sit in the middle because I couldn’t cope with a steady diet of memoirs, particularly those how-I-got-over-my-[whatever trauma or challenge it was], which is certainly not to say that I don’t admire those memoirists or don’t enjoy some of their fare. And, I sit in the middle because I don’t like formula, because I like books that try to tackle their subject or their form a little differently. So, the memoirs I mostly read are those which play with form or whose subject matter offers something different. Ros Collins’ memoir, Rosa: Memories with licence, does both of these.

First, the subject-matter. Rosa deals with, as the book description says, “Anglo-Australian Jews [who are] often overlooked in fiction and memoir.” Having known many Anglo-Australian Jews through my life, I was interested to read Collins’ discussion of her family’s life, as a contrast to those more directly Holocaust-influenced lives of European Jews we’ve all read about. It’s not easy being Jewish, I believe, regardless of personal or family history, so I was interested to read this story.

Then there’s the form. The subtitle, “memories with licence”, suggests that this is not going to be your usual memoir. For a start, it is told third person about a person called Rosa, which is the name given to the author Ros by “two elderly men from Southern Europe” whom she met on a recent Anzac Day Eve. She goes on to say, in her Introduction, that it is this “Rosa who wanders through the following stories, sometimes fictionally, sometimes autobiographically”, though I hazard to guess it is mostly autobiographical – just told one voice removed! Near the end of the introduction, she says that:

Rosa is much more personal [than her previous family history book, Solly’s girl] – and freely written – and I have taken liberties with the truth. Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say. Memories with licence.

The book has been classified on its back cover as Memoir. And that is how I have read it, as it reads true.

So, why tell it this way? Collins says she wishes “to entertain”. Her aim is not to delve into world history, cataclysmic events, or, even, dystopian futures. She wants, instead to shine a light on lives that may not be well known to many Australians, on Anglo-Australian Jewish lives. Taking a third person voice enables her to tell her story a little more objectively, to comment on what people, in particular Rosa, were, or may have been, thinking and feeling. Third person also enables her to get out of the main subject’s voice and head. It enables her to suggest what others might be thinking, such as Rabbi Szymanowicz:

Rabbi Szymanowicz stopped surreptitiously searching the room for younger people with whom he might more profitably connect, and looked at her. Seldom, if ever, had he met an elderly congregant quite like her; for an eighty-something-year-old Rosa did not come across as a sweetly gentle Miss Marple – more likely to be opinionated and argumentative.

This sort of statement could not be made in the same way in a traditional memoir. A traditional memoirist can not so directly get into the head of another character. A traditional memoirist can only suppose what another character might think (unless they are quoting documented facts from, say, letters). Taking this third person approach gives Collins more licence. She can, for example, “guess” about the relationship between her two grandmothers, two women who were not happy because they lost significant supports, when Rosa’s parents married.

All this could be disconcerting to some readers, but Collins has been honest from the start about what she is doing. Ultimately, the important thing is whether the book rings true and I believe it does. Rosa’s character – her humanity, her sense of her own flaws, her uncertainties, as well as her pride in her achievements – shines through.

Another way in which the book departs from traditional memoir is in its lack of linearity. While there is an overall movement from past to present, Rosa is not told chronologically. Instead, each chapter or “story” takes up a theme through which the story of English-born Rosa (Ros) and Australian-born Al (Ros’s husband Alan) is told. Chapter 4, “Jellied eels”, for example, explores food, Jewish culture, and Rosa’s navigation of it all. Collins explains how, as a child, Rosa had been told what she could and couldn’t eat, but not told why. Her mother expected her to “just accept the traditions” but of course this is not the way to hand down traditions, not, certainly, “to a difficult daughter – full of unnecessary questions”!

Collins also tackles, gently and without polemics, what Israel means (or, might mean) for Anglo-Australian Jews. For those of us who find Israel and the politics of the region highly problematic, it’s useful – though not necessarily convincing – to be reminded that in Israel, as Rosa quotes Golda Meir saying, “nobody has to get up in the morning and worry about what his neighbours think of him. Being a Jew is no problem here.”

Rosa, then, is a warm-hearted, open-minded “memoir” written by an Anglo-Australian Jewish woman for whom being Jewish, as for many I believe, is as much, if not more, about history and heritage as god and religion. In this book, Collins interrogates her family’s past, and her late husband’s story, in order to come to a better understanding of herself, and of what she would like to pass on to the next generation. This book is testament to that soul-searching, and makes good reading for anyone interested in the life-long business of forming identity, Jewish or otherwise.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeRos Collins
Rosa: Memories with licence
Ormond: Hybrid Publishers, 2019
ISBN: 9781925736113

Nhulunbuy Primary School, I saw we saw (#BookReview)

Book coverA week or so ago, I wrote a post to commemorate this year’s Indigenous Literacy Day. In that post I noted that the book I saw we saw was going to be launched at the Sydney Opera House that day. It was written and illustrated by students from Nhulunbuy Primary School, up on the Gove Peninsula, and a number of them were going to read and perform from the original Yolŋu Matha language version, Nha Nhunu Nhanjal?, at the launch. I ordered my own copy of the book that day.

The books – the original Yolŋu Matha version, launched at this year’s Garma Festival, and the English version – were published by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which describes itself as a “national book industry charity”. Their aim is to “reduce the disadvantage experienced by children in remote indigenous communities in Australia, by lifting literacy levels and instilling a lifelong love of reading”. These two books came out of their Community Literacy Project, and were produced through a series of workshops with illustrator Ann Haddon and teacher-librarian Ann James, with local Yolŋu elders helping develop the story.

So, the English-version book. It begins with a brief introduction telling us that the Yolŋu people of north-east Arnhem Land represent one of the largest indigenous groups in Australia. Their main language is Yolŋu Matha, which, it explains, has twelve sub-languages, each with its own name. It also tells us that, for most Yolngu children, English is their second (or even third or fourth) language. I saw we saw, the English language version of their book, is, by definition, written in English, but it uses words from the Dhaŋa sublanguage to name the actual “things” seen. This is a lovely, effective way of introducing indigenous language to non-indigenous people (as recommended at the Identity session of the Canberra Writers Festival). However, this approach also creates a bit of a challenge for the reader – what is being seen, and how do you pronounce it?

Beach, north-east Arnhem Land

Beach, north-east Arnhem Land

Well, there is quite a bit of help for us in this. First, the text and illustrations provide a lot of clues. “I see a waṯu grab a stick from a man” is accompanied by quite a busy drawing with birds, fish, turtle, jellyfish, and a person fishing, but there is also a picture of a dog with a stick in its mouth. So, waṯu is dog! Sometimes, however, it’s not so easy to get it exactly right, either because of the busy-ness of the picture or the (delightful) naiveté of the children’s drawings. You can usually guess, but can be uncertain, nonetheless. In these cases, the illustration on the last page of the story, which shows most of the creatures with their English names, provides most of the answers. Finally, there is also the online Yolŋu dictionary which, in fact, I used to obtain the necessary diacritics since, funnily enough, they are not available on my Apple keyboard!

That’s the “what is being seen” problem solved, but what about the pronunciation issue? How would you pronounce ŋurula (seagull)? Or mirinyiŋu (whale)? This one is easily solved. At the front of the book is a QR code. You hold your tablet or smart phone camera over that to be taken to a website where you can hear the story read by child-speakers of the language. The whole story only takes 3 minutes or so. Of course, being able to then say the words yourself will take some practice.

The story itself is simple, traditional picture-book style. The pages alternate between “I saw …” and “We saw …”, with each “I saw – We saw” pair forming a rhyming couplet:

I saw a maranydjalk leaping high
We saw a ŋurula soaring in the sky

It’s a delightful book. The rhymes are comfortable, not forced; the illustrations are appealing, particularly to young people; and story introduces readers to the rich natural environment of Arnhem Land region. It also conveys the pride the young authors and illustrators have in their country. It would be a wonderful book to use in primary school classrooms. It’s certainly one I look forward to reading to Grandson Gums when he’s a little older (and I’ve practised my Yolŋu Matha).

You can purchase this book directly from the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, for $24.99.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeNhulunbuy Primary School students, with Ann James and Ann Haddon
I saw we saw
Broadway: Indigenous Literacy Foundation, 2019
ISBN: 9780648155492


Jocelyn Moorhouse, Unconditional love: A memoir of filmmaking and motherhood (#BookReview)

Book coverAlthough it is quite a traditional memoir, style-wise, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Unconditional love: A memoir of filmmaking and motherhood is particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, she’s an artist who had a happy childhood. Who knew that could happen? Secondly, while most memoirs focus on one aspect of the writer’s life – such as their career (sport, for example), their trauma (childhood abuse, perhaps), their activity (like travel) – Moorhouse intertwines two ostensibly distinct parts of her life, her filmmaking career and her life as a mother.

Jocelyn Moorhouse will be known to many filmgoers as the director of the critically successful Proof, How to make an American quilt, and The dressmaker. She is also the wife of PJ Hogan who directed Muriel’s wedding, My best friend’s wedding, and Peter Pan. This is one amazing couple. Not only have they each made critically successful films, but they are lifetime creative and life partners, working on and/or supporting each other’s movies, negotiating the logistics of parenthood, and so on. They have made it work for over 30 years, in a way that few do. That’s impressive.

It could all, then, have been pretty idyllic, but life rarely turns out that way, and for Moorhouse and Hogan it didn’t. The reason is that of Moorhouse and Hogan’s four children, the middle two are autistic. This resulted in an 18-year hiatus in her filmmaking career, although during that time she kept her hand in, mostly working in some way with PJ on his projects. The book, then, tells both stories, the development of her career from her early studies in media and drama at Rusden State College and then at the Australian Film and Television School, where she met Hogan, and her very particular and demanding life as the mother of two autistic children.

She shares the emotions of giving birth to two gorgeous children only to have them regress around two years of age, as is apparently typical with autism, into unhappy, and therefore difficult children. I say unhappy because it is clear that the children suddenly find the world confusing and frustrating. Their language and communication skills regress so they resort to screaming and crying, and other difficult behaviours. Moorhouse talks about the shock of diagnosis, the therapies they try, including the ones that work (for them), and the logistics of running a family whose life is peripatetic and dependent on the next film job coming along.

Moorhouse, the experienced storyteller (and in fact problem-solver), tells her story carefully. It’s not until halfway through the novel that she brings us to her growing uneasiness about her second daughter, Lily, and Lily’s diagnosis. It’s a tough chapter, because it was a shock to her. She realises that her discussion of causes, not to mention possible preventions and cures, could upset some readers:

I am aware that some of the readers of this book may be autistic themselves and could possibly find this chapter upsetting. Please understand that I wasn’t rejecting Lily because of her autism. If you keep reading, you will discover that I love her autism and her brother’s too. But twenty years ago I was afraid for Lily’s future …

It is tricky to write about issues like this, without offending unintentionally. It’s a long “journey”, to use current terminology, that she and her family go on. And it’s a hard one. Late in the book she says that it took her years to realise that a lot of the pain she was feeling stemmed from “an internal war between my instinct to cling to the dreams about life, and my need to accept the truth”. By the end, she and PJ learn to rebuild their dreams for Lily and Jack, and she learns to balance her need to work against the family’s needs.

This brings me to her career. I enjoyed reading about that, about her own films and the insight she gave me into a film director’s work in general. I worked with film – from an archival point of view – and met various film industry people over the years, but I still learnt much about just what a director does from this book, such as the amount of script work they (might) do, the work involved in casting, choosing location and designing sets, and so on. Each director has his/her own way of doing things, it’s clear, but I greatly enjoyed reading about Moorhouse’s experiences – the wins and losses, the need to be philosophical about those that got away or didn’t go to plan.

Style-wise, Unconditional love is a straightforward chronological memoir, told in plain language, making it an accessible read. A lovely, though not unusual thing she does, is to begin each chapter with a quote. They come from diverse sources, including filmmakers (like Ingmar Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Fellini), writers (like Virginia Woolf and Maya Angelou), people who treat or have autism (like Oliver Sacks and Temple Grandin), and artists (like Marc Chagall). The opening quote, for the introduction, comes from Margaret Atwood, saying that, “in the end, we’ll all become stories”, which seems perfect for both a memoir and a filmmaker.

This is a generous memoir, rather than a tell-all one. There’s little name-dropping, though of course names are dropped because that’s the business she and Hogan are in. There are references to relationship and financial challenges – you’d be surprised if there weren’t any – but these aren’t dwelt upon. She also seems careful to not intrude unnecessarily on her children’s rights to their own lives, particularly as they get older.

Unconditional love is a book that will appeal to readers interested in Australian filmmakers, to those interested in families with autistic members, but most to anyone interested in a story that shares the challenges of a life but focuses more on the solutions.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJocelyn Moorhouse
Unconditional love: A memoir of filmmaking and motherhood
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2019
ISBN: 9781925773484

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)