Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

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For the last time, I am devoting my last Monday Musings of the year to the Australian Women Writers Challenge ( in its current form at least, see below). What a couple of years we’ve had. It’s hard to know whether it has affected the challenge or not but, anecdotally, our numbers did not increase over a period when more people were stuck at home. Were we too discombobulated to focus on reading or were many of our participants too tired from the challenges of working from home and home-schooling to read and review as well? I look forward in the future to seeing what sociologists and other researchers make of these years and how we behaved.

Anyhow, the challenge … it has continued to go very well. The full database now contains reviews for nearly 7,700 different 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 2021 by nearly 700 books, less than the number added last year, but still a healthy 10% increase to the database.

My personal round-up for the year

These last two years have not been stellar ones for me, so my posting to the challenge was down (mirroring the overall trajectory for the challenge!) I posted only 23 reviews to the Challenge over the year, a few less than last year, but I did also read three essays I didn’t post to the challenge. I will include them here as they were by women and appeared in a book edited by a woman, Belinda Castles’ Reading like an Australian writer. I’m disappointed in my reading achievements this year, but it is what it is! Here they are, with links to my reviews:

Fiction

Non-fiction

Anthologies/Essays

This year, fiction (including short stories) represented around 53% of my AWW challenge reading, which is a little less than last year’s 61%, and only two were classics by my loose definitions. One, Elizabeth Harrower’s, was read for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Gen 4 week (Part 1). As always, I appreciate the impetus to read books from the past, because they do not deserve to be forgotten! In terms of that problematic word “diversity”, I read four books by First Nations Australia women.

My non-fiction reading was even more heavily slanted towards memoir/life-writing than usual, though the essays shift the balance a little, with a focus there on writing about writing.

Finally, as always, a big thanks to Theresa, Elizabeth and the rest of the team. I have loved being part of this challenge, partly of course because it equates with my reading goals so has never really been a challenge, but also because it’s been a generous and supportive team working on an important goal.

And so, 2022

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Most of you will know that 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 involved as a volunteer since 2013. In many ways, we feel that ten years on, the goal has been achieved, as women writers seem to be well-established on Australia’s literary scene, at least by observable measures.

Partly for this reason, the challenge will change tack in 2022 and focus on past and often under-recognised or overlooked women writers, from the 19th- and 20th-centuries. The new team overseeing this new phase comprises Elizabeth, Bill (The Australian Legend) and me. We plan to offer articles and reviews about earlier writers, and publish their actual writings – in full or excerpt form, as appropriate. We three feel that Australia’s rich heritage of Australian women’s writing hasn’t been fully explored and we’re keen to nudge it a bit more into the limelight.

This does not mean that the always popular contemporary aspect of the challenge will cease, but it will now be carried through our Facebook groups, Love Reading Books by Aussie Women and Australian Women Writers News and Events. Please join those groups if you are interested and haven’t already joined them.

Meanwhile, you will hear more about AWW 2022, when we get going in February.

Alison Croggon, Monsters (#BookReview)

Alison Croggon’s Monsters: A reckoning is a demanding but exhilarating read, demanding because it expresses some tough feelings, and exhilarating because of the mind behind it, the connections it makes and the questions it asks. Coincidentally, it has some synchronicities with my recent read, Sarah Krasnostein’s The believer. Both talk about “uncertainty”, and both conclude by talking about “love”, but beyond these two ideas are very different books.

Monsters is categorised on its back-cover as narrative nonfiction/memoir. However, it could also be described as an essay collection, albeit a linked-essay collection, because each individually-titled chapter seems to take up an issue – or return to an earlier issue – and riff on it, though riff is too frivolous a word for what Croggon does.

The book has an interesting trigger and an even more interesting trajectory. The trigger is the final breakdown in what had been a very difficult relationship with her sister. The trajectory is to explore this through the lens of colonialism, the “colonial project”. It’s audacious, really, and yet it makes a lot of sense. It certainly adopts the idea that the personal is the political with a vice-grip that doesn’t let go.

I’ll start with the memoir part. Threading through the essays are references to her white middle-class family. She starts, in the first two chapters – “The curse” and “Ancestors” – with a quick expose of the family tree. It goes back to the 1100s, but she focuses mostly on the 19th century’s Great Uncle Bee who was heavily implicated in “the colonial project”. Her thesis is that “colonisation is, necessarily, a process of traumatisation for everyone who is born in the system”. Croggon does not wish to diminish its greatest impact on the colonised but her point is that the “system” damages everyone. She argues, albeit using “a small, wonky, uncertain line”, that the attitudes and values inherent in the system can (even, perhaps, must) poison personal relationships. She writes, two-thirds through the book:

I was born as part of a monstrous structure – the grotesque, hideous, ugly, ghastly, gruesome, horrible – relations of power that constituted colonial Britain. A structure that shaped me, that shapes the very language that I speak and use and love. I am the daughter of an empire declared itself the natural order of the world.

The memoir part, the family part, particularly regarding her sister, is tough and hard – and I admit that I would not want to be her sister reading this book. However, although Croggon has the pen in her hand, so of course we feel her pain at “the fracture”, she does not absolve herself of her role. Indeed, at the end – and she means personally and politically, I believe – she talks of “attempting to understand my own complicities”.

“Are we irrevocably broken by our histories?”

Here is where the essay aspect of this intriguing work illuminates, because, in different but sometimes overlapping essays/chapters, she explores issues like patriarchy, whiteness, feminism, primarily as they play out through “the colonial project”. Take, for example, her analysis of patriarchy and its impact on the relationship between women: “how it distorts and destroys relationships between women: how it creates this deadly competition…” Competiton being, of course, fundamental to colonialism.

Now, I wanted to reject this because I do not feel in competition with women – I have always loved the sisterhood – but, I can’t ignore the overarching point she is making, one that’s bigger than my little world. She continues:

For centuries, our foundational cultural texts have said, over and over again, that women are without worth.

I could easily (but naively) dispute this by pointing to my life, but I have to admit to my privilege and, whether conscious or not, to the entitlement under which I live. I am therefore willing to accept Croggon’s thesis regarding colonialism – and its impact on the personal as well as the political:

We are both [she and her sister] the product of a machine that has spent centuries concealing its violence, that pours countless resources into disguising its greed for resources and power as an exercise in human progress.

This machine is fed, as Croggon sees it, by a faith in binaries: “good/bad, men/women, white/black, right/wrong, guilty/innocent”. These binaries “profoundly infected” her relationship with her sister but, as she explores through her essays, they also underpin the colonial view of the world that permeates so much of our thinking and behaviour still today. We have not, as we know, shaken off the bonds of our colonial past, and if there’s one thing Croggon rams home, with erudition and sophistication, it’s how deeply ingrained colonial thinking is in everything we do. To put it simply, colonialist cultures are racist, sexist, hierarchical, and rely on “conquest, erasure, entitlement” to survive.

One of my favourite, one of the most clarifying essays/chapters, is “The whiteness”. In one chapter she pulls apart denotation, connotation, implication, and more. She says that “whiteness isn’t really about skin colour. Like blackness, it’s a category”. She writes that “the savagery of whiteness, its pettiness, its hypocrisy, its dishonesty, its murderousness: these are hard things to understand about oneself.” She writes of the whiteness that is able to argue its own victimhood. And, she admits to discomfort with prodding the traumas of her white family in the face of Black anguish.

It is uncomfortable being white today, with all our privileges – and it is even more uncomfortable that such a weak word as “uncomfortable” probably adequately describes our feelings and uncertainties.

You can probably see by now that this is not a simple read. It’s certainly not one you can dip into and read an “essay” at random, because the argument is entwined through memoir. It’s fragmented, and draws on a seemingly random group of thinkers and writers against which she bounces her own ideas. It requires concentration to follow the links and connections, the slipping back-and-forth between the personal and the political, but, as I flip through the book to write this post, what I see are a lot of “Yes” marks in the margin.

Some of these “yeses” relate to sharing some experiences, such as a childhood love of reading, or to seeing the world similarly, but others relate to the questions she leaves us with, because there are no answers here.

Towards the end comes the admission that “I can’t see what I can’t see”. Of course! But this is also the cry of someone who wants to see more. Also near the end, she returns to her relationship with her sister, and the role of patriarchal norms and colonialism’s assumptions in its collapse. She says “I can’t see how it can be undone”. This is the biggest – and, to be honest, most confronting – question Croggon leaves us with. Can it be done? Can we unlearn colonialism’s cruel premises and heritage, so that we can undo what we have done?

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Alison Croggon
Monsters: A reckoning
Melbourne: Scribe, 2021
275pp.
ISBN: 9781925713398

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Sarah Krasnostein, The believer (#BookReview)

One of the reasons I love reading fiction is to be introduced to lives and cultures I know nothing about. This is less so in nonfiction, but Sarah Krasnostein’s latest book, The believer, fits the brief. In it she explores questions concerning what people believe and why through six different people (or groups of people), all of which were foreign to me.

The six “beliefs” are eclectic, but can be divided into three categories : personal lives (a death doula and a woman who had been incarcerated for over 30 years for murdering her violent husband); religious lives (through a Creation Museum and some Mennonite families); and the unexplainable (paranormal seekers/ghostbusters and ufologists). These six “cases” all come from either the USA or Australia.

Different readers will be drawn to different ideas in the book, but in my reading group, the most popular were the two personal stories – death doula Annie, and ex-prisoner Lynn. Lynn’s story of abuse at her husband’s hands first and then the justice system’s was heart-rending. Yet Lynn had come to understand that she’d made choices, and had gone on to use her life to make things better for others. Inspiring.

The book has a disjointed three-part structure, with one of each of the three categories explored in “Below”, the remaining three in “Above”, and then some reappearing in the final “Coda: Here” section. Within these sections, the stories are told over several alternating chapters, so no one story is told in one go. One of the questions my reading group discussed was whether this structure helped or hindered our reading. We didn’t resolve this, though the overall consensus seemed to be that the alternating did keep us interested. There was probably method to the placement of the stories, but it wasn’t always clear to us, which might be more to do with the time of year and our concentration levels.

Lightbulb moments

What we did all agree on, however, was that the book had some great lightbulb moments – and for many of us, it’s the lightbulb moments that make a book special or memorable.

One refrain that ran through the book was that life isn’t easy or simple. Mennonite Becky says that “life isn’t just a bed of roses”, and ex-prisoner Lynn understands that “pain is a part of life”. Ufologist Jaimie has a more positive spin, seeing that life “is not just going to work and dying”. There are mysteries out there to explore.

However, for me, the most significant moment occurred in “Before”, in a Paranormal/Vlad chapter. It concerned the need for certainty. Krasnostein references German neurologist, Klaus Conrad, who coined the term apophenia, which essentially means that we look for meaning and coherence, and will go so far as to perceive them in unrelated events and ideas. We will, writes Krasnostein, “choose certainty over accuracy”. “We are compulsive converters of fact into meaning”.

I hope I’m not oversimplifying, but Krasnostein then cites a Science article which talks about the human desire to “combat uncertainty and maintain control” and the importance of this to psychological wellbeing and physical health. You can probably see the lightbulb here: it explained, to me, why some people have found the pandemic harder to handle than others, and why some people can become susceptible to conspiracies. People who feel out of control will look for patterns and answers. For me, living with questions is interesting – and in fact real, because I’m not sure there always are answers – but I feel I better understand now, those who do not feel this way, those who demand certainty, such as “promise there will be no more lockdowns”. I better understand why people might turn to conspiracies when authority doesn’t (indeed, sometimes can’t) provide consistent answers.

Other lightbulb moments were less applicable to my life, but were interesting nonetheless. An example was the Mennonites fear of higher education. It “contains an unacceptable risk of assimilation”, potentially causing tertiary educated members to leave the community (the Mennonite kingdom) and be assimilated into wider society. Higher education threatens their understanding of the world, their faith in the Bible as explaining the world. Krasnostein writes of one Mennonite man who had moved to New York in a mission “to make a difference in people’s lives”:

Anthony’s conflict comes from the fact that the certainties he received instead of education are poor tools for daily living.

There’s that idea of certainties again. Anthony tells Krasnostein that “Theology always scares me because it takes the things that seem simple and makes them complex”. This too returns us to the idea of certainties. Anthony sees life simply. In the Mennonites’ belief in a “loving presence”, they see (create?) “a perfect pattern embroidered into the fabric of reality”. Patterns, again.

What added to the book’s interest was that Sarah Krasnostein was, herself, searching to understand “belief”. She admits to occasionally envying Anthony and his co-believers’ “refusal to accept the absence of evidence as the evidence of absence”. She says at one point, “If I could only ask the right questions I could understand”.

This has not been one of my typical review posts, partly because this is a different sort of book, but mostly because I finished it nearly two weeks ago and am not in the brainspace for doing my usual thing. Forgive me. However, you should be grateful, because this book is jam-packed with stories – some tragic, some poignant, some inspiring and some, I have to admit, infuriating (I’m looking particularly at you Creation Museum) – and it would have been tempting to share too many of them. They weren’t, of course, all equally interesting. And occasionally, they got a bit bogged down in detail to the point that I risked losing the thread. That’s the challenge Krasnostein faced in meeting so many people and wanting to explore all their thoughts and ideas. Overall, it works. Her lyrical prose, and warm, open heart play a big role in that.

Talking about UFO sightings, ufologist Ben tells Krasnostein that “we need to find all these little stories. They build up into a big matrix of stories” which, for him, might locate the “truth” of the events. However, this is also exactly what Krasnostein did in this book and, in doing so, she found, as she writes at the end,

six different stories, six different notes in the human song of longing for the unattainable.

My reading group was a little disappointed that in the Coda, Krasnostein didn’t give us a clear summation of the sort you often find in nonfiction works. In fact, though, I think Krasnostein did find something very real, a belief that could help us accept each other’s wildly different shores a little more: it’s that we are “united in the emotions that drive us into the beliefs that divide us”. That is quite profound, and worth spending some time absorbing.

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Sarah Krasnostein
The believer: Encounters with love, death and faith
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2021
351pp.
ISBN: 9781922330208

Helen Meany, Every day is Gertie Day (#BookReview)

Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day is the third Viva La Novella winner that I’ve read and posted about on my blog, the other two being Julie Proudfoot’s The neighbour (my review) and Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review). All are memorable reads, and do this award proud – and no, I am not being paid to say this.

Announcing Meany’s win, Books and Publishing quoted the prize organisers who said that “at the intersections of art, politics, identity and representation, this darkly funny novella shows us a world that is weird, disturbing and all too familiar”. Previous Viva La Novella winner, Jane Rawson, calls it “a fresh, funny and delightfully weird take on authenticity and the people who manufacture it”.

Both use the word “weird”, but if you don’t normally do “weird” please don’t let that put you off because this novella is just weird enough to jolt us into thinking about its ideas, but it’s not that far-fetched – unfortunately.

Every day is Gertie Day concerns a new small house museum in Sydney commemorating a reclusive woman called Gertrude Thrift who had died and not been found until well decomposed. She had been the subject of a series of paintings by an artist called Hettie P. Clarke. This series, formally called the Girl with Greyhound series, is popularly known as the Elf Ears paintings because Gertie is depicted in them with pointy elf-like ears. This isn’t particularly weird, but what is weird is that there are people who have adopted Gertie as their inspiration, their role-model and have had their ears modified to emulate those in the paintings. The problem is that there is no evidence in the museum that Gertie herself had such ears.

The story is told in the first person voice of Nina, a guide (or Public Education and Engagement Officer) at the Museum. That this book was going to interrogate contemporary cultural and political trends and tensions is clear early on. As a retired librarian-archivist invested in the heritage sector, I was hooked when Nina notes that

getting people through the door of any museum anywhere was enough of a challenge, and the professional consensus, though no one would publicly admit it, was that it didn’t matter how you achieved it.

Nina continues that if anyone voiced “any sort of distaste, or ethical concerns, or accusing State Heritage of cashing in on a tragedy” they were to say that the museum endeavoured “to be as respectful as possible”. Thus the stage is set for conflict between the Gerties (mainly the Truthers but also the Regular Gerties), the museum staff, and State Heritage over the authenticity – the truth – of their displays. What follows is a story about a tussle for the “truth” in which the actual “truth” seems less important than what people want to believe and why, and what State Heritage and the Government think is best to do and say about it.

While Nina’s voice is the prime one, we are also given excerpts from the artist Hettie’s diaries, which may, or may not, be the “truth”, and, as the conflict escalates, we are see some transcripts of social media commentary from various Gerties and their opponents. It is all so real, and delicious to read in the wake of contemporary controversies about “truth” and our tendency, desire even, to make it suit our own purposes and world-views. Nina is as reliable a narrator as we could hope for in this environment, but she has her own needs and perspectives. Mainly, she wants a quiet life and a job to support her family.

There is an element of dystopia in all this. A parallel story concerns Nina’s husband Benj, his recyc-u-pay job and the plight of the unemployed Trolley People (Trollos). These Trollos earn a living sorting through other people’s rubbish to feed into recycling machines that may be poisoning the air. Has Benj been affected? Who is caring about the Trollos, while the Gertie business garners all the attention?

And then there’s the State Museum, where Nina had previously worked. It had closed because of the “controversial Hall of Extinction”. The truth, it appears, was unpalatable. People had stopped coming because no one wanted to be reminded of all the lost species that could now only be seen “stuffed and mounted or on large video screens”:

Dwelling on the past was no way to move forward, it only made people unnecessarily depressed and angry. At least they were the government’s main arguments for defunding the museum.

There are many angles from which to explore this book – cult, identity, and politics; who controls the narrative and what can get lost in the melee; not to mention, art, and its creation and meaning. How ever you look at it, in Every day is Gertie Day, Meany has astutely tapped into the zeitgeist in a way that extends where we are now just a little bit into “weird”, but not beyond our ability to accept its – hm – truth or, worse, its inevitability. Have we got to the point where people are simply “allowed to believe what they want” or, where authority is so distrusted that all we have is belief (with or without evidence)? The ending is perfect.

Read for Novellas in November, and AusReading Month.

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Helen Meany
Every day is Gertie Day
Lidcombe: Brio Books, 2021
213pp.
ISBN: 9781922267627

Sofie Laguna, Infinite splendours (#BookReview)

Those of you who know the subject matter of Sofie Laguna’s latest novel, Infinite splendours, will not be surprised to hear that it drew a mixed reaction from my reading group, particularly coming on the heels of recent reads like Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (my review) and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (my review). However, if we all agreed on one thing, it was that Laguna’s writing is splendid.

Some of you though, particularly non-Australians, will not know what it’s about, so let’s get that out of the way first. The back cover blurb starts this way:

Lawrence Loman is a bright, caring, curious boy with a gift for painting. He lives at home with his mother and younger brother, and the future is laid out before him, full of promise. But when he is ten, an experience of betrayal takes it all away, and Lawrence is left to deal with the devastating aftermath.

It’s not a spoiler to say that this betrayal involves sexual abuse.

Infinite splendours, like Laguna’s previous book, The choke (my review), is set in the rural past. In this case, we are in the Grampians, west of Melbourne, and the novel starts in 1953 when Lawrence is 10. As with The choke, my question is, why set the story in the past? And my answer – though I don’t know Laguna’s – is the same: it’s set at a time when awareness of abuse and the resultant trauma were essentially non-existent. This enables Laguna to explore her theme unencumbered.

The novel is told chronologically in three parts. The first ends with the abuse, and the second takes Lawrence through to another crisis in his late twenties, with the third picking him up, a couple of decades later, in 1994. By this time, Lawrence is living alone in the isolated family home. The novel is told first person, so we spend the whole time in Lawrence’s head, seeing only his perspective. It’s intense and introspective, but not unleavened. There are moments of calm and beauty.

One part engaged, another observing. Two selves. (p. 411)

Still, it’s a tough story, as we watch this lovely, sensitive boy, whom we’ve come to love, decline. He stutters. He gives up his interests, including the art in which he’d shown such talent, and he keeps to himself. His body is a source of mental and physical anguish. From the moment of the abuse, he’s a divided person:

I felt myself dividing; there were two selves to choose from. One inside, one outside. (p. 152/153)

There are moments when he may have been helped. Soon after the abuse, his younger brother Paul asks “what did he do to you Lawrence” – but Lawrence won’t confide. At the beginning of part 2, the family’s kind neighbour, Mrs Barry, tells his mother that he reminds her of the “men back from the war”, but of course PTSD was not properly recognised nor treated back then.

After his mother dies when he is 26 years old, his brother leaves home, and a crisis occurs at his workplace. At this point, Lawrence’s self-isolation is complete. He does, however, have points of solace. His beloved mountain Wallis, a fictional mountain in the Grampians which features in the story from the beginning, provides moments of peace, hope and transcendence; a bunker on the property, in which he hides in a game of hide-and-seek at the novel’s opening, is a place he goes to for safety; and his art, to which he returns after leaving his job, provides occupation and self-expression:

This was the world for me; there was Wallis above and the bunker below, and here was I, between them with my tray of colours. (p. 267)

Lawrence also has an art book, Letters from the masters, that his uncle had given him during his “grooming”. This book becomes his “bible” – for art and life – and he returns to it again and again. He studies the paintings, and he ponders the artists’ words. Indeed, the novel’s title comes from Master Millet who wrote “I see far more in the countryside than charm, I see infinite splendours”. And so does Lawrence, particularly in his beloved Wallis. It is while standing on Wallis, before the events unfold, that he has his first intimations of “something else, greater, that was infinite–the earth’s invisible self. Wallis whispered, See this“.

It is in this context that Lawrence’s art becomes his life’s work. He describes one of his landscapes as “like a living thing … a soul contained within an object”, and sees his paintings as his family. He is as settled as he can be. But, change is inevitable, and the time comes when Mrs Barry’s long-empty house across the yard is occupied again. It discombobulates Lawrence:

I painted into the sun, layers of yellow into yellow. Immersion in light. Sun across my knees, sun in the sky, sun on my canvas. Could I not keep going, contained forever within this one emerging world of light? Must I inhabit another?

It seemed I must … Everything changes.

The new occupants are a single-parent family like his own had been, this one, though, with a mother, teen daughter, and, yes, a 10-year-old boy. The tension builds as we readers watch and desperately hope that Lawrence will not repeat history, that he will get his two selves back in sync in the best way.

I said at the beginning that my reading group praised Laguna’s writing. Her descriptions of the landscape are exquisite and her delineation of character, even minor ones, is so very good. Her warmth and empathy are palpable. I also love her ability to change pace and rhythm to evoke different emotions. However, several of us did feel it became repetitive. Further, although I was fully engaged in Lawrence’s story, and was never going to give up on him or the book, there were times that I felt overwhelmed with the multitude of motifs. As well as those I’ve mentioned, like Wallis and the bunker, there’s Robinson Crusoe, Madame Butterfly, a strawman/scarecrow, birds and the bird clock, rocking and a rocking chair, colours, and more. While none of these were gratuitous, they did sometimes become distracting, as I tried to identify whether they were adding anything critical to what I already knew and felt.

As I read this novel, with a frequent sense of foreboding, I was buoyed by my memory of Laguna’s statement that hope is important. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that, here, the hope felt a bit thin, albeit there is a real transcendence in the ending. For that I was truly grateful.

As for my reading group? Well, there’s been a request for books with a lighter touch next year, which is fine by me, as long as they have meat too!

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Sofie Laguna
Infinite splendours
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020
435pp.
ISBN: 9781760876272

Winner of the 2021 Colin Roderick Award

Helen Garner, One day I’ll remember this: Diaries, Volume 2, 1987-1995 (#BookReview)

Helen Garner, One day I'll remember this, book cover

I loved volume 1 of Helen Garner’s diaries, Yellow notebook (my review), last year, and equally enjoyed this second volume, One day I’ll remember this. As with my first volume post, I plan to focus on a couple of threads that particularly interested me.

First though, it’s worth situating these diaries in terms of Garner’s biography. The nine years encompass the writing of her screenplay The last days of chez nous (my review), her novel Cosmo cosmolino (my review), and her non-fiction work, The first stone (read before blogging). This time also covers the beginnings of her relationship with novelist Murray Bail (“V”) and the early years of their marriage. The trajectory of this fraught relationship gave the volume a strong narrative arc, though the volume concludes not on this relationship but her hysterectomy. Read into that what you will.

Like Yellow notebook, volume 2 offers much for Garner fans. It covers similar ground to the first: observations from life around her, snippets of conversations, occasional news items (like the fall of the Berlin Wall), thoughts about other writers, and of course reflections on her own writing. We watch the tortuous development of her relationship with Bail, and the ups and downs of some close friendships. Music and religion feature again. And, there’s a search for home, for a place of her own.

“the little scenes” and “she never invents anything” (1987)

In her preface to The last days of chez nous and Two friends, Garner characterised her writing as “the same old need to shape life’s mess into a seizable story.” Those who know Garner’s writing will know that she was, on the publication of her debut novel Monkey grip (1977), criticised for not writing fiction but just publishing her diaries. This issue of what sort of writer she is, and what sort of writer she wants to be, continues to occupy her in this volume. “My work is very minor”, she worries in 1990. She is not helped by Bail who clearly thinks that her subject matter is not worthy of her writing skills:

I asked V what he ‘really thought’ of my work. He said he thought it was very good but that I should get beyond the subject matter that limited me, ‘those households, what are they called? That you always write about?’ (1992)

So it seems did Z (who, I think, is David Malouf):

V reports Z’s ‘outburst’ against ‘women’s writing’ with its ‘domestic nuances’ which he dislikes and it not interested in. V tries to get me to pick up my upper lip but without success since he doesn’t hide the fact that he agrees with Z. (1989)

It’s not surprising that among the writers whom Garner admires is Canadian Nobel Prize for Literature Winner, Alice Munro, about whom Garner writes, immediately before the above outburst:

Alice Munro is deceptively naturalistic. All that present tense, detail of clothes, household matters, then two or three pages in there’s a gear change and everything gets deeper, more wildly resonant. She doesn’t answer the questions she makes you ask. She wants you to walk away anxious. (1989)

Bail and Malouf, like many, misread Garner if they think her writing is about unimportant stuff. Garner is interested in the sorts of things she admires in writers like Jolley and John McGahern, for example. She says of McGahern that “he goes in very deep, broaching a vast reservoir of sadness, passivity, hopelessness and despair” (1993). She is not at all interested in domesticity for domesticity’s sake but in understanding the darkness in human beings, and “what people do to each other”.

As well as content, Garner talks again about the process of writing, of the frustration when it feels “false and stiff”, “ugly, clumsy”, or exhibits “anxious perfectness”, and of the exhilaration when it all goes right:

Hours passed in big bursts and I ended up with seven pages of stuff I could never have foreseen or invented … This must be how it’s done–take your foot off the brake, unpurse the lips and see where it takes you. (1990)

These volumes offer wonderful insights into the insecurities, challenges, despair and triumphs of being a writer – and for Garner, specifically, of the struggle to find “her” mode:

I need to free myself from the hierarchy with the novel on top. I need to devise a from that is flexible and open enough to contain all my details, all my small things. If only I could blow out realism while at the same time sinking deeply into what is most real. (1989)

By the end of this volume Garner has moved from “those households” into The first stone – and from there, as we know, she took on narrative non-fiction, and produced books on her own terms in her own form. In these, she finally found a way to not only explore the “darkness” and the things “people do to each other”, but to do it with an openness that is not always pretty but that I admire immensely.

“This is what life is. It’s not for saying no” (1987)

So writes Garner about her newly developing relationship with “V”. This relationship provides the diary’s backbone. It drives, mostly, where she lives, who she sees, and how and where she works. As they move from place to place – in his Sydney and her Melbourne – Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own comes frequently to mind, because, wherever they are, he gets to work at home while she must find somewhere else. Even when she tries to put her foot down, she ultimately backs off and, yes, finds somewhere else. This, in many ways, epitomises their relationship – he confident in the rightness of his working where he wishes, and she uncertain about whether to compromise (again), he sure that he is “blameless”, and she, self-deprecatingly, wondering if she’s “a monster”. It’s a typical man-woman story in so many ways, and for women readers the gender issues are both illuminating and infuriating.

However, it’s not all bad. There are moments of generosity and tenderness, even of fun. There are conversations about books and reading, convivial times with friends, and trips away. But, it also seems clear from the beginning that they are the proverbial chalk and cheese. Garner is emotional – “hypersensitive, says friend R – and sociable. She loves nature, music and dancing. V, on the other hand, is reserved, austere, elitist, really. He is furious when someone criticises art that he believes (knows!) is good, while Garner is interested in the discussion.

It made for painful reading at times, but fortunately, there was always this sense, this thing she says early in the volume:

Nothing can touch me. The power of work. Art and the huge, quiet power it brings. (1987)

Amen to that, eh?

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Helen Garner
One day I’ll remember this: Diaries, Volume 2, 1997-1995
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2020
297pp.
ISBN: 9781922330277

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Elizabeth Jolley, Hilda’s wedding (#Review, #1976Club )

One of Elizabeth Jolley’s biggest fans is Helen Garner, as I have said before. Garner often mentions Jolley, and my current read, the second volume of her diaries, One day I’ll remember this, is no exception. She writes:

Elizabeth Jolley’s new novel, My father’s moon [my review]. She re-uses and reworks images from her earlier work, brings forth experiences that she’s often hinted at but never fully expressed. I can learn from this. I used to think that if I said something once I could never say it again, but in her book I see how rich a simple thing can be when you turn it this way and that and show it again and again in different contexts.

This is not the only reason Garner admires Jolley, but the reasons are not my topic for today! I will add, though, because it is relevant to my topic, that another thing Garner appreciates about Jolley is that both draw closely from their own lives in their writing.

So now, “Hilda’s wedding”, which I read for the 1976 Club, hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book. It’s not the short story I had planned to read, but I couldn’t find that one – also a Jolley – in my collection or online. Fortunately, during my hunting, I found this one from the same year, and it exemplifies the two points I made at the beginning. Firstly, it features a character, Night Sister Bean, who appears in other Jolley works, including the first of hers I read, the short story “Night runner”. And, being a hospital-set story, it draws on (let’s not say “from”) her own experience of nursing.

“Hilda’s wedding” is a rather bizarre or absurd story – which, again, is not a surprise from Jolley. In it, the narrator, who is a relieving night nurse – so somewhat of an outsider – organises an on-the-spot wedding for the very pregnant, apparently unmarried, kitchen maid Hilda. The various roles – husband, celebrant, parents of the bride, pages – are played by night staff including the cook, cleaners and porters. The bride is dressed, with a veil made of surgical gauze and a draw sheet as her train (which contains a hint of the Gothic that we can also find in Jolley’s writing). Immediately after the ceremony, Hilda goes into labor and gives birth in the elevator.

What does it mean? I’m not sure, but this little story about an impromptu wedding sounds like children’s play-acting. It’s a game which uses imagination and creativity, which provides a sense of fun in a grim place, and which brings a little joy to Hilda, whose “melon-coloured face shone with a big smile”. Melons, as you may know, are often associated with pregnancy and fertility. However, injected into the story at various points is the real world, one characterised by rules and impersonality. There’s also the unresolved mystery about Sister Bean and rumours about her negative impact on transfusions/drips. Is she a witch, they wonder?

Sister Bean opens and closes the story, but otherwise appears only occasionally. There are various ways we could read her. One could be people’s need to find a reason or explanation or scapegoat for the bad things that happen in a world where you have little control. In the third last paragraph, our narrator comments on the early morning, and the city waking up:

A thin trickle of tired sad people left the hospital. They were relatives unknown and unthought about. They had spent an anonymous night in various corners of the hospital waiting to be called to a bedside. They were leaving in search of that life in the shabby world which has to go on in spite of the knowledge that someone who had been there for them was not there any more.

It is against this backdrop of sadness that our nurse narrator was there for Hilda. In the next and penultimate paragraph, the narrator is standing outside, taking “deep breaths of this cool air which seemed just now to contain nothing of the weariness and the contamination and the madness of suffering”.

In this story, as is typical of Jolley, there is humour alongside sadness, comedy next to tragedy, unreality bumping up against reality, and, appropriately, no resolution at the end.

In Central mischief – a collection of Jolley articles, talks and essays compiled by her agent Carolyn Lurie – is a talk Jolley gave to graduating nurses in 1987. Before I get to my concluding point from it, I’ll just share something else she says, which is that “for me fiction is not a form of autobiography”. This is an important distinction, which I think Garner would also make. Writers like Jolley and Garner may draw on their own experiences, but what they write is something else altogether.

But now, I want to conclude on this that she tells them:

There is a connection between nursing and writing. Both require a gaze which is searching and undisturbedly compassionate and yet detached.

What a clear-eyed view – and how hard to achieve. What do you think about this?

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Elizabeth Jolley
“Hilda’s wedding” (first pub. 1976, in Looselicks)
in Woman in a lampshade
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1983
pp. 139-46
ISBN: 0140084185

Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran, These strange outcrops (#BookReview)

Bagging Canberra – often used synonymously for the Federal Government – is almost a national sport, but in recent years anthologies have appeared to counter this with more complex stories about this place. The first two I’ve read – The invisible thread, edited by Irma Gold (my review) and Meanjin’s The Canberra issue (my review) – commemorated Canberra’s centenary, but last year saw the publication of the evocatively titled These strange outcrops.

This anthology is the work of two young Canberrans, Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran, who founded Cicerone Journal. Established in 2018, it is, they say,

a Canberra-based publication that seeks to encourage an open curiosity about the world in a socio-political climate of disconnection and disenchantment. We aim to publish writing that is exploratory and thoughtful, and new and unusual.

The journal’s fifth edition will be devoted to speculative fiction, and is due soon.

So now, These strange outcrops, which is subtitled, Writing and art from Canberra. It comprises original short stories, poems, and visual art created by established and emerging Canberra writers, and has a specific goal, as the editors write in their Foreword. It “grew out of a desire to question media narratives that portray Australia’s capital city as a place of disconnection and insularity”. They note that with a population of 400,000, Canberra and the surrounding region is “home to far more stories and perspectives than are commonly depicted in the news”. They wanted, they say, to “challenge the prejudices and stereotypes” and “celebrate the varied lives and imaginings of this unique place”.

“blurry at the edges” (Owen Bullock)

They have achieved their goal, and with style. This publication is physically gorgeous, from the cover, with its iconic Canberra bus stop framed by two Canberra floral emblems (the Royal Bluebell and Correa), through its beautiful endpapers comprising a correa blossom pattern, to the care taken with the design of the individual pieces. I can’t imagine any contributor not being thrilled with the look of their contribution.

But, the main point is, of course, the content. It more than lives up to the appearance, by which I mean, the book is not just a pretty face. An important thing with anthologies is the order, and it’s clear that the editors thought carefully about this. They start with the physical Canberra, and its natural environment, which is one of the reasons many of us love this place, and conclude with the experiences of different members of Canberra’s diverse population. In between, are various explorations of a wide range of aspects of life in Canberra, from those common to us all (like Cheryl Polonski’s poem “Wintertime in Canberra” and Penelope Layland’s poem “Showtime”) to some that speak to more specific experiences (like Daniel Ray’s prose piece about that challenging post-Year-12 time, “Queanbeyan: Quinbean: Clear water”). Some contributions are movingly personal, while others are unapologetically political. The end result is an authentic whole, that shows Canberra to be a rich and complex place, a bit “blurry at the edges” but with enough commonality at the core that makes us real, regardless of what outsiders might think.

Now, I did have some favourites, and will share a few of them over the rest of this post. The opening set of poems, “Canberra Haiku” by Owen Bullock beautifully introduces the collection, with its series of little impressions portaying Canberra’s breadth, from flowers peeking through a cracked pavement to a tattooed bus passenger and a permaculture working bee, from magpies and our mountains and lake to heatwaves and “blurry … edges”. The next few pieces explore place, often with an awareness of what was before we came, such as Janne D Graham’s poem “Crace Park” which conveys a sense of wrongness in our “calculated spaces”. A sort of antidote – or comment on this – is Helen Moran’s vibrant painting “Rainbow Serpent sleeping in Lake George”, the Rainbow Serpent being significant to many First Nations Australia peoples. It mesmerises me, because, while looking simple, it evokes complex and conflicting ideas. Set against a dark blue and black background, the bright, cheery serpent also looks ready to pounce. At least, that’s how it appears to me.

Patricia Piccinini, Sky Whale, pic: Nick-D from Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0

Some of the pieces invoke wry humour to make their point, like Fiona McIlroy’s poem “sky whale” which uses the Patricia Piccinini’s Canberra-Centenary-commissioned hot-air balloon “The Skywhale” to reflect on attitudes to public art that challenges perceptions.

Canberra is
determined
to have a whale of a time
in the Centenary
to live it up
to lighten up
kick up our heels
yet a flying
maternal mammal
is just pushing the
envelope

The wordplay throughout the poem is delicious.

“come so far, lost so much” (Joo-Inn Chew)

Some of the strongest pieces concern migration and racism. Canberra, like much of Australia, is a multicultural place. We have Ngunnawal and other First Nations people here; we have Australian-born residents who have come from around Australia for work; and we have migrants including refugees. We have – or had, before the pandemic – an annual, vibrant and successful Multicultural Festival, which celebrates this aspect of the region, but several pieces in the anthology convey the sadness and pain that must always come with migration, regardless of its cause. Anita Patel speaks in “What are you cooking?” of the sadness of losing her mother in another part of the world, so that even those weekly phone conversations are no longer possible, while Joo-Inn Chew’s poem “A new arrival at Companion House” talks of the hope contained in the birth of a baby to people who have “come so far, lost so much”.

Others are much darker, speaking to non-acceptance, such as Michelangelo Curtotti’s ironically titled poem “The welcome”. In one of those perfect segues, this poem is followed by Stuart McMillen’s graphic short story, “I used to be a racist”.

As frequently happens when reviewing anthologies, I’ve only cursorily dipped into the treasures contained within. I apologise to all those contributors whom I don’t mention here, but know that you’ve been read and heard. The best thing would be for more to read your work in this thoughtful, considered anthology. It can be purchased from Cicerone (linked above).

Meanwhile, let’s finish on Rafiqah Fattah’s defiant poem, “Generation selfie”, about the 16 to 25 year olds who are too often ignored or passed over:

And now, there is a tremor in the air
We are here

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Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran
These strange outcrops: Writing and art from Canberra
Canberra: Cicerone Journal, 2020
74pp.
ISBN: 9780646814155

Irma Gold and Susannah Crispe, Where the heart is (#BookReview)

I don’t normally review children’s books, particularly children’s picture books, but I do make exceptions, one being Irma Gold. I have multiple reasons for this. Irma Gold is local; she is one of the Ambassadors for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge; she writes across multiple forms (including, novels, short stories and children’s books, in all of which I’ve reviewed her); and, if you click my tag for her, you will get a sense of just how active she is as a writer, editor and supporter of literary culture, particularly in the ACT. Hence this exception!

But, there is another reason too, which is that Where the heart is not only a delightful book but it slots very nicely into her growing oeuvre. Before I discuss that, though, I’ll describe this, which is her most recent book. Gold explains on its opening page that it was inspired by the true story of Dindim, a Magellanic penguin which, in 2011, was washed up on an island village outside Rio de Janeiro. The bird had been caught up in an oil spill. The fisherman who found him, Joao, cleaned and cared for him until Dindim returned to the wild. However, ever since then, Dindim has returned, annually, to Joao to spend several months of the year with him. There are questions about where he goes, but in Gold’s story it is Patagonia. Patagonia is one of the theories, because it is a major breeding ground for these penguins.

This sort of detail, however, is not critical to the story. It is fiction after all. What is critical to the story is that it tells of the potentially disastrous impact of oil spills on animals. It also tells of the importance of wild animals being free. This is what Joao believed. He brought the penguin back to health and set him free. It’s just that the penguin had other ideas. It also tells of the friendship that can develop between humans and wild animals.

What makes this a gorgeous book is the way Gold tells the story. It’s simply told but the language is not condescending, and it naturally incorporates local culture. Joao and the penguin mend nets, eat sardine sandwiches, and go shopping together, with this “shopping” being at a village market stall. It’s also warm-hearted. It encourages us to think about kindness, tenderness and loyalty, making it a feel-good read. Yet, there is also a narrative arc that encompasses a variety of emotions, including a sense of fear and drama as Dindim journeys back.

Not far from Joao’s beach, the sky swelled and lightning jagged. Dindim rode waves and wondered if he would make it. He was exhausted.

A little bit of drama makes it fun to read aloud to littlies, which I look forward to doing when lockdowns end and I’m able to see our little grandson again!

However, this is a picture book, so for it to succeed the illustrations have to be good as well. Fortunately, they are. I think this is illustrator Susannah Crispe’s first book, though she has another coming out this year. I’m not surprised she has, because she has done a beautiful job with this one. The colours are bright and inviting, but are conveyed with a warmth and softness that support the story. This is nowhere more obvious than in the two facing pages that contain only penguins. The expected intense black-and-white of the penguins is there, yet muted, and the white space surrounding Dindim visually conveys the text’s description of the “ache” in Dindim’s heart. Crispe also incorporates lovely little details from nature in her illustrations, like hummingbirds, butterflies, turtles and albatrosses. These all support the story by adding to its sense of place, but they also create interest when reading to littlies. “Can you find the turtle”, etc!

What I’m saying, in other words, is that this picture book is just the right package.

Irma Gold Craig Phillips Megumi and the bear book cover

And there I’ll leave it to return to my opening comment on Gold’s oeuvre, because I am seeing a pattern. The obvious one – from her previous picture book Megumi and the bear (my review) and The breaking (my review) – is her interest in wild animals, and in the relationship between humans and animals. Closely related to this is an interest in conservation, animal rights and the environment. And then – yes, there’s more – overlaying all of this is the importance of friendship, between humans, and between animals and humans. There’s a quiet joy in this, which is something Gold said, in a recent conversation, that she wanted to convey. I believe she has, and look forward to what comes next.

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Irma Gold and Susannah Crispe (illus.)
Where the heart is
Chatswood: EK Books, 2021
[32pp.]
ISBN: 9781925820874

Marie Younan with Jill Sanguinetti, A different kind of seeing: My journey (#BookReview)

In many ways, Marie Younan’s A different kind of seeing: My journey is a standard memoir about a person overcoming the limitations of her disability which, in this case, is blindness. It’s told first person, chronologically, from her grandparents’ lives through her birth in Syria to the present when she is in her late 60s and living in Melbourne. However, there are aspects of her story which add particular interest, and separate it, in a way, from the crowd.

One of these aspects is that Younan’s story is not only a story about blindness, but about migration and cultural difference. Younan is Assyrian, and was born, the seventh of 12 children, in the small village of Tel Wardiyat in northeast Syria. Her maternal and paternal grandparents moved, variously, through Turkey, Iran, Russia, Greece and Kurdistan escaping genocide and persecution before they all ended up in Tel Wardiyat. In her own life, Younan’s family moved to Beirut, but with some of the family having already migrated to Melbourne and with civil unrest increasing in Lebanon, more of the family applied to migrate to Australia. Younan herself was initially rejected because of her blindness, so, while her parents left for Melbourne in 1975, she returned to Syria, before moving to Athens to an older sister. Finally, in 1978, and now in her mid-20s, she was granted a visa for Australia joined her parents and family. (What a kind nation we are!)

If this wasn’t enough challenge, Younan’s life was also affected by her conservative upbringing. The book starts with a little prologue chapter describing how, at the age of 7, she came to properly understand her difference, that she is blind:

it dawned on me that there was a ‘thing’ called seeing that everyone else could do except me […]

It was the day my life as a blind person began.

We gradually come to realise that Younan was, as a child, doubly disadvantaged, because while she was brought up lovingly, nurtured by parents and siblings, she was excluded from so much that could have helped her develop as a person. She was not allowed to go to school; she was not allowed to go to big family events like weddings; and when a doctor suggested a corneal transplant for her when she was 10, her grandmother and father refused, because they didn’t believe such a thing was possible. Further, when she was 12, a relative offered to take her to a boarding school for blind girls – so she could “learn something and grow up with knowledge” – but her grandmother and father again opposed it. Her father said,

‘I’ve got 12 children, and I’m not sending one to boarding school, especially if she’s disabled.’

She was heartbroken, asking her mother why not. She didn’t “know anything about the world, or about life”, and badly wanted to. Yet, she expresses no bitterness in the book towards her family. Indeed, she dearly loves and respects them.

Anyhow, she arrives in Australia, highly dependent on her family and functionally illiterate.

I have spend a lot of time on this first part of the book because not only is her early life so interesting in its difference from my own life, but because it lays the groundwork for the astonishing changes she made in her life, with the help and inspiration of others, after her arrival here. I’m not going to detail all that. I’ll simply say that, largely through the mentorship of a man called Ben Hewitt (to whom the book is dedicated), she was introduced to various services, organisations and people that resulted in her learning to read; learning Braille; studying psychology and later interpreting; travelling around Victoria speaking on behalf of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind; and working as an interpreter, including for refugees through Foundation House. It’s an amazing trajectory – and one told quietly, and with humility and respect for her family and for all who helped her on the way.

It’s not surprising that she’s been described as “Ben’s biggest challenge and his best success story”. His role in encouraging her, in turning around her thinking from “I can’t” to “I can” cannot be underestimated, because, by the time she met him, Younan had a desire to learn but very little confidence in her ability to do so.

For all its straightforwardness, though, her story does have a little mystery. Younan was not born blind, but became blind when she was a few months old. Just what caused her blindness is a little question that runs through the book, and I’ll leave it to you to discover, but well-intended actions by a much-loved grandmother were involved. It’s a heartbreaking story of mistakes, accidents and missed opportunities, but Younan, if she resents any of it, has the grace to focus on what she has, not what she hasn’t or what might have been.

Now, you may have noticed that this book was written “with” Jill Sanguinetti, who has appeared here before with her own memoir. Younan met Sanguinetti around 1988 at the Migrant Women’s Learning Centre, when she joined sighted migrant women in a Return to Learning class. Sanguinetti was the teacher, and explains in the her Introduction to the book how she and Younan had stayed in touch after the class finished. Some years later, they “decided to work together to write the story of Younan’s life and educational journey”. Younan is, she writers, a “mesmeric storyteller”, but with one thing and another, it took 8 years to finalise the book. There were “many cycles of telling and writing, re-telling and re-writing”, and it shows in the end product, which is tight and keeps focused on the main theme of Younan’s journey from a dependent, innocent young girl to the independent achiever she is today.

A good – and relevant – read.

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Marie Younan with Jill Sanguinetti
A different kind of seeing: My journey
Melbourne: Scribe, 2020
214pp.
ISBN: 9781922310256

(Review copy courtesy Scribe.)