Wendy Scarfe and Allan Scarfe, A mouthful of petals: Three years in an Indian Village (#BookReview)

Husband and wife writers, Wendy and Allan Sharfe, first published A mouthful of petals, the story of their three years in the remote Indian village of Sokhodeora, in 1967. It is not, however, their only book. Wendy Scarfe has written poetry and several novels, two of which I’ve reviewed here, Hunger town and The day they shot Edward, while her late husband, Allan, also wrote some novels and short stories. Collaboratively, they wrote several books besides A mouthful of petals, including a biography of Indian independence activist Jayaprakash Narayan.

It was Jayaprakash, or JP as he was known, who invited the Scarfes to return to Sokhodeora in 1960, after their 6-month volunteering stint, because he believed serving India was in their hearts. Their service would, he wrote, be “of great value to us and would add to that international good-will and understanding that are so badly needed”. In their opening chapter, the Scarfes write poetically of the place that was to be their home for three years:

Sokhodeora is a dot that is part of the plain: beautiful, serene, full of a sense of continuity with the very beginnings of human civilisation.

But to enter the narrow, zigzag alleys between the congested houses is to lose much of the impression of beauty and to realise the antiquity of man’s anxiety, poverty and misery.

Their role was to be education-related, though on their arrival JP admitted that “frankly” he didn’t know “what specific, clear-cut work” to give them! Ah, the days before KPIs! (Or, more likely, as the Scarfes say, the difference between Western and Eastern world views.) The big picture, the ideal, was that education was needed, and that the villagers needed to see that education was about more than gaining Government employment, which, of course, most villagers would never do.

And so, the Scarfes set about developing their own goals and schedule of work, regularly calibrating with the supportive JP. Uppermost was starting a school for children and night classes for adults. However, they also responded to the practical reality of village life which was characterised by extreme poverty, which in turn meant problems like hunger and poor health. How can children learn, for example, if they are not reasonably nourished? When Jayaprakash comments on the villagers’ apathy, Wendy replies that she believed it was “nutritional”:

People can’t have physical and mental vitality on two meals of rice and pulse a day. A huge proportion of village women suffer from anaemia and they must be just dragging themselves around.

Here is where we realise that aid work like this requires not just the necessary professional skills – in this case, teaching – but resourcefulness and entrepreneurship. The Scarfes, for example, discovered the existence of a supply of powdered milk, and developed a program for its distribution. They wrote many appeals for foodstuffs, eventually landing a winner with the American Meals for Millions Foundation, which provided an awful-sounding but highly nutritional product called “Mysore Multi-Purpose Food”. Again, they were heavily involved in distribution and teaching how to use it. They looked at other issues too, including the provision of toilets, family planning, the building of a classroom, and so on. All this is macro-level. They also worked at the micro-level, supporting individual villagers in all sorts of ways, especially in obtaining the medical help and pharmaceuticals they needed. It’s no wonder that, as this edition’s Publisher’s Note says, this book served, for years, “as a primer for intending field workers”.

None of this was easy of course, and the challenge was exacerbated not only by the usual infrastructure problems – such as transport – but also by cultural and personal issues, particularly the challenge of engaging the villagers in an environment characterised by caste prejudice, gender inequality and inter-family quarrelling.

A mouthful of petals, then, has plenty of interesting content, but I would also like to comment on the writing. It’s a collaborative book, but what voice do you choose to write a book involving both authors’ lives? Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, in their memoir The drums go bang (my review), used first person plural when writing about joint experiences, and third person when writing about the experience of one of them. The Scarfes took a different approach, narrating the book in first person from Allan’s point of view, with Wendy spoken of in third person. It works, but I rather like Park and Niland’s approach.

Overall, the writing is straightforward, as it has to be to impart all the information it does, but there are lovely flourishes all the same, like the description of Sokhodeora I cited early in this post. The book is also enhanced by the people populating it. Not only are we given some insight into JP, but the Scarfes tell stories about several villagers, including the initially apprehensive but willing Mahadev who works for them from the start and the ultimately tragic Kesurwa whom they choose to train as their kindergarten teacher. These people give life to the bigger picture being told.

Now, when I read a book like this, by which I mean a book that is about a different place and time – after all, we are talking India of 60 years ago – I think about its relevance (beyond any intrinsic interest in the subject matter) to my place and time. This book provided a few such points, one being the importance of education. There’s literacy, of course, but the Sharfes specifically discuss the value of understanding cause-and-effect, of the ability to draw logical or useful conclusions from observation and experience – regarding pain and illness for example – and how this lack impeded village and villagers’ development. This made me think, rightly or wrongly, of what has been happening in the USA recently where there seems to be just that lack of ability in some of the populace. A failure of education?

Then there’s the big point: the idea of having global responsibility for each other. The Scarfes write:

We are all responsible for the human condition and those who are educated are responsible to those who are not.

I like the use here of “responsible to” not “for“. It shifts this idea of responsibility from a patriarchal notion to something more cooperative or service-oriented.

A mouthful of petals is a passionate book that still offers much to think about. It is well worth reading.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed and reviewed this book.

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Wendy Scarfe and Allan Scarfe
A mouthful of petals: Three years in an Indian village
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2020 (rev. ed. with Epilogue; orig. ed. 1967)
ISBN: 9781743056844

Review copy courtesy author and Wakefield Press.

Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler, Black cockatoo (#BookReview)

Black cockatoo is a young adult novel written by Indigenous Australian author, Carl Merrison, and his non-Indigenous collaborator, Hakea Hustler, and illustrated by Indigenous Australian illustrator, Dub Leffler. It is a beautiful, little (in size, not value) book that made quite a splash when it was published. It was shortlisted for several children’s literature awards in 2019, including those by the Children’s Book Council of Australia, Readings, the Australian Book Industry Association, and the Queensland Literary Awards. However, it is not the sort of book that I would normally post on here, so I plan to keep this review short.

I say this for a few reasons. For a start, children’s and young adult literature are not my main interest, though I do occasionally make exceptions, as I am making here. My main reason, however, is that not only am I not the typical age demographic for this book, but I am also the wrong cultural demographic, which makes me two steps removed from its target audience. But, I ordered this book from Magabala because I was intrigued about what was being written for young Indigenous readers, and it is on that basis that I’m posting on the book.

The story is set in a remote community in Australia’s Kimberley region, and focuses on 13-year-old Mia. She is disturbed to see her 15-year-old brother, Jy, becoming increasingly alienated from his community and culture, but feels powerless to do anything about it. In the book’s first chapter she rescues a young black cockatoo (dirrarn) which had been injured by Jy who had been target practising with his shanghai. The dirrarn is her totem animal.

What makes this book interesting for someone like me to read is the way it conveys the issues that I, an outsider, am aware of through my reading. One of these is the issue of family breakdown in Indigenous communities. Mia and her brother are being raised by their mother and grandparents, and haven’t seen their father or his family for many years. It’s clear that this is a tough gig for the grandparents. Mia overhears her grandfather (her jawiji) tell her grandmother that he’s “just tired”, and that:

I’m not sure I have it in me to teach him the right ways anymore. He’s just so headstrong.

In one way, of course, Jy is a typical teenager – stubborn and defiant – but concern about this behaviour is magnified in Indigenous communities where disconnection from culture can leave young people, young men in particular, highly vulnerable. In this story, the grandparents, like many in Indigenous communities, do their best to inculcate knowledge of and respect for culture, while also supporting their grandchildren’s need to make their way in a world they don’t know themselves.

This brings me to the main subject of this story, Mia. Her angst stems not only from her concern about her brother, but from having to make a decision about whether to take up her place at “a fancy school down south”. She’s confronting that conundrum faced by young Indigenous people that I’ve also gleaned through my reading, the challenge of straddling two cultures. There is a lovely sense here of Mia being supported and encouraged by her family, but also of her having some agency in what she does:

“You live in both worlds,” her grandmother added. “You will be strong in both ways.”

Black cockatoo is a short story but Merrison and Hustler pack a lot in here about the warmth and humour within extended Indigenous families, which lightens the more serious concerns they confront. The tone is not heavy, which is appropriate given the aim of this book being presumably to support young Indigenous people in making good choices rather than to demoralise them with the challenges they face!

The book is illustrated by Dub Leffler, with stylish, sometimes realistic sometimes more subtle, black-and-white images opening each chapter. Words from Jaru language are lightly scattered through the text:

It had been a proper long barranga dry weather, so to hunt we didn’t have to travel far to find big fat bin.girrjaru bush turkey.

There are two small glossaries at the end, one of Jaru words, and the other of Aboriginal English/Kriol words, that are used in the text.

While not all issues are resolved by the end, as you would expect, the novel’s conclusion, as you would also expect, is positive, with Mia coming to realise both her own inner strength and that she has the ongoing support of family and culture. It’s a good message in an accessible book, it seems to me, but the real proof is whether it works for its target readers, and that, of course, I don’t know.

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Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler
Dub Leffler (illus.)
Black cockatoo
Broome: Magabala Books, 2018
ISBN: 9781925360707

Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick, On a barbarous coast (“BookReview)

Craig Cormick is a Canberra-based writer whom I’ve seen at various literary events around town, but not read until now, so I was especially glad when Allen & Unwin sent me this book to review. Titled On a barbarous coast, it was written collaboratively with Harold Ludwick, “a Bulgun Warra man whose traditional lands lie west of Cooktown”.

On a barbarous coast offers something a bit different for reviewers. Besides its collaborative nature, there’s its form or genre, which is that sub-genre of historical fiction called alternate (or alternative) history. In this case, it involves looking at a period of Australian history and asking “what if things had happened differently?” Those things, for Cormick and Ludwick, relate to Captain Cook’s exploration of Australia.

The story springs, then, from Captain Cook’s 1768-1771 voyage to Australia to observe the Transit of Venus. During that expedition, in late 1770, the Endeavour was seriously damaged around the Great Barrier Reef, but managed to limp on to Batavia. However, Cormick and Ludwick posit a different scenario, suggesting that the Endeavour was shipwrecked and that only a small number of the crew survived – including Cook, though he remains comatose though much of the story. The survivors make their way to land, and … the question is, as the cover states, “What if there was an alternative ending to Captain Cook’s story?” Would Australia’s history have been different, and how?

While I’ve not read many, I do quite like alternative histories. They encourage us to look at the past from different angles, which can illuminate the implications of decisions made and actions taken.

So, this is how it goes …

The story is told in two alternating first-person voices, Cormick’s being that of American Midshipman James Magra, and Ludwick’s being the young Indigenous boy, Garrgiil.

Magra chronicles the actions and fates of the shipwreck survivors, who very quickly break into two antagonistic camps, while Ludwick shares the thoughts and actions of the local Guugu Yimidhirr people. For the bulk of the narrative, the two cultures remain apart. There is quite a bit of humour in watching Garrgiil’s people trying to decide whether these strange “spirit things” are ancestors or just men. Initially, they feel they must be ancestors, but the way they stumble around, starving while “walking past food every day”, not to mention behaving incorrectly in sacred or special areas, suggests that this may not be the case.

… their presence gives our people great stories of their stupidity and clumsiness to tell around the fire at night. Like the one who stood in the river and let Gandhaar [crocodile] eat him …

Meanwhile, we watch Magra and his co-survivors bickering amongst themselves, trying to plan a solution to their predicament, and sensing the “natives” are out there but not seeing them. The stage is set for a meeting. The question is: how will it go? You will have to read the book for yourselves to find out.

So, how does it all come together?

Magra gets the lion’s share of the story, which could be seen as giving the invaders the upper-hand (yet again) in story-telling. However, I’m going to assume that this was all discussed and agreed between the two authors. Also, I think we could argue that the unequal number of physical pages doesn’t necessarily mean that the emotional impact of the two narratives is similarly unequal. Garrgiil’s voice is strong enough, and compelling enough, to be in our minds, even when he’s not centre-stage.

In the Authors’ Note at the end, Cormick says they “tried to stay as close to known history as possible, both within the known and imagined paths of the story”, which requires a bit of mind-bending but I get what they mean. They drew upon “many existing knowledges” including several journals, such as those of James Cook, Joseph Banks, Sydney Parkinson, and an anonymous journal believed to have been written by James Mario Magra, whom Cormick uses as his narrator. They also looked at the work of Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians, journalists and academics, and at historical accounts of several shipwrecked individuals who had lived with Indigenous people. Cormick notes that while their story divides easily into the two narratives, “it is not so easy to unpick how each of us influenced each other’s work”.

Ludwick adds that his aim was to pull readers into “the world of Guugu Yimidhirr language (which was first recorded in 1770 by Sydney Parkinson and Joseph Banks)”. He says that many of the practices and knowledge he describes in the book are still used by his people. He also says that he wove Dreamtime stories into his narrative to help readers understand his people’s traditional explanations of how the land became what we see today.

The end result is the sort of book I like to read, one that entertains me with its story, while also engaging my mind as I consider what the authors (plural, in this case) were trying to do, how they were trying to do it, and whether they pulled it off. It is an earnest book. Sometimes this comes a bit close to the surface when we are “told” things to make sure we get it (such as “I know the Captain controlled how the stories of our journey would be told”). This – and the strange though interesting little “magical realism” interludes where Magra talks to Gandhaar, the crocodile – creates a little unevenness in the narrative. Also, the use of parenthesis to translate the local language used by Garrgiil felt clunky. Yet, I applaud the book’s extensive use of this language. We need more of it in contemporary Australian literature. As Gandhaar tells Magra:

You create the landscape in your own words. If you don’t know the right words, you will never know the land properly.

But these are minor “picky” things. Cormick and Ludwick have attempted something significant in terms of story, intent, and process, and they pulled it off in a way that engaged me, right through to their considered ending which suggests possibilities, while being realistic about probabilities. Without irony, we could call this book “a grand endeavour”. It is certainly exciting to see such Indigenous-non-Indigenous collaborations happening in our literary sphere.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also found this book intriguing.

Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick
On a barbarous coast
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760877347

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, The drums go bang! (#BookReview)

Book coverVolume 1 of Ruth Park’s autobiography, A fence around the cuckoo, covers the period of her life up to when she lands in Australia to marry D’Arcy Niland. Not being sure, perhaps, that there’d be a sequel, Park concludes with:

We lived together for twenty-five years less five weeks. We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels, a great deal of shared and companionable literary work, and much love and constancy. Most of all I like to remember laughter.

That autobiography was published in 1992. The drums go bang, written collaboratively by Park and Niland, was published in 1956 and covers the first five or so of these years to just after the publication in 1947 of The harp in the south.

The first thing that struck me was its point of view: it slips astonishingly between third person and first person plural, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. And then the penny dropped, its collaborative nature. When they are talking about one of them, Tiger (Ruth’s nickname) or Evans (D’Arcy’s), third person is used, but when they are talking about them together, first person plural is used. Here is an example about their delayed honeymoon:

We didn’t mind the delay. Tiger was crazy to see Sydney, and besides she wasn’t too keen on going away to the Blue Mountains with a strange man. While Evans was away at the Railway she went around the city on her own …

Once you work out what’s going on, it works very well. However, to understand this particular paragraph, and the “strange man” comment you’ll need to read their story for yourself, as I want to move on to other things. Suffice it to say that this comment, while containing an element of truth, given the way their relationship developed, is also an example of their light, self-deprecating humour. As Park said in her autobiography, “most of all I like to remember laughter”.

The drums go bang is a short and often funny book, but it manages to cover a lot, including their struggles to find accommodation in 1940s Sydney when accommodation was scarce, their decision to go freelance and the resultant struggle to survive, their work in the outback, two pregnancies, their lives in Surry Hills and other Sydney suburbs, and their relationships with a wonderful cast of characters. The aspects which interested me most were of course Surry Hills, because it inspired The harp in the south, the writing life, and the writing itself, which provides such an insight into their skills.

Although they tell it with such humour, Park and Niland are very clear about how difficult the freelance life is. For most of the five years covered by the book they live a hand-to-mouth existence, experiencing poverty at close hand. However, there’s also good advice here for would-be writers. For example, early in the book, Tiger expresses frustration at Evans’s belief that a good story will sell regardless, but even this is told with humour:

He was convinced that if the story were good it must sell. He bailed up an amiable Salvation Army major and tried to persuade him that “The Other Side of Love” was just what was needed for the War Cry. He submitted “The Menace of Money” to the Business Man’s Monthly, and a sentimental animal story to the house magazine at the Abattoirs.

They share their Minor Carta, their manifesto for writers who wish to make a living writing. Its eight articles include some hard learnt truths, such as that you have to “write anything and everything”, you cannot afford to be “snobbish” about your art, and you can’t let rejection slips get you down. They talk about the variability of payment systems for freelance work, unscrupulous writing schools, and the importance of marketing, of needing to “shape it to fit”. They write articles, songs, short stories, radio plays, children’s radio, comedy sketches, and more – anything that might bring in a cheque (and they do it sharing one old typewriter.)

I’d love to share more about their lives, and particularly the characters in it, like Evans’ brother Young Gus, the generous freelance publisher Mr Virtue, and colourful relations like Aunt Nibblestones and Uncle Looshus, but I want to get onto something that is most relevant to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week, their time in Surry Hills and how it inspired The harp in the south. Initially scared by “the place, with its brawling, shrieking life”, abusive drunks and fighting prostitutes, Park started to adapt, and

… began to study the people for what they were, and not what they did. Their true kindness, their generosity and charity filled her with shame. They were so much more genuinely loveable than she had given them credit for being, and she began to understand how the incredible congestion of their lives, the rabbit-warren houses, the inescapable dirt of an area which is built around the big factory chimneys all contributed to their innately lawless, conventionless attitude towards life. She began to understand that in such a place dirt ceases to become important, morals are often impracticable, and privacy is an impossibility.

As it turned out, though, The harp in the south was written, almost, you could say, accidentally. In New Zealand for some needed R&R after the birth of their second child, they are sent a clipping by Uncle Looshus which announces a Sydney Morning Herald competition for a novel, short story and poem. Park tries to convince Niland to write a novel but he refuses, saying he only writes short stories, and tells her to have a go. So, she does, and of course Surry Hills is her inspiration:

… she felt she understood them. She certainly liked them, mostly because in the midst of all their dirt and poverty and fecklessness they contrived to be happy.

She wrote down a sentence that seemed to sum up their philosophy: “I was thinking of how lucky we are”.

That sentence, the last line in the book, was the key that opened the door. From then on the story grew by itself.

This book, published serially in 1947 to both acclaim and vituperation, has become a classic of Australian social realism, albeit, as Paul Genoni says, “tempered with romanticism”. The same could be said of this delightful memoir.

Challenge logoRuth Park and D’Arcy Niland
The drums go bang!
Illustrated by Phil Taylor
Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956
ISBN: None