Novel-in-stories, Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air

This is my third post inspired by Reading like an Australian writer, and it involves two First Nations writers, Ellen van Neerven on Tara June Winch’s award-winning debut novel Swallow the air. I chose van Neerven’s essay for my next post, because, coincidentally, I’d just read Winch’s story “Cloud busting” in Flock, an anthology, edited by van Neerven. Are you keeping up? “Cloud busting” is one of the stories in Swallow the air.

Form? What form?

Tara June Winch, Swallow the air

In my review of Swallow the air, I wrote:

The first thing to confront the reader is its form. It looks and even reads a little like a collection of short stories*, but it can be read as a novella. There is a narrative trajectory that takes us from the devastating death of narrator May Gibson’s mother, when May was around 9 years old, to when she’s around 15 years old and has made some sense of her self, her past, her people. May’s mother is Wiradjuri, her father English.

The asterisk pointed to a note at the end of my post, which stated that one story from the novel, the aforementioned “Cloud busting”, had been published separately in Best Australian stories 2006. And, in her essay, van Neerven says that she had used “Cloud busting” with students. Sounds like it could become one of Australia’s popular anthologised stories. This would be a good thing because, also in her essay, van Neerven comments on having had no introduction to “Indigenous-authored books” when she was at school (which, for 31-year-old van Neerven, was not that long ago.) Short stories are an excellent form for introducing school students to great stories and writing, and it would be a good thing to see more diverse stories added to current anthology favourites.

“Cloud busting” is a beautiful story, by the way, because it makes a point about deep loss but also conveys the warmth, trust and generosity that can exist between people.

Anyhow, back to form. Just as I wrote in my post on Swallow the air, van Neerven also comments on the book’s form, noting that “writing relational novels-in-stories” is a “very First Nations practice”. She cites Jeanine Leane’s Purple threads (my review) and Gayle Kennedy’s Me, Antman and Fleabag, as other examples. Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing (my review) fits in here somewhere too, I’d say. I hadn’t really thought about this as being particularly First Nations, as we all know novels from various writers that generate arguments about whether they are novels or short story collections. However, in my experience – and I am generalising a bit – First Nations people can be great story-tellers so it wouldn’t surprise me to find the form of “novel-in-stories” being more common among First Nations writers.

Further discussing this book, in which protagonist May goes on a journey back to Country to find her Wiradjuri origins, van Neerven makes another interesting observation, which is that May’s journey “plays into the reader’s romanticised expectations that a return to Country will bring the story a happy resolution”. But, of course, it’s not that simple. Country has often been too damaged by “past policies and institutionalisations”, as van Neerven puts it, for this to happen, but, she says, May does come to understand something important, which is that Country “lives within her” and her family “allowing her to feel strong in her identity without the shame of not living or growing up on Country”. Of course, it’s not up to me to pronounce on the validity of this way of seeing, but it makes good sense to me.

Anyhow, I’ll leave it, on these two interesting-to-me points, as I don’t want to steal the life from Castle’s book. These essays are all so different, as you’d expect, but this just makes them more worthwhile. You just never know what approach a writer is going to take when talking about another writer, but you do know that it will probably be insightful.

Ellen van Neerven
“Kinship in fiction and the genre blur of Swallow the air as novel in stories”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 7-12
ISBN: 9781742236704

Tara June Winch
“Cloud busting”
in Ellen van Neerven (ed), Flock: First Nations stories then and now
St. Lucia: UQP, 2021
ISBN: 9780702264603 (Kindle)

Ellen van Neerven (ed.), Writing black (#BookReview)

Writing black: New indigenous writing from Australia is one of the productions supported by the Queensland Writers Centre’s if:book that I wrote about in a recent Monday Musings. It’s an interactive e-book created using Apple’s iBooks platform, and can be downloaded free-of-charge via the if:book page or directly from iBooks.

Title page for Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi

Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi (Using fair dealing provisions for purposes of review)

Writing black was edited (and commissioned) by Ellen van Neerven (whose book Heat and light and story “Sweetest thing”, I’ve reviewed here). It contains works by 20 writers, in a variety of forms, including prose by writers like Bruce Pascoe, Tony Birch, and Marie Munkara; poetry by Tara June Winch, Lionel Fogarty, Kerry Reed-Gilbert and Steven Oliver (most of which are presented in both text and video); and twitter-fiction by Siv Parker. For each writer, there is a “title” page which provides a brief biography, and the works are illustrated with gorgeous sepia-toned photography by Jo-Anne Driessens.

In her editor’s introduction, van Neerven states that, by the time of publication, there had not been a “digital-only anthology of Australian indigenous writing”. This book addresses that gap, but with a very particular goal. It was, she writes, “moulded by possibility”, by the fact that “the multimedia and enhancements a digital publication allows lifts the imagination”. Certainly, we see some of these possibilities in this production.

Her point, though, that particularly interested me was this:

Expectations of what we write about are changing, no longer the narrow restriction of life stories and poetry. Indeed, Indigenous writers do not need to write about Indigenous issues at all, if they choose not to. With more Indigenous books and authors comes a new generation of readers — open-minded to what Indigenous writers can write about, and across new forms and experiences.

Great point – just as it’s important that we see indigenous people on television and in movies, for example, without their indigeneity needing to be referenced or be part of the story. Anyhow, we see this broadening of content in Writing black – in Jane Harrison’s “Born, still”, for example – although, not surprisingly and completely understandably, given where we are on the reconciliation journey, many of pieces do have political intent.

This brings me to one of the appealing aspect of this production, which is its variety, not only in form as I’ve already mentioned, but in tone and content. The pieces span moods from the intensity of Tara June Winch (“Moon”) to the cheeky humour of Marie Munkara (“Trixie”), from the anger of Kerry Reed-Gilbert (“Talking up to the white woman”) and the frustration of Steven Oliver (“You can’t be black”) to the melancholy of Bruce Pascoe’s (“A letter to Barry”). Many of the pieces speak to loss of country and identity, and the emotional impact of these. What makes them particularly powerful is that they come from all over, from the tropical north to country Victoria to various urban settings.

Another appealing thing, which stems from its being an e-Book, is that we can hear poets perform their own work, as well as read the text ourselves. One of these is the new-to-me Steven Oliver. He has four poems in the collection – “Real”, “You can’t be black”, “Diversified identity” and “I’m a black fella” – with video of him reading each of them. He (or his poetic persona) is an urban dweller who regularly confronts questions concerning his indigenous identity. In “Real” he describes a discussion with another who refuses to accept he’s “black”, who produces those crass arguments like he’s “more of a brown” and “not really a full”, but who suddenly turns when our poet responds that his English name suggests he’s not “from here”. Oliver writes:

Listen here Abo, you know-it-all coon
It seemed that my friend has spoken too soon
Just moments ago I was not the real thing
Yet now by his words my heritage clings

This is a long-ish poem, but is accessible. Its use of rhyming couplets provides a light touch that keeps the reader engaged while the actual words drive home a serious point about Aboriginal identity. I hope it’s taught in schools.

Another poem of his, “You can’t be black”, also addresses assumptions others make about what being Aboriginal is:

You can’t be black
When the media shows Aborigines they live on communities
And struggle with petrol, poverty and disease
So you can’t be black
If you’re black you wouldn’t have nice clothes on your back.

Oliver’s poems are made to be performed, as are those of the next poet Kerry Reed-Gilbert.

She also comes out fighting, with five poems. She writes of being in a bar, waiting for the racist slurs (“A conversation and a beer”), or of being exploited by people who only want to know her to further their own aims (“Talking up to the white woman”). She speaks in the voice of a white racist in “Because my mum said so” to show how racism is learnt through families. This is a particular concern of mine. I’ve seen schools trying their hardest to teach tolerance and respect – but that role-modelling at home is mighty powerful stuff.

Another well-established poet who has been politically active for decades is Lionel Fogarty. His two poems in this collection focus more on caring for country, on sharing the land, on passing knowledge on.

The prose pieces are, overall, more diverse. There’s Tristan Savage’s cheeky short film script, “Gubbament man” about Freddy the indigenous “discrimination prevention officer”. Siv Parker’s twitter-fiction piece “Maisie May” was originally released as tweets over several hours on, note, 26th January, in 2014. It tells of a trip to country for the funeral of Aunty Maisie May who “could tell you about country and our ways that we lost over the years.” Marie Munkara is here too with her particular brand of humour to tell about “Trixie” who takes revenge on her ex. There’s also Tony Birch whose “Deep rock” clearly draws from (or fed into) his novel Ghost River (my review). And there’s David Curtis whose “What kind dreaming” tells of three young indigenous men, two already becoming familiar with the life and law of their country and the other a greenhorn from the city, who go bush. Our greenhorn soon learns a few things from the other two, who respect “them old people”.

In an interview in Sydney Review of Books, Ellen van Neerven comments briefly on why she wanted to do this “digital collection”:

For me it’s as much about audience and access. There is a really hungry international audience for Indigenous writing but also lots of roadblocks in getting the books out there. Being able to access work online is definitely an advantage and we’ve had a lot of feedback and contact from people overseas who have been able to find out about Indigenous writing and read content from 20 different authors that way.

And that’s exactly it. This oh-so-rich collection introduces readers to many of Australia’s current significant indigenous writers, not to mention the range of issues that interest them. And it’s free to download. That we should be so lucky! A big thanks to if:book and the Queensland Writers Centre for supporting such innovative and sophisticated projects as this one.

aww2017 badgeEllen van Neerven (ed.)
Writing black: New indigenous writing from Australia
State Library of Queensland, 2014
ISBN: 9780975803059

Tony Birch and Ellen van Neerven in Review of Australian Fiction 10 (4)

Review of Australian FictionI have been wanting to write about the oddly titled Review of Australian Fiction for some time. I say oddly titled because, contrary to what it might sound like, this does not contain reviews but short fiction. Established in 2012, it is published, electronically (or digitally), every two weeks. Each issue contains two stories by Australian authors: one by an established author, and the other by an emerging author, chosen by the established author. Funnily, in the issue I’m reviewing here, it’s the emerging author, Ellen van Neerven, whom I’ve read before, not the established one, Tony Birch. But, I’m so glad that Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week has given me the opportunity to a) finally read something by Birch, and b) finally read Review of Australian Fiction issue.

Tony Birch, “Spirit in the night”

Birch’s story is told first person by a young indigenous boy, the 11-year-old Noah Sexton. He’s dirty, smelly, poorly dressed, and no-one wants to know him – except the new girl, Heather, who invites him to sit next to her. She’s “the cleanest person I’d ever seen” with “no pox rashes, bites or scars like I had”. At lunchtime, Heather offers the hungry Noah a sandwich and engages him in conversation. She asks him why he sits alone, and he gives the classic reply:

‘I sit here because I’m a Sexton.’

She doesn’t know what that means of course. When he discovers that her father is the policeman “in charge of the station”, he assumes:

Our mob was well known to the police, and I knew straightaway that as soon as her father got the story on the family name, she wouldn’t be sitting under any tree offering me a vegemite sandwich.

But, it doesn’t quite work out the way he expected. When he explains to the friendly Heather that he’s from “the only abo family left in town”, she tells him that “abo” is “a dirty word” and that “people like you, we call them half-castes. It’s more proper”. Noah disagrees, telling her that “an abo’s an abo, no matter how black or white he is … Far as whitefella is interested, the shit smells just the same.” Heather shows discomfort at this language, but Noah doesn’t care. He’s “beginning to think she was only another do-gooder”. He tells her about how his people have been treated in town, but Heather tells him her father will be different, that “he’s always fair, to both sides”. Not surprisingly, Noah is (silently) sceptical. Nonetheless, this little bit of kindness from Heather brings out a new sense of self in Noah – he doesn’t wolf down the sandwich, pretending he has a few manners, and when he gets up to go into school after that first lunch he dusts his pants off “for maybe the first time in my life”.

And so Heather spends most lunchtimes with Noah, because she’s a Christian and it’s “a sin to turn away from those in need”. Noah doesn’t like being seen as a “charity case” but is so enamoured of Heather that he’ll “put up with anything”. Understandable, given his treatment at school before.

I won’t describe any more. This is a clever story about do-gooders. Birch has astutely chosen for his protagonist a young boy on the cusp of puberty. Noah, straddling that line between childhood and adulthood, has a sense of his agency, and yet not quite the experience, nor the resources, to insist on enacting it. It’s a story about confused emotions, and about smugness and self-satisfaction. It’s about the right to dignity, and, of course, about power.

Ellen van Neerven, “Sweetest thing”

awwchallenge2015Unique, original, fresh are words I avoid when writing reviews, not only because they feel cliched but because they can be contested by anyone whose reading experience is wider than mine. So, instead, I’ll just comment on Ellen van Neerven’s capacity to surprise. I found it in her Heat and light which I reviewed earlier this year, and in “Sweetest thing”.

“Sweetest thing” is a third-person story about Serene, the child of an indigenous mother and the town’s Dutch baker. She is addicted to having her breasts suckled. It all started in puberty (“that pertinent time of a woman’s life”) with her first experience of having a man suckle her breast occuring with a male tutor when she’s nearly fourteen. He lifts up her shirt:

Beautifully out of herself, she was open and messy and dislocated like a bouquet being readied for a vase, flowers, stems, spores spread everywhere.

Nothing else happens besides this suckling, but Serene feels “bliss” and “knew then that this was what she had been programmed to need”. Slowly, as Serene schemes and positions herself to have her need met, we learn about loss. We learn, for example, about the Kedron pub, which “had refused Serene’s grandparents entry” but which is now

a haunt for women of her mother’s ilk: divorced, discarded, with loose threads of long silent and secret relationships carried under their shirts.

Under their shirts. A reference to their breasts? We learn about the gradual withdrawal of her father as he starts to focus on his “real daughter”. Serene feels anger at “the silence in her life, at his hypocrisy”.

Born into this in-between world – not quite rejected as her grandparents were, but not fully accepted either – Serene believes she deserves “comfort, worship, devotion. Trust and understanding”, but fears “hollowness”.

And so, her life progresses through school and early womanhood into mature adulthood. She has friends, she experiences casual sex, she becomes a masseuse – but still there’s the need for suckling, to have “the most basic of her needs met”. Again, I’ll leave the story here. It’s longer than Birch’s and spans a few decades of Serene’s life, which includes a meaningful relationship and a successful career.

“Sweetest thing” is an edgy story. Serene’s unusual addiction works as a rather confronting metaphor for what all humans need – love and acceptance. What I like about Van Neerven, here and in Heat and light, is that her indigenous characters are not “types”. Their indigeneity is part of who they are, and is fundamental to the challenges they confront, but her characters are also “universal” – that is, they are needy, flawed characters who muddle along, just as the rest of us do, in the lives they find themselves in. It’s powerful stuff.

ANZ_ILW2015Read for ANZLitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week.

Tony Birch, “Spirit in the night”
Ellen van Neerven, “Sweetest thing”
in: Review of Australian Fiction 10 (4), May 2014

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light (Review)

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light, book coverIt’s silly I know, but I had a little thrill at the end of Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light, because not only was the last story set in a place where I spent six of the formative years of my childhood – Sandgate on the northern edge of Brisbane – but one of the characters learnt to swim in the same pool there that I did, and her brother has a beagle, just as we did. Ah, childhood. Enough, though, of readerly nostalgia. Time to properly discuss the book.

Heat and light won the David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writer in 2013, and has been on my TBR for several months. I hadn’t prioritised it for reading, but its longlisting for the Stella Prize last week convinced me to squeeze it in before two works I had to complete by 21 and 24 February. I hope I won’t regret it. No, let me rephrase that: I know I won’t regret having read it, but I hope I don’t regret my decision to read it right now!

The first thing to say is that Heat and light isn’t a novel. It has, in fact, an intriguing form, something that’s not unusual with writers from an indigenous background. Simplistically speaking, it comprises short stories organised into three sections titled Heat, Water and Light. However, each of these sections is quite different. Heat comprises interconnected short stories (5) about three generations of the Kresinger family, while Water is longform short fiction (54 pages in my edition) in the speculative fiction genre. Light, on the other hand, is more like a “traditional” collection of short stories (10). Together, the three sections, including the future-set Water, create a rich picture of contemporary indigenous life and concerns.

And here I confront again the challenge of being a non-indigenous Australian reviewing a work by an indigenous Australian featuring indigenous people. It always makes me a little anxious: I fear sounding earnest or, worse, patronising; I fear making what’s different sound exotic; and, I fear missing the point. And yet I love reading indigenous writers, because their perspective is different and because they (see, I’m generalising, aren’t I?) tend to be adventurous in their story-telling, often taking risks with voice, form, chronology, genre, and more. Van Neerven, as I’ve already implied, is such a writer.

The titles of the three sections – Heat, Water, Light – make me think of the elements. They are not quite the classical elements (fire, air, water, earth) but they convey, it seems to me, the essence of what’s needed for life. The focal character in Heat, though we don’t see a lot of her, is Pearl, the grandmother of the narrator of the first story which is titled, in fact, “Pearl”. Pearl is a bit of a free spirit – earthy, hot (in its sexual meaning, with “her siren eyes”), and likely to appear or disappear with the wind. Over the five stories in this section we learn about Pearl, her sister Marie, and the two succeeding generations. Van Neerven’s writing is confident, moving comfortably between first and third person narrators, all of whom are members of a complex extended family. Loyalties – to their indigenous background and to their blood relationships – are tested. As the narrator of “Pearl” says:

So much is in what we make of things. The stories we construct about our place in our families are essential to our lives.

And this is true, whether or not the stories so constructed are “true”. The implication is you need to know what you are doing. Colin, for example, finding himself, through his own actions, disconnected from his indigenous heritage, wants to return, but

she told me if I was going to make my way home I’d better do it soon before the dust had covered my tracks.

The third section, Light, explores similar issues to those in Heat, but through ten separate stories, ranging from 2 pages to 30. The characters in both sections both move between city and country, but, while Heat is set in southeastern Queensland, the stories in Light are set in Sydney, Western Australia and Queensland. The protagonists tend to be young, and female. They also tend to be in formative stages of their lives, or at crossroads; they are sorting out their relationships, their sexuality, their identity. They confront racism and face conflict, but they also experience and give love. There’s humour, some of it wry, such as the young girl noticing that the tag on her pants states that “this colour will continue to fade”.

Water, the longform story that occupies the middle of the book, is very different. For a start, it’s set in the near future, the 2020s, when Australia is a republic with a female president. There’s a new flag and Jessica Mauboy’s song “Gotcha” is the national anthem. There’s also a social media ban! I reckon Van Neerven enjoyed imagining this. However, life isn’t perfect. Our narrator Kaden has a new job as a Cultural Liaison Officer and was initially pleased because she thought she’d be working with “other Aboriginal people” which would provide a “way of finding out about my culture and what I missed out on growing up”. But, she discovers she’ll be working with “plantpeople” who are sort of mutant plants with human features created during “islandising” experiments. Kaden’s job is to evacuate them in preparation for the Australia2 project.

I don’t want to give any more of it away, but you’ve probably guessed that it’s a story about how we treat other, about segregation, discrimination and dirty politics. It’s also about connection to country and about the importance of controlling one’s own art. Artist Hugh Ngo says:

I don’t make art for galleries. Or for money. I make art that speaks the truth.

This is a clever (and true!) book. The bookending sections Heat and Light present stories of Australian people going about their lives, and most of them happen to be indigenous. Their indigeneity is evident, and it affects the issues they confront, but there’s no specific advocacy. The middle section, on the other hand, is more overtly political. It picks up issues that appear in the shorter stories and provides a coherent, ideological context for the whole.

Heat and light is one of those really satisfying reads: it combines engaging writing with stories that make you feel you’ve got to the things that matter. So no, regardless of whether I meet my other deadlines, I’m not sorry I bumped this book up in my reading priorities.

awwchallenge2015Ellen van Neerven
Heat and light
St Lucia: UQP, 2014
ISBN: 9780702253218

Note: One of the stories in Light, “The Falls”, is available on-line at Kill Your Darlings