Griffith Review 68: Getting on (#BookReview)

Book coverI love reading the Griffith Review, though have mostly only reviewed individual articles on this blog. It’s a meaty quarterly, with each edition being devoted to a particular theme. Edition 68’s theme, Getting on, seemed apposite for my reading group and so was our August selection. Although it was confronting at times, it was a universally approved choice, and our discussion was lively and engaged.

Like all Griffith Reviews, this edition contains essays, reportage, memoirs, fiction and poems, some from writers who have previously appeared on my blog (like Helen Garner, Vicki Laveau-Harvie, Kathy Marks, and Charlotte Wood); some from writers known to me but not (yet) on my blog (Melanie Cheng, Leah Kaminisky, Sam Wagan Watson among others); and some new to me. The edition opens with editor Ashley Hay’s introductory piece, “The time of our lives: Senescence, sentience and story”. She frames the volume’s overarching subject matter by saying that ageing in Australia:

has been largely framed by intersections between a Royal Commission and its revelations of institutional shortfalls and betrayals; the urgent need for reform; the conditions we place under the umbrella designation of ‘dementia’; an increasing awareness of under-reported ageism; the seemingly intractable gap in life expectancies between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; the day-to-day experience of some 200,000 older Australians who live in residential-care facilities; and an emphasis on the ‘costs’ of an ageing population rather than any framing of the potential benefits of longevity.

However, while these practical and political issues underpin the volume, it also includes some more philosophical and personal reflections which provide breadth and life to the discussion. And so, the edition proper starts with established writer, 77-year-old Helen Garner (“The invisible arrow”) who provides a personal perspective on the experience of ageing, on losing hearing (necessitating hearing aids) and failing sight (requiring cataracts). It’s also about the quandary of being a writer challenged by ageing, an issue somewhat addressed, from a different angle, by Charlotte Wood (“Experiments in the art of living”).

Because my life over the last couple of decades has involved elderly people, I was particularly interested in the essays on aged care practice and policy, especially Sarah Holland-Batt’s “Magical thinking and the aged care crisis” and Beth Mohle’s “System failure”. Both these provided detailed analysis of the current failures of the system – including the multiple reviews with their multiple ignored recommendations – and offer some ideas for improvement. The problem is also taken up provocatively by Gen Xer Ingrid Burkett in “Bold rage” and more calmly but also passionately by another Gen Xer, Charlotte Wood. I did laugh, though, when Burkett suggested one of the ideas discarded by Holland-Batt as “magical thinking”, the “geriatric co-op” or, as Burkett wrote, “buying a large house or building a purpose-built dwelling where we could all live together as we age”. It’s not a new Gen X idea. My Boomer friends and I posited this idea too in our youth!

Policy discussions also take up other issues, like euthanasia and assisted dying (Andrew Stafford’s “Dying wish”) and the disturbing problem of increasing homelessness among older women (Therese Hall’s “Almost homeless”).

Then there are the pieces specifically about the science of ageing (such as Bianca Nogrady’s “Longevity, science and, about medicine and about dead” and David Sinclair’s “Live long and prosper”); about how science may help ageing and aged care in the future (Leah Kaminsky’s intriguing discussion of AI in “Killing time”); and about personal experiences of chronic illness (Mark Aarons’ “Solving my medical mystery”) and death (Gabbie Stroud on her brother’s suicide, “In an unguarded moment”). In this personal vein too is the moving poem, simply titled “Andrew”, about the family’s experience of the terminal illness and death of writer, Andrew McGahan. Niece Anna McGahan writes:

He cannot carry our projected burdens
When he still has heavy gifts
Three glorious, painful months to fill

There are, in fact, several moving pieces – some personal, some professional. Melanie Cheng writes about being an unempathetic intern and what turned her around (“The human factor”) while palliative care specialist, Frank Brennan (“Contemporary loss”), details the practice of palliation. The fiction and poems that are interspersed amongst the non-fiction pieces provide personal perspectives on the information presented. Sam Wagan Watson’s short story “The elsewheres of Charlie Bolt”, for example, powerfully illustrates the isolation and loneliness that many of the contributors identify as serious problems of ageing. The line –

The only songlines Charlie Bolt knew were in the curdling of crow gargles on the street.

– conveys the dislocation Charlie experiences from his culture, as well as from life in general.

It’s impossible to list all the pieces, so I’ll conclude by sharing a couple of my responses to this volume (besides frustration with our policy-makers’ failure to properly address aged care). One relates to the discussion of older people as elders, because this suggests a more positive understanding of ageing. It’s discussed in depth by Jane R Goodall (“Joining forces: The wrath of age meets the passion of youth”) who says “there is little or no public discussion about what it means to be an elder rather than just a senior” and teases out what being an elder might look like. It’s also part of the conversation between Ruth Ross, Jay Phillips and Mayrah Dreise about making “Acknowledgement of Country” statements more meaningful (“Listening to elders: Wisdom, knowledge, institutions and the need for change”).

My other main response concerns denial about ageing and its consequences. I’m with Ailsa Piper (“Old growth: On luck, appreciation and acceptance”) who says “I like saying I’m old”, because, as she says, many never get to. Associated with this denial are people’s claims that they won’t go into aged care, that they’ll leave their home “feet first”, that they will not give up their independence. My experience of watching people age is that the situation is less that you are forced to “give up” your independence, and more that your independence leaves you!

How we handle this situation is up to us, of course, but, as Charlotte Wood reports:

Palliative care nurses have told me people almost always die as they live. A person who has lived with acceptance and gratitude will die in gracious acceptance.

She wonders when it might be time to “change one’s default state”! She then quotes an 84-year-old aged care resident:

Ageing, writes Peter Thomson of Ivanhoe, ‘is inevitable, inexorable and interesting. AAA rating for ageing: Anticipate, Adapt, Accept’.

Now that, rather than “I won’t”, seems to me to be a better default state to take.

Getting on is informative, as you’d expect, but it is also inspirational and challenging. Recommended for adults of all ages!

Note: Links on names are to posts in this blog on those writers. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) wrote up a panel discussion on this volume at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival.

Challenge logoGriffith Review 68: Getting on
(edited by Ashley Hay)
South Brisbane, Qld. : Griffith University in conjunction with Text Publishing, 2020
287 pp.
ISBN: 9781922212498

Canberra Writers Festival and the Griffith Review 60: First things first

Yesterday (9 August) was, as you probably know, the UN’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. I had planned to get this post completed by then, but, being on the road (again), it didn’t happen. I don’t think that matters a lot, though, as we should be caring about Indigenous Peoples every day until the disparities between us are removed, n’est-ce pas?

So now, my post. The title may look a bit strange. It’s because this post was partly inspired by my wanting to mention the Canberra Writers Festival. This year is its third under its current iteration, and the theme has remained the same: Power, Politics and Passion. Now, some of us literary types, are a little disappointed by the Festival because of this focus. We want more literature, as in literary fiction, but what we get is quite  lot politics. I understand this. We are Canberra, the national capital, and this is a way of positioning our Festival as something different from others around the nation. Fair enough I suppose – it’s just not what I would prefer.

However, there are sessions that I’m very interested in, and two of these relate to indigenous Australian literature and culture. They are:

  • GR60: First Things First: A panel discussion inspired by the recent Griffith Review, the one numbered 60 and titled First Things First. It was inspired by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the panel comprises some of the contributors to that edition, Dr. Sana Nakata, Shireen Morris, Paul Daley and Melissa Lucashenko. It is moderated by Dr Sandra Phillips.
  • An Evening with First Nations Australia Writers: Comprises poetry readings by Ellen van Neerven, Yvette Holt, Jeanine Leane and Charmaine Papertalk Green, followed by a panel discussion titled Sovereign People – Sovereign Stories, involving Kim Scott, Melissa Lucashenko, and Alexis Wright, and moderated by Cathy Craigie.

Griffith Review No. 60Now, I’m not always very good at doing homework for writers’ festivals, but I have started reading the Griffith Review in preparation for that panel. I haven’t got very far, having only read editor Julianne Schultz’s introduction “Whispering in our hearts”, indigenous constitution lawyer Megan Davis’ piece “The long road to Uluru”, and Alexis Wright’s poem “Hey ancestor!”

For this brief introductory post, I’m just going to focus on Davis’ piece. Griffith Review’s bio for her says she is “a constitutional law professor and Pro-Vice Chancellor Indigenous at the University of NSW. In 2011 she was appointed to the Prime Minister’s Expert Panel on Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution, and in 2015 she was appointed to the Referendum Council and designed the council’s deliberative constitutional dialogue process.”

This process – the First Nations Constitutional Dialogues – is the one that resulted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It was a rigorously defined and executed process that was, she writes, “quite different to the usual tick-the-box consultation.” It had to be, given the diversity of the groups involved, the importance of the work they were doing and the significance of the outcomes they desired – which was essentially to advise the government on a process for recognising the sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. Davis writes that

A concrete model of recognition was needed to focus the nation’s attention and move the project forward. Uluru eventually provided the model.

In this article, she describes clearly, and in detail, the recent political history of “the progress toward recognition”, and then the development of a dialogue process aimed at ensuring that the results would be valid and authentic. It involved a Civics education module, so that the participants would understand the western democratic system within which they were working. This is an important point I think. We are not talking revolution here but a willingness to work with the wider Australian people and the government to resolve the ongoing issue concerning constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians – and all that that entails.

The article is excellent, and makes some significant points, including:

  • that recognition of indigenous Australians in the constitution must be more than symbolic – it must be substantive.
  • the importance of truth and justice, of the fact that the truth must be told and understood before justice can be achieved. She reported that “There was an overwhelming view in the dialogues that a nation cannot recognise people they do not know or understand. The Aboriginal experience in Australian history is critical to recognition.” A valid point – and one on which progress is being made but not fast enough.
  • why the Voice to Parliament is so important – which includes that it “could provide a front-end political limit on the parliament’s power to make laws for Indigenous peoples.” In other words, it could head problems off at the pass, avoiding the current situation where inappropriate or ineffective or, worse, discriminatory legislation is enacted, which then costs money and time to challenge.

Indeed, in terms of priorities, she writes:

The First Nations Regional Dialogues ranked the Voice to Parliament as the primary reform priority. The next priority was treaty or agreement-making. The third was truth-telling.

How gut-wrenching then for this priority to have been dismissed so summarily by Prime Minister Turnbull, as it was within four months of the announcement. Many of us are still shaking our heads.

I could say more because this is a rich essay – but this seems to be a good point on which to finish for the moment. I’m sure I’ll be saying more after I attend the session at the end of August.

Kate Forsyth, Stories as salvation (Review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy Marks, Channelling Mannalargenna (Review)

A few weeks ago I wrote a Monday Musings about the Walkley Awards, noting some of the winners that particularly interested me. They included two awards for essays in the Griffith Review, one by Melissa Lucashenko, whose essay “Sinking below sight” I subsequently reviewed, and the other by Kathy Marks whose essay, “Channelling Mannalargenna” is the subject of this post. Both essays deal with indigenous topics but while Lucashenko, who won the award for Long Feature, has Aboriginal heritage, Marks, whose award was for Indigenous Affairs, is English. This adds an intriguing layer to her piece which is about the troubled issue of identity in indigenous Tasmania. Marks has, however, been writing about the Asia-Pacific region since 1999.

Like most Australians of my generation, I grew up believing that genocide had resulted in the elimination of indigenous people from Tasmania. Truganini, we were told, was the last “full-blood” Tasmanian Aboriginal person. She died in 1876. In 1978, the documentary, The last Tasmanian, made by filmmaker Tom Haydon and archaeologist Rhys Jones, popularised this idea. It is, however, not quite as simple as we’d been led to believe – and Marks’ essay chronicles the identification legacy left by a history of being discounted. The Walkley judges described the essay as follows:

An elegantly written essay about a community still wrestling daily with the act of colonisation. Adding poignancy is the hovering myth of extinction, Kathy Marks deftly draws the reader into the everyday of establishing Tasmanian Aboriginal identity, teasing out the tensions, but without seeking catharsis.

It’s a brave essay, I think, something that Marks herself recognises when she said on her win that “I was thrilled to receive the award, not least because of the challenging and sensitive nature of the subject matter.” Being brave, though, is surely the hallmark of a good journalist. And so, Marks tackles the thorny issue regarding the definition of indigeneity in Tasmania.

As I read the essay, I was reminded of remarks made by Anita Heiss in Am I black enough for you? on conflict within the indigenous community regarding Aboriginality. Heiss discusses the different ways people come by their Aboriginality and says:

What age and experience  moving around the country has given me is a better understanding of the complexities around individual and collective Aboriginal identity. One shouldn’t be too quick to judge others, especially when some of us have been fortunate to know who we are all our lives, and others haven’t.

And herein lies the rub in Tasmania. Because of the particular history of indigenous Tasmanians, family lines and connections have been broken, and so the way Tasmanians discover their Aboriginal background is highly varied. In her essay, Marks talks to many of the groups and factions existing in contemporary Tasmania, and describes the bitter lines that have been drawn between some of them. Some of these lines are so strongly defended that one group, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) in particular, has taken legal action against people who have claimed indigenous heritage. Officially, the definition of Aboriginality in Tasmania is the same as that established by the Federal government – the three-pronged factors of ancestry, self-identification and being accepted by the indigenous community. The TAC, however, demands a family tree as part of this. Marks quotes Michael Mansell who argues that to be accepted as indigenous Tasmanian, people need to:

show that…their families, from every generation back to tribal, have always maintained their connection with being Aboriginal. So that excludes people who undoubtedly have Aboriginal descent but who have been brought up as white people… If there’s been a break in the generations, where someone lost contact, the Aboriginal community’s view is…you can’t revive it.

Not all can provide this unbroken connection. For example, indigenous Tasmanian academic, Greg Lehman, told Marks that people were not keen to admit to indigenous forbears in the 194os and 1950s. And then there’s the devastation – dislocation –  that occurred one hundred years earlier through George Arthur’s infamous Black Line and then George Augustus Robinson’s corralling of indigenous people at the so-called “friendly mission” Wybalenna on Flinders Island in the 1830s.

awwchallenge2014Looking from the outside, I find this conflict all very sad. It’s hard enough when indigenous people suffer rejection and discrimination from the white majority culture, but when it also comes from inside the community it must be devastating. Patsy Cameron, an indigenous Tasmanian whose bona-fide is accepted, would like to see a more inclusive approach. Marks quotes Cameron:

‘Even someone who hasn’t been active in their culture or in the politics of the day,’ she says, ‘it doesn’t make them any less Aboriginal. Anyone who can show their lineage, and their extended family acknowledges them as part of that family, we should be embracing them. We should be embracing people who have been lost, rather than chasing them away and doing to them the exact thing that non-Aboriginal people have done to us in the past: denying us our rights, our identity.’

I’ve only touched the surface of Marks’ essay. It’s an excellent read that starts with a brief history of indigenous relations in Tasmania, including some distressing anecdotes regarding discrimination, before exploring in some depth the essay’s central issue regarding Aboriginal identity. Fortunately, the essay is freely available online via the link below. If you have any specific or general interest in the topic I commend it to you.

Kathy Marks
“Channelling Mannalargenna: Surviving, belonging, challenging, enduring”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 39, 2013
Available: Online at the Griffith Review

Melissa Lucashenko, Sinking below sight (Review)

In this week’s Monday Musings about the Walkley Awards, I noted that Melissa Lucashenko had won the award for Long Feature Writing for her essay “Sinking below sight: Down and out in Brisbane and Logan” in the Griffith Review. I’ve now read the essay, and thought I’d share it with you. I’ve reviewed Lucashenko before, an essay and a short story. I really must get to one of her novels one day!

With her mixed European and indigenous Australian heritage, Lucashenko is well placed to tackle significant contemporary issues and see them from multiple perspectives. The last essay of hers that I reviewed, “How green is my valley”, dealt with stewardship of the land and the threat imposed by climate change. In “Sinking below sight” her subject is poverty. Lucashenko’s essays make engaging reading. Instead of dry reportage, she starts from the personal, and from that draws conclusions that make sense. And so, while “How green is my valley” drew from her experience on a farm in northern New South Wales, this essay draws from her return, after losing her farm through divorce, to the town of Logan, one of Australia’s ten poorest urban areas.

You’ve probably noticed that her subtitle alludes to Orwell’s autobiographical work Down and out in Paris and London which chronicles his experience of poverty. Similarly, Lucashenko writes that she’s been poor before, so “I had the skill set”. But, this essay is not about her. She starts by setting the scene, describing this “Black Belt” region as one in which

Welfare recipients and the working poor … don’t necessarily realise they are hard up. More accurately, many don’t realise just how poor they are, since everyone in their lives is battling.

She then moves on to the main topic of her essay, which is to find out “How do my Black Belt peers manage? How do single mums, in particular, get by on current levels of welfare? And what dreams are possible for the Brisbane underclass in 2013?” To answer this interviews three women currently living in poverty – Selma (27), Marie (38) and Charmaine (49) – and discusses their situations.

Selma, a Yugoslavian of Serbian and Croatian parents, has four children under ten and a partner who is in and out of jail. Having been a refugee and then involved with an abusive Aboriginal man, Selma has some clear views on her situation:

What I don’t like in society … is the judgments put on Indigenous and refugee and domestic violence people. I was in that situation for nine years. They say you make a choice, but I don’t ever remember choosing to be beaten up! From the age of seventeen ’til about two years ago, domestic violence was part of my everyday life.

She blames poverty for violence, saying that “poverty breeds hate”. Lucashenko suggests that the abuse she experienced “had roots also in the trauma and racism of the refugee experience.”

Marie is also a mother of four, with an “on-again, off-again partner”. She is a member of the “working poor” so not quite as poor as Selma. She grew up in a troubled home, had been sexually molested as a child, and was living independently by the time she was 14 years old. She, like Selma, had a history of “severe emotional and physical abuse from her previous partners, who were all, bar one, Anglo-Australian men”. Lucashenko writes:

Marie spoke to me of feeling enormous rage about the past abuses in her life, rage which sits constantly just beneath the surface.

The third woman is Charmaine, “blond, slim and still able to laugh despite a life that would crush most of us [and] the white Australian mother of four Aboriginal kids”. She too was raped and molested as a child, and ended up in a violent relationship in which she stayed too long.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeWhile recognising that her examples are more anecdotal than statistical, Lucashenko nonetheless draws some conclusions. They include:

  • Underclass expectations, which see people who grow up with nothing, expecting little
  • The importance of public housing in providing some “minimal prospect of safety”
  • Loneliness and isolation, which drive single mums back to “untenable situations”
  • Violence and mental illness in parents and partners, which entrench poverty for women
  • Childhood molestation and/or rape, which all three women had experienced
  • Women seeking relief in drugs, which of course can initiate new downward trajectories

Her three women, Lucashenko finds, have hopes for the future. Selma and Charmaine are studying, because, as Lucashenko writes

Realising that poverty is a creation of society and its choices, these two women also know that their lives might shift through higher education.

Pragmatic Marie has a saving plan. Their situations though are tenuous. To achieve their goals, they’ll need strength. Better still, though, would be if they got effective financial and other practical support.

Lucashenko opens the essay with the epigraph that “the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. It’s justice”. Her essay may not be statistically significant from an academic perspective, but anyone who reads contemporary social commentary knows that what she writes rings true – and this, clearly, is why she won the Walkley.

Melissa Lucashenko
“Sinking below sight”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 41, 2013
Available: Online at the Griffith Review

Romy Ash, The basin (Review)

Romy Ash has made quite a splash with her debut novel, Floundering. It was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award, among others. I  haven’t read it yet, but I have read a couple of her short stories that have appeared in the Griffth Review, one of which is “The basin”.

Lake Argyle

A tiny section of Lake Argyle

For those who don’t know, the Griffith Review is published quarterly, with each issue focusing on a particular theme. The issue “The basin” appears in is titled “What is Australia” which is rather apposite given my Monday Musings post this week on Writing the Australian landscape. Ash doesn’t identify the “place” in which the story is set, beyond telling us that there’s a dam which is described in a pamphlet as “the biggest inland body of water in Australia”. Well, that gives it away. It is clearly inspired by Lake Argyle in the Kimberley region of northern Australia. The lake – an artificial one created by damming the Ord River – is huge. I’ve never seen a lake (in Australia anyhow) quite like it.

Ash’s story is about Jess who has come to the region with her husband, Max, and their daughter, Frankie. Jess is not happy, something that is physically represented by her increasing weight: “every bit of her wobbled”, “Sitting there Jess felt fatter”, “her thighs rubbed together”, and so on. “You were skinny, before”, an old farmer tells her.

Max, however, is happy. “We’ve never done so well”, he tells her. But all is not well in this man-made Eden (there are sly references to “apples”) and not all men are happy. It’s not normal for this “dry country” to have so much water. A farmer tells them:

The most beautiful country you’ve ever seen, gone. Them gums, they’re drowned under there. Ever heard a gum drown?  They creak. All the animals. It’s not like fire – them animals can’t sense it coming – they was drowned, sure enough. The surface of the water was just insects. Snakes curled and died. They washed up at the sides. It didn’t look like it does now. It was putrid.

Putrid perhaps, but natural is the implication. I have written about the drowning of this landscape before in my post on Mary Durack’s poem “Lament for a drowned country”. The Duracks’ own homestead was drowned to create Lake Argyle.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeAsh uses feminising imagery to tell her story – with many references to the colour “pink” (galahs, inside of mouths, sunrise, hams) and to the “basin” of the title. Water, often a literary device associated with life, is a complex image in Ash’s story. People are told not to swim in the dam because it’s the town water. Jess and Frankie do, but then Jess will only drink bottled water, refusing to drink the town water. Understandably! A different sort of water features in the story’s resolution.

Although Ash doesn’t explore it, she reminds us of indigenous people’s association with the land when she says that “after the flooding the town had been renamed Burrngburrng-nga, an Indigenous name. Every time she heard someone say it they pronounced it differently and quietly, unsure.” Google tells me that it means “The water boiled” in the Wagiman language (from Katherine in the Northern Territory).

This is a story about the costs – personal and environmental – of mankind’s belief in its ability to control nature. It’s about values, and whether making money is enough to sustain happiness. It’s about the unhappiness that can result when people are dislocated from their roots – either because they move or because their place has been changed beyond recognition. Place – it has such a complex relationship with our physical, emotional and/or spiritual well-being, doesn’t it?

It’s not a particularly dramatic story, but it is a quietly effective one that I can see fitting nicely into a volume intended to encourage us to think about “What is Australia”.

Romy Ash
“The basin”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 36, Winter 2012
Available: Online at the Griffith Review

Melissa Lucashenko, How green is my valley (Review)

Almost a year ago I reviewed a short story, “The silent majority”, by Melissa Lucashenko. It was published in the Griffith Review of November 2009. I enjoyed the story and so, in honour of NAIDOC Week and ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, I thought I’d review another of her Griffith Review contributions. This one, “How green is my valley”, is described as a memoir, and was published in Winter 2006.

I love how Lucashenko, with her dual Aboriginal and European heritage, traverses both in her writing. She commences “The silent majority” with the famous opening words of Pride and prejudice – “”It is a truth universally acknowledged”. The title of this piece immediately brings to mind Richard Llewellyn‘s classic novel How green was my valley, and clues us into her themes: beauty under threat, complicated relationships with land, and the precarious balances involved in maintaining it.

Lucashenko starts her memoir – though, really, I’d call it a personal essay – with a Mark Twain quote, which has a prescience now that he could not have guessed:

Everybody talks about the weather/but nobody does anything about it.

She then describes the experience of torrential rain in Bundjalung country, the coastal regions of north-east New South Wales/southeast Queensland. She’s moved, she says, to “one of Australia’s wettest shires”. The first half of the essay describes how residents manage – or don’t – the rain. She talks of students being let off school, of the weather not distinguishing between rich and poor, and of how community is fostered as people with 4WDs deliver food to the stranded who don’t. “The information we receive from land”, she says, “is tightly nuanced”. Farmers watch closely and know how the days will pan out once the rain sets in:

We who live on Bundjalung land know that eventually the rain will stop, the mould will retreat and the mud will dry. Whatever climate change is going to mean for our kids, in the short term life for us will return to normal.

Then, halfway through the essay, comes the sting in the tail: she reminds us that the inhabitants of Tuvalu will lose their home in the next few decades as their island is submerged, and the semi-traditional hunting lifestyle of the Inuit of the Arctic Circle “will be shattered by global warming even sooner”. She wonders whether indigenous people like the Inuit will be able to translate “the clan, the traditions of egalitarianism, stoicism and intensely valued community, to life in suburbs and towns.”

Lucashenko’s thesis is that it can be done, that it is possible to be “bicultural”, to span the chasm “between industrial and indigenous views of the ‘good life’ and what constitutes a proper society”. She argues that the egalitarian ethic espoused by Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson

the traditions of mateship that faithfully mimic the brotherhood of initiated Aboriginal men and the myriad skills of surviving from and maintaining the land – were learned by some colonial whites from Aboriginal people.

Hmm … I haven’t heard that before. I suspect Australia’s mateship tradition has rather multi-pronged origins but this could certainly be part of it.

Lucashenko’s point though is to draw a parallel between white Australians’ love of land and indigenous people’s. She says that any Australian who has holidayed at the same beach every summer, or “diligently looked after” their own little patch, has “walked in Aboriginal footsteps” whether they know it or not. Hmmm … again I think this is a little bit of a long bow, in the sense that there are people all over the world who love their bit of land. But it doesn’t spoil her argument that it would have been good had the influence of Aboriginal knowledge and practice been greater, because then

More Australians might have learned not just to love the place (as some indisputably do) but to listen to the land more seriously. Had more Aboriginal philosophers been valued rather than shot or packed off to missions, all Australians might have learned the careful and intense attention to detail that many of us in the valley are still forced to practise as a matter of course.

With climate change breathing down our necks, will we all “be rooned”, she asks (alluding to one of my favourite old ballads “Said Hanrahan“). Will our “valley” be destroyed by our inability to tame our capitalistic consumerist urges, or will we learn in time how to be true custodians of our land?

Melissa Lucashenko
“How green is my valley”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 12, Winter 2006
Available: Online at the Griffith Review

Monday musings on Australian literature: Two favourite literary journals

I’ve been wanting for some time to write about two of my favourite Australian literary journals (that is, not specifically book review journals). I don’t  read every issue – too much to read, too little time, and all that – but I’d love to. I admire people who manage to subscribe to magazines and journals and read every issue through and through.

Before I talk about the two I’ve chosen I should say that there are others I know I’d love too. I go into bookshops, pick them up, put them down, pick them up again and then realise I just can’t manage any more so I put them down again. For a useful list of  some of Australia’s best literary journals, check out this Australia Council webpage listing the journals* the Council supports.

Anyhow, back to my two current favourites. Both can now be bought in e-versions, including for the Kindle. They can be followed on Twitter and have Facebook pages, and both make some of their content available free online. And, here they are …

Griffith Review

The Griffith Review is a quarterly journal of “new writing and ideas”, and is now 8 years old. It is published by the Griffith University. Unlike most journals, it takes a thematic approach, with each issue being devoted to a theme. For example, the current issue, no. 37, is themed “Small World”, which its website says “broadens the mind with postcards and intelligence from everywhere at a time when the growth of international air travel has shrunk the definition of proximity and the internet has enabled the globalised media industry to bring distant events and places tantalisingly close”. The contributors on this issue include writers I’ve reviewed here: Murray Bail, Melissa Lucashenko and Chris Flynn.

What I love about this journal, besides the overall quality of the writing of course, is the variety of forms it encompasses on a regular basis – Fiction, Poetry, Essays (including photographic essays), Reportage and Memoir. I love that they include memoir as a regular part of the journal. And, in 2009 (at least I think it was then), they commenced an annual fiction edition. These editions contain more short stories than the other issues, and the rest of the content (essays, memoirs, etc) focuses on fiction. Not quite Granta, but perhaps moving in that direction?

Kill Your Darlings

I’m not an expert on the economics of journal publishing, but the Griffith Review does have a pretty major university behind it. Kill Your Darlings (KYD) on the other hand is a much smaller – braver – affair. First published in March 2010, it is now up to issue No. 10 (which, in print, costs $19.95, but at $7.96 from Amazon for the Kindle, it’s a great deal). This current issue has an interview with Aussie writer Andrew McGahan (whom I like but haven’t read since starting this blog) and an article on one of my favourite Aussie writers, Jessica Anderson, so I let my fingers do the walking at Amazon and in seconds I had it on my Kindle. Gotta love this new technology!

Like most literary journal, KYD’s content is diverse, with its regular sections being Commentary, Fiction, Interview, Reviews – and, sometimes, a Cartoon.

Kill Your Darlings is a smaller, somewhat plainer publication than the Griffith Review, but it is gorgeous with a stylish retro look that catches the eye. It’s lovely to hold. Hmm, why did I buy that Kindle version, again?

I’ll conclude on another article in Issue 10, which comes from Gideon Haigh whose discussion on literary reviewing in the first issue I blogged about back in 2010. In Issue 10, he writes on the economics of writing. Early in the article he says:

Here is a disjunction in Australian publishing: the most enthusiastic and imaginative publishers are the ones with no money; caution grows with size.

That seems an appropriate thought to leave you on methinks.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you – Aussie or not – whether you have any favourite literary journals, what they are and why you like them.

* I’m not sure how up to date this list is, but it’s a start if you’d like to check others out.