Monday musings on Australian literature: Greek-Australian literature

In a Sydney Writers Festival conversation with Michelle de Kretser, Andrew Pippos, winner of the 2021 Readings Prize for his debut novel, Lucky’s, said “the fact that we can talk about a Greek-Australian literary tradition is a sign that Australian literature is developing”. It made me think about Greek-Australian literature and what I know about it, which is not a lot, really.

First, though, what does he mean by his statement? I’m assuming he means that Australian literature is enriched by encompassing significant, identifiable bodies of work from Australia’s constituent cultures, that when there are such bodies of work they reflect on, feed into and, therefore, change and expand the majority culture?

When I think about my own reading of Greek-Australian literature, it is, of course, Christos Tsiolkas who comes to mind. Before him was Beverley Farmer. She is not Greek, but she married a Greek man and lived for some time in Greece, which experience fed into her early writing. I loved her insight into village life and relationships – but that was more about an Australian experiencing Greek culture in Greece.

Greek-Australian literature “proper” goes way back and, in my superficial Internet search I uncovered rather a lot about it, most, though, behind paywalls. Some of those had useful abstracts, and some I could access via my membership of the National Library. I skim-read a couple. But, I also found a blog, From the plastic pen, containing a post that had also been published in Meanjin in 2017. The post is titled “Living in a hyphe-nation: Exploring the Greek-Australian identity through literature”, and the author is Peter Papathanasiou. Papathanasiou is Greek-born and Australian-raised, and has just published a debut crime novel, The stoning, featuring a Greek-Australian detective.

Concerned about the next generation, the Greek-Australian-Australians, Papathanasiou posed the question:

How had Greek writers in Australia explored their hyphenated identity, and what could future generations—including other ethnic minorities—learn from their writings?

And then, he shares some literary history that I had found in those pay-walled academic articles. The earliest example of Greek-Australian literature, he says, was oral poetry at the start of the 1900s, which was shared “at events such as family celebrations, social gatherings, and entertainment in smoke-filled coffee houses (kafeneia)”. Poetry, Papathanasiou, says “has traditionally played a central role in Greek literature” and it continues here “although all types of Greek-Australian literature (poetry, prose, drama, theatre) have been represented, poetry collections have predominated”. Not reading a lot of poetry, I wasn’t aware of this, though I have read Komninos (1991), by Greek-Australian performance poet, Komninos Zervos.

Anyhow, Papathanasiou says that the first Greek-Australian literary work to be published was George Nicolaides’ short story “To gramma tis manas (Letter to mother)”, in 1913  Afstralia. From the beginning, he says, “family was a central theme, along with social issues, community activities, and migrant experiences”. He discusses the various waves of migration. In the 1920s, Orthodox Christians driven out of Asia Minor following the Turkish War of Independence brought well-educated immigrants who “introduced new subjects to the local literary scene because of the atrocities, poverty, and political upheavals they witnessed”. Then World War 2 and post-war migration brought stories of “the Greek army’s heroic fight against the Axis powers, and the united struggle of Greek and Australian soldiers against a common enemy”.

However, he said these waves did not result in much exploration of the Greek-Australian identity. These first-generation migrants wrote mainly in Greek and were “largely preoccupied with exile and dislocation, and haunted by trauma”. They wrote about “the fear of ageing and dying far from the homeland, patriotism (to Greece, not Australia), communication difficulties, and problems adapting and assimilating”. A change in theme came when second-generation migrants started writing in English, and their “connection to the fatherland” grew increasingly distant. They were were interested in “ethnicity and hybridity”, and their writing changed “from loss and yearning to identity and self” and

the rigid identity of the alienated migrant fell away, replaced by a new entity: the hyphenated Australian, whose conflict was more internal than external. These writers explored the dilemma of living between two worlds and with dual identities, the use and maintenance of Greek language and traditions, and surviving in a modern Australia while still bound by conservative parents. It was tense writing, fraught with internal conflict and doubt.

With third generation Greek-Australians now on the scene, Papathanasiou suggests that the subject-matter is changing again. There are still explorations of migration and identity, but these are no longer exclusive. Contemporary “Greek-Australian writers deal with a broad range of subjects including class, culture, gender, sexuality, faith, politics, economics, and sport, and blend various genres including memoir, autobiography, travelogue, and magic realism”.

Interestingly, alongside his discussion of subject matter, Papathanasiou also tracks changes in the publishing of Greek-Australian writing from self-publishing, at the start, through small independent publishers, like UQP and Fremantle Press, to the bigger publishers like Allen and Unwin, who have not only published some Greek Vogel award-winners but also publish Christos Tsiolkas. Pippos’ Lucky’s was published by Pan Macmillan.

Papathanasiou’s perspective, written in 2017, is similar to that written in 2014 by Penni Pappas on the Neo Kosmos website. She describes a similar trajectory in publishing and subject-matter, drawing in particular on the work of Helen Nickas who established Owl Publishing in 1992, to publish writing by Greek-Australian writers. George Kanarakis, writing in The Cud, provides another, and similar, but more detailed survey of Greek writing in Australia. All are worth reading if you are interested in the subject.

The cafes

Meanwhile, I thought I’d conclude on a quick reference to cafes, because most Australians of a certain age will remember at least one Greek cafe in their neighbourhood or on roadtrips. Pippos’ publisher, Pan Macmillan writes that, as a child, he regularly visited the family’s café in Brewarrina, NSW. These early experiences “laid the foundation of his work as a writer”:

The compelling role of the Greek-Australian café within modern Australian identity is increasingly documented in popular culture and history books alike. While sadly few exist now, for much of the second half of the twentieth century these cafés could be found on urban shopping streets and in rural country towns. They represented a new Australian zeitgeist and symbolised every-day multiculturalism. The Greek-Australian cafe milieu gave Andrew his earliest sense of community.

Lucky’s is set around a restaurant chain. You can read Lisa’s thoughts in her review.

A few years ago, I reviewed a little (literally) memoir – from the FL smalls collection – Growing up cafe (my review) by Greek-Australian, Phillip Stamatellis. I enjoyed his evocation of a cafe-based childhood.

The aforementioned Komninos also has cafe heritage. On his website we are told that “his maternal grandfather came to Australia in 1908 to work in a café”, and he, himself, born in Melbourne in 1950, grew up living above his family’s cafe-fish shop. There are poems about cafes in his collections.

It’s pretty clear that the Greeks enjoyed cafe culture long before we Anglo-origin Australians ever did (and in so doing they enriched our culture). But, for many second generation Greeks, as Stamatellis shares, the cafe which provided a living for the parents also brought challenges for the children

my nostalgia is burdened by an unseen weight, a sense of entrapment.

Anyhow, I enjoyed my brief foray into Greek-Australian literature, partly because its trajectory seems similar to those of other diaspora literatures here, albeit they may be on different points on the continuum. It brought to mind my recent post on Diversity and memoir and the idea that writers from culturally diverse backgrounds do not want to be tied to writing about that background. In the Greek-Australian case it seems like there’s been a progression from a close focus on their heritage to broader concerns. Is this is the trajectory that most immigrant literatures will naturally take – or is it forced upon them for lack of support and opportunity?

Thoughts?

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.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Refugee literature

I had planned another post for this week, but that can wait, as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has reminded me that it is Refugee Week, and I thought that should take priority. Lisa has posted on a book relevant to the week, and includes in her post a link to a reading list of books she provided last year. Do check her posts out, because she also briefly describes the successes and failures of Australia’s treatment of refugees.

Refugee Week was first commemorated in Australia in 1986 in Sydney, and became a national event in 1988. It runs from Sunday to Saturday of the week which includes 20 June (World Refugee Day), so this year it actually runs from Sunday 20 to Saturday 27 June. Its aim, as you can imagine, is “to inform the public about refugees and celebrate positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society” in order to encourage Australians to welcome them and help them become integral part of our community.

Before I get to my main topic of refugee literature, I thought it would be worth reminding us of a book that was not written by a refugee but which, among other things, makes a point about the contributions made to Australia by postwar European refugees. I’m talking Madeleine St John’s The women in black (my review). For baby-boomers, this novel brought back the suspicion with which Australians viewed, for example, the strange food introduced into Australia at the time, like salami, for example! My sense is that we learnt a lesson from this and are now more welcoming of the wonderful new foods refugees can bring to us. But, of course, refugees bring much more than simply food to a country. For St John’s Europeans, this included more cultured or intellectual interests, and greater equality between the sexes.

Recent refugee literature in Australia

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountains

There is a wealth of post-war European refugee literature published in Australia, but for this post I want to focus on more recent literature. And probably the best known recent work of refugee literature in Australia was/is Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains. As it turns out, this Kurdish-Iranian asylum-seeker to Australia has ended up in New Zealand. However, his book, which he wrote on a mobile phone and transmitted in a series of single messages, won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction. It was translated from Persian into English by Omid Tofighian.

Refugee literature comes in various forms – memoirs, of course, of which Boochani’s book is an example, but also novels, poetry and drama. Most commonly, it’s the next generation whose voices are heard, than the adults who came here.

AS Patric, Black rock white city

These “next” generation writers include those who came as quite young children. They are true bearers of both worlds. Anh Do, author of the memoir, The happiest refugee, is an example. He came to Australia as a Vietnamese boat-person in 1980 when he was just a toddler. Nam Le, author of the short story collection, The boat, was a baby when his parents arrived here, also as Vietnamese boat people. Two of the stories in his collection deal specifically with the experience of migration, but all, as I recollect, confront the idea of survival which must surely have been inspired by his family’s experiences.

Another example is AS Patrić, who was a child when he came to Australia from Serbia (and the Yugoslav Wars). He won the Miles Franklin Award with his debut novel, Black rock white city (my review), which graphically portrays the feeling of displacement experienced by refugees.

Alice Pung, by contrast, was born in Australia a year after her parents arrived as refugees from Cambodia. She has written memoirs about her family, including Her father’s daughter (my review).

Indian-born Aravind Adiga’s novel, Amnesty (Lisa’s review), has recently been shortlisted for the 2021 Miles Franklin award. He is not a refugee, and does not live in Australia, but his novel deals with with some of the most complex issues confronting Australia at the moment, that of people coming to Australia via people smugglers, seeking asylum but not deemed to be refugees. This novel forces its protagonist to confront his status, while also looking at how his position in Australia makes this such an issue.

Refugee literature makes many contributions to our literature. One is refugee writers’ willingness to challenge literary norms and genres, and to push boundaries. Boochani and Patrić are particularly good examples of this. Another is the focus they bring to our perception of Australian culture and identity, confronting us with issues like racism and promoting social justice causes. Alice Pung’s writing exemplifies this. Both, though, force us to rethink the status quo, and to see both our literature and our culture through different eyes and we are, surely, richer for it.

I’m afraid that this is a brief post because, as some of you know, I am family and grandchild visiting in Melbourne. However, I hope I have done at least a little justice to Refugee Week.

I’d love to you to contribute to the discussion, with, for example, your own favourite examples of refugee literature – and why you like them.

Balli Kaur Jaswal, Erotic stories for Punjabi widows (#BookReview)

Book coverBroadly speaking, Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal’s third novel, Erotic stories for Punjabi widows, reminds me of Anita Heiss’ choclit books like Paris dreaming (my review). By this I mean it presents as an escapist romcom genre novel but within it is some serious intent. In this case it relates to the oppression of women, particularly widows, and, more specifically, the problem of honour killings, in Britain’s Punjabi Sikh community.

The story concerns the “still searching for her calling” Nikki, who, twenty-two-and-a-half years old with half a law degree behind her, obtains a job teaching writing to immigrant Punjabi widows in Southall, the heart of London’s Punjabi community. Except, what she finds is that these widows do not want to learn to write:

I’ve survived all this time without reading and writing; what do I need it for now?’

What they want is to tell stories – erotic ones – to each other. What they want, really, is companionship and a safe place to be themselves, away from the oppressive eyes of a traditional community dominated by the self-appointed “morality police”, the Brothers.

And here is where some darkness comes in, because within this community, several young women have died. Officially, these deaths are recorded as accidental or suicide, but it gradually becomes apparent that all may not be as it seems and that murder and honour-killing may be involved. Widow Sheena chillingly says later in the book that “in this community I’m suspicious of accidents.” The novel, therefore, is a romcom-cum-crime mystery.

Paralleling this story of the widows and their writing class is that of Nikki and her nearly 25-year-old sister, Mindi. Born in England to Punjabi immigrant parents, they represent the other side of the cultural coin – to a degree, anyhow, because Mindi, a nurse and (still) unmarried, is considering “embracing our culture” and going the traditional arranged marriage route. This shocks the freer wheeling, English-to-a-core-she-thinks, Nikki, who tells Mindi:

This is what young women do in Britain! We move out. We become independent. This is our culture.

Even so, our modern Nikki does sometimes feel “split in two parts. British, Indian.” Fortunately, Nikki meets a man the more usual way – by serendipity – and love starts to bloom. But, this is a rom-com so, as you’d expect, the course of true love doesn’t run smooth and soon enough Nikki finds herself wondering why this man is behaving a little strangely.

As with Anita Heiss’s choclit books, what lifts Erotic stories for Punjabi women out of the straight chick lit genre, is its interrogation of social issues. Besides the above-mentioned mystery concerning a young woman’s death, two other issues are reflected in the lives of these characters, one being the challenges faced by young first generation women, and how they navigate the two cultures they find themselves straddling. By having Nikki and Mindi handle this quite differently, Jaswal reveals the complexity of what this generation faces. Then we add in Nikki’s new love, Jason. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that his experience of being a first generation Sikh man from the USA, and the expectations placed on him, adds commentary to Nikki and Mindi’s thoughts about life, love and marriage.

The other main issue is the oppression of Punjabi Sikh women, particularly but not only widows, within their own culture and in the culture of their adopted home. Our widows are invisible in their own community. Without their husbands they are seen as and feel “irrelevant”. However, these Punjabi women overall haven’t made any inroads into the English community either, feeling the English “haven’t made their country or their customs friendly” to them. “Britain”, Nikki realises, “equalled a better life and they would have clung to this knowledge even as this life confounded and remained foreign.”

There is, then, a lot going on here, but Jaswal, whose first novel, Inheritance, earned her a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Award, knows how to construct and move along a plot. She also knows how to entertain. The erotic stories are a bit of a hoot. With our widows finding creative synonyms for certain body parts, you may never look at a cucumber the same way again. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, which my reading group enjoyed, and there are some lovely touches of irony. For example, the earnest Kulwinder, interviewing Nikki for the writing class, starts to sense that Nikki’s idea and her own may not be aligned:

It dawned on Kulwinder that she had advertised for something she did not understand.

The joke, though, is on Nikki too, because for all her “passion to help the women”, little did she expect just how that “passion” might play out!

My favourite books are those which touch the heart and challenge the mind. Erotic stories for Punjabi widows, for all its serious intent, primarily meets the former. It ticks all the boxes: it’s fun to read, has likeable characters, and its message is valid and relevant. For me, though, it’s a little too obvious and predictable, and the resolution is too neat to give the book the sort of gritty, punchy power I love. However, I enjoyed the read and recommend it to anyone wanting an enjoyable romp of a read with a little meat on its bones.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

Balli Kaur Jaswal
Erotic stories for Punjabi widows
London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017
ISBN: 9780008209902 (eBook)
299pp.

Favel Parrett, There was still love (#BookReview)

Book coverFavel Parrett’s third novel, There was still love, is one of those novels in which not a lot happens but has a lot going on. Just the sort of novel, really, that I tend to like. (It all started with Jane Austen!)

The novel revolves around the lives of two Czech sisters, one who ends up in Melbourne with the other remaining in Prague, but their story is mainly seen through the eyes of their grandchildren. Melbourne-based Malá Liška or “Little Fox” lives with her grandparents Máňa and Bill, while Prague-based Luděk lives with his Babi (grandmother). The novel is set mostly in 1980, and alternates between these two places, with occasional forays into other places and/or times to fill in some backstories. It’s a carefully constructed book, one that benefits from close reading, which is not to say it’s hard reading, because it’s not. It’s one of the fastest reads I’ve had in some time.

Now, if you know your European history, the above description will have suggested to you the book’s framework, and you’d be right. Separated during World War Two, with young Máňa going to England, the women’s lives are further up-ended by the 1968 Czechoslovakian Revolution. Through it all, although physically separated, they stay in touch, via letters and the occasional visits back to Prague by Máňa and Bill:

My grandparents saved their fifty-cent coins to buy aeroplane tickets. They managed to do this every four years, sometimes every three years if they were careful. If they saved very hard.

They bought the cheapest tickets.

They took the longest route.

Such is the call of home, about which more later.

The stories, as mentioned above, are told through the eyes of Malá Liška (in first person) and Luděk (in third person.) I suspect Malá Liška’s is first person because she is modelled on Parrett herself, thus providing a grounding authenticity. Luděk’s story is, the Author’s Note says, drawn from the experiences of her cousin Martin. The Prague scenes, she writes, “would be nothing” without his help. I haven’t visited Prague, but Parrett, through Luděk via Martin, brings it alive:

Luděk loved the mess, the decay. His city wasn’t clean, it wasn’t pretty. And there were wires everywhere in the sky and they crisscrossed like a million black lines. Everything was covered in stinking soot, in pigeon shit, covered in old rusted scaffolding … Prague was his city, the flat his whole world, and he loved it all.

Prague, and his grandmother’s flat, in other words, are his home.

There was still love is about many things, of which love, which survives upheaval and separation, and home, which you can make and remake throughout life while never forgetting your origins, are the two overriding ones. These are big themes, and yet the novel is just over 200 pages. I’m in awe of Parrett’s concision. There were some in my reading group who wanted the whole family saga – which I get – but I loved Parrett’s ability to convey a wealth of meaning and history in a phrase, a sentence or a short scene. Here, for example, is a scene between Luděk and his uncle Bill, in Prague:

‘I think that man is following us,’ he [Bill] said, and his eyes moved up the path towards another bench.

Luděk remembered how his Mama said they were always watching at the airport, watching, taking photos …

Babi told him never to say anything important on the telephone.

The reality of living under surveillance is conveyed quietly, thus, in a couple of pages, but we readers know exactly the fear and brutality that lie just behind these words.

Another example of this concision is a brief scene in a Melbourne shop during which Máňa is called a “stupid wog”. She walks out of the shop with dignity, but Malá Liška notices that “a tear, just a small one, spills down her soft, powdered cheek and she does not wipe it away.” Again, a brief scene, but we know that this is not the only time Máňa has been treated like this. Life, Parrett shows, can be difficult whether you stay or go.

Parrett also achieves concision through a “suitcase” motif. It is introduced in the gorgeous brief poetic prologue called “The suitcase”. Parrett describes suitcases being everywhere, evoking a powerful image of people on the move, of people escaping and of people not getting away. She writes:

You must close up tight, protect your most needed possessions … your heart, your mind, your soul. You must become a little suitcase and try not to think about home.

From here on, suitcases of all sorts are subtly dropped into the narrative to suggest various ideas – a suitcase in a roof space holding an old gymnastics blazer from a past life; “a suitcase with yellow eyes – a suitcase with a mouth like a big black hole” in a Czech Black Light Theatre performance in Melbourne; people arriving at airports, looking “dazed, pushing trolleys loaded up with suitcases”. The most powerful reference, though, comes from The Black Light Theatre Company’s Magician (based on the still living Jiří Srnec):

I put the broken in my suitcase and take them with me until they are ready to go home again.

There is still love.

There it is, home and love again. Luděk’s much missed mother travels with this company, and is tempted to defect to the free West.

Closely related to the idea of love and home is the story of refugees, of migration. In a little section devoted to him, Bill tells of changing his name from Vilém in 1942 England in order to fit in, while Máňa “works on her accent”. He shares the pain of leaving one’s home:

The only way to live now is to keep moving forward and not look back. It is the only way his heart can keep on beating and not break. He must look forward and not behind.

He must never look behind.

A common – and painful – experience for refugees.

Finally, There was still love is also a story about women, and particularly old women who carry on. It is Luděk, loving his grandmother and coming to care for another old women, who voices this:

The city was full of old women left behind, left to keep everything going – to carry the old goddam world by themselves.

My reading group briefly discussed the title, There was still love. What did “still” mean we pondered? “Still” as in ongoing, or as in continuing despite everything? Both, I think. Whatever the meaning, however, There was still love is a moving read that reminds us yet again that the most important things in life are home and love, wherever you find them.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also loved this book.

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Favel Parrett
There was still love
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2019
214pp.
ISBN: 9780733630682

Yuri Herrera, Signs preceding the end of the world (#BookReview)

Yuri Herrera, Signs preceding the end of the worldWhile I was travelling in the USA last month, I wanted to read at least one book relating to the regions we were visiting. I started by looking for a novel set in/about the northwest, but then Yuri Herrera’s Signs preceding the end of the world, set in the southwest, popped out at me, and I knew I had my book.

When you live in the southwest, as we did in the 1990s, you can’t help but be aware of the issue of migration, “illegal” or otherwise, across the border from Mexico. I’d seen the film El Norte (about two Guatemalan youths fleeing to the US via Mexico) and read T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The tortilla curtain, but I hadn’t read a Mexican author on the subject – until now.

Signs preceding the end of the world tells the story of Makina, who is sent to “the other side” by her mother to carry a message to her brother who’d gone and not returned. To obtain the help she needs to make the crossing, she also agrees to take a message from Mexican gangster, Mr Aitch. This synopsis would suggest to most readers an adventure story – a thriller perhaps – or at least some sort of plot-driven drama, but that’s not what this is at all. Yes, it follows a traditional linear journey narrative, but the tone is more mythical, which means that it works on two levels, the literal Mexican-American border story and something more universal about crossings and transitions.

Herrera achieves this by keeping details to a minimum. Places aren’t named, but just described. Chapter titles like “The place where the hills meet” and “The place where people’s hearts are eaten” exemplify this beautifully. Most people aren’t named, either, and, where they are, the names are minimal (such as Chucho who helps her cross the border) or enigmatic (such as the alphabetical three, Mr Double-U, Mr Aitch and Mr Q!) It is in this shadowy context that Makina makes her journey.

He also achieves it by starting the novel with a surprising scene that isn’t critical to the literal plot, but which provides a thematic or symbolic link to the ending. We meet Makina walking in the street, when, suddenly, a sinkhole opens up and a man is swallowed up. Makina manages to pull herself back and survive, but we learn in the opening paragraph the tenuousness of life and, perhaps, that Makina is either lucky or has good survival instincts. Meanwhile, the sinkhole itself, while a literal geographic phenomenon, also conjures up the underworld, the murky sub-legal world that Makina must traverse to make it to, and survive in, “the other side”.

Herrera evokes the dangers of the journey vividly, but having already set up Makina as a resourceful young woman, he convinces us of her ability to survive the crossing – and she does, despite being accosted by a young thug, nearly drowning in the river, being shot at near a mountain pass. She locates her brother too, even though the information she has regarding his whereabouts is minimal.

What really makes this book, though, besides the strength and heart of Makina, is Herrera’s language (albeit in translation). It’s written in the sort of spare language I like. Here’s Makina’s experience of the city:

The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing. They flourished in supermarkets, cornucopias where you could have more than everyone or something different or a new brand or a loaf of bread a little bigger than everyone else’s. Makina just dented cans and sniffed bottles and thought it best to verse …

Yes, “verse”. Dillman in her translator’s note discusses the challenges of translating the book, which she says is about “bridging cultures and languages”. One way Herrera conveys this theme is to use neologisms, signifying the idea of a new language for the potentially new people forged out of migration. One of his neologisms is “jachar” which he uses to mean “to leave”. Dillman needed to create/choose an English word that would play the same role, and came up with “to verse”, because it refers to poetry and is also part of “several verbs involving motion and communication (traverse, reverse, converse) as well as the ‘end’ of uni-verse”.

As I implied earlier, this is a road novel, a journey to another place as well as to the self. Here’s Makina looking for her brother:

It had taken everything she had just to pronounce the eight tundras. To cleave her way through the cold on her own, sustained by nothing but an ember inside; to go from one street to another without seeing a difference; to encounter barricades that held people back for the benefit of cars. Or to encounter people who spoke none of the tongues she knew: whole barrios of clans from other frontiers, who questioned her with words that seemed traced in the air. The weariness she felt at the monuments of another history. The disdain. The suspicious looks. And again, the cold, getting colder, burrowing into her with insolence.

And when she arrived and saw what she’d come to find it was sheer emptiness.

Here and elsewhere, Mexican-born Herrera, who now lives in the USA, is clear about the materialistic, insular reality of “the other side”.

As I read this book, I was reminded of other journeys and crossings, specifically crossing the Styx (it’s no accident I’m sure that the first chapter is titled, simply, “The earth”), Dante’s journey to hell, and even Alice’s fall down the rabbit-hole. Herrera, though, while invoking these journeys in Signs preceding the end of the world, has created his own, one that addresses the politics of borders and boundaries (and dare I say “walls) between countries, while exposing the personal, psychological and spiritual implications of traversing these borders. Its ending is unsettling – but perfect for all that.

Yuri Herrera
Signs preceding the end of the world
(Trans. by Lisa Dillman)
London: And Other Stories, 2015 (Orig. lang. ed. 2009)
114pp.
ISBN: 9781908276421

AS Patrić, Black rock white city (Review)

AS Patric, Black rock white cityWith that extended conflict known as the Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001) now over for more than a decade, we are starting to see books written about them. I’ve reviewed two on this blog to date, Aminatta Forna’s novel The hired man (2013) (my review) on the Croatian War of Independence, and Olivera Simić’s memoir Surviving peace (2014) (my review) on the Bosnian War. AS Patrić’s Miles Franklin Award winning novel, Black rock white city, (2016), which also draws from the Bosnian War, now makes three.

Like The hired man, Black rock white city explores the aftermath of war, but unlike Forna’s book, which is set within the war-torn country, Patrić’s book is set in Australia, and tells of refugees, Jovan and his wife Suzana. The novel starts about four years after their arrival and, although both were academics in Sarajevo, they, like so many refugees, work in their new country as cleaners and carers. It soon becomes clear that they have not recovered from their war experience. Gradually, over the course of the book, Patrić reveals the horrors of their experience. We learn that, like so many who suddenly find their country at war, they had to face that awful question, “should I stay or should I go”. As it turned out, they stayed too long, and Jovan feels he failed his wife by not going early. When we meet them, their relationship is stressed, and they seem unable to provide each other the love and emotional support they so badly need. It’s excruciating to read, because it’s so real, so believable.

I found this book particularly enlightening because I worked with a woman who was damaged by this war. Like Patrić’s two protagonists, she was Bosnian Serb, but unlike them she left early. However, the impact on her of this forced loss of her country, her culture, was immense.

But, I digress … back to the book. It opens with hospital cleaner Jovan cleaning graffiti in an examination room. We soon discover that the hospital is experiencing a bout of graffiti-writing, and that Jovan is the graffiti cleaning expert. No-one knows who is creating the graffiti, which becomes increasingly bizarre. It appears on all sorts of surfaces (such as a corpse’s back, a menu blackboard, the optometrists’ charts) and comprises a variety of seemingly random, though often pointed, words and phrases (such as “The/Trojan/Flea”, “Obliteration”, “Dog Eat Dog” and “Masters of Destiny Victims of Fate”), which Jovan starts to read as messages to him. The graffiti artist is dubbed Dr Graffito. This storyline gives the book the patina of a mystery or even, perhaps, a thriller.

However, while the graffiti provides a plot-line for the novel, the main narrative concerns Jovan and Suzana, their relationship with each other and with other people, including a lover (for Jovan, because Suzana, in her pain, has withdrawn sex), work colleagues, friends and neighbours. Underpinning this narrative is the ongoing trauma of war. Jovan, for example, is frequently dogged by “the black crow”. He “feels as though he uses a rail for a pillow – always listening to the vague rumblings of oncoming annihilation”. Once, Suzana remembers, he could

turn almost anything over to a new perspective, see something deeper, redeeming, more beautiful even if painful. It was what made him such a superb poet back in Yugoslavia … He doesn’t write anymore and it’s as though he never did.

There is poetry in his head though – including a mantra that gets him through his days: “Maroochydore and Mooloolaba, Noosa and Coolum”. Language – the loss of his own, his inability (or is it refusal?) to speak proper English, not to mention the disturbing graffiti – functions as a metaphor for his sense of displacement.

Meanwhile, Suzana, notes Jovan,

is spending more of her time scribbling into her notebooks. The only place safe for her in the time since Bosnia, was somewhere buried underground. Coming to the surface isn’t going to be easy.

Patrić crafts the story skilfully. It’s a debut novel, but Patrić has published two short story collections and is a teacher of creative writing. It shows. The story is told third person, initially from Jovan’s perspective, but later Suzana’s is alternated with his, which fleshes out our understanding of Suzana, while keeping the perspective tightly focused on their experience. The plot unfolds stealthily, as we shift between two questions: will the graffiti artist be discovered, and can Jovan and Suzana pull through? By the end, the strands come together – so cleverly, so shockingly. And then there’s the sure, controlled writing. The pacing, the wordplay and touches of humour, the imagery, the dialogue, and the changing rhythms, make it delicious to read, even while the content confronts and distresses.

Late in the novel, Suzana suggests to Jovan that Dr Graffito is “putting his pain into someone else”, and that seeing his “madness in someone else might make it feel more bearable”. I don’t want to spoil the novel, but Suzana seems to be right, until the end where Dr Graffito’s actions force a confrontation that bring it all to a head.

What is Patrić’s motive for writing this? Early in the novel, Jovan finds one of the many notes Suzana loves to leave around, a quote from her favourite author, Nobel-prize winner, Ivo Andrić:

You should not be afraid of human beings. I am not, only of what is inhuman in them.

Jovan, on the other hand, says that “so much of what happens, shouldn’t happen”. These two ideas form the crux of the book. We have a cast of human beings, who are all real, all flawed in some way. They muddle on, some better than others, some needing a bit of “moral flossing”, some a bit of “ethical cleansing” (and what a clever wordplay that is, keeping war’s horrors close to our minds.) We see what happens, during and after war, when people let hate get the better of themselves and release the “inhuman” within, thereby wreaking what “shouldn’t happen” on others. This is a big book, for all its mere 250 pages, because it tackles the fundamental question of how are we imperfect humans to live alongside each other.

Fiction, Suzana says, is writing for the soul. If that is so, Black rock white city is one soul-full book – and a worthy winner of the Miles Franklin.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by this book, as was Bill (the Australian Legend).

AS Patrić,
Black rock white city
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2015
248pp.
ISBN: 9781921924835

Phillip Stamatellis, Growing up café: a short memoir (Review)

StamatellisGrowingFinlayLloydPhillip Stamatellis’ Growing up café is the third book I’ve read in publisher Finlay Lloyd’s fl smalls collection. Unlike the previous two, by established creators Paul McDermott and Carmel Bird, it is a debut work by an unknown writer. According to the author bio provided at the beginning of the book, Stamatellis is studying writing at the University of Canberra. What an achievement to have this work published, while still studying.

Growing up cafe is an enjoyable read. It tells the story of his growing up in his family’s cafe, the Radnor, in Goulburn, which is just 100km from Canberra. I used to visit cafes there regularly on trips to Sydney, that is, until it was bypassed by the highway. Now, if we go off the highway for a cuppa – and we do – it is not usually to the centre of Goulburn, but that’s another story. Back to the book …

Stamatellis has structured his short memoir cleverly. It is not told chronologically, and nor is it told in one voice. The story of his boyhood is told third person (“the boy”) via anecdotes that shift backwards and forwards across the years between 1965 and 1982. Reflections from adulthood are told first person, from the present, that is from 2014 and 2015. Whilst on the face of it the anecdotes from the past look rather higgledy-piggledy, careful reading shows that there is always a connection. There is method in the madness, in other words – and anyhow, as his friend says to him when he worries about his book making sense, “it doesn’t have to make sense, it’s not like life does.” Fair enough.

Things I enjoyed about the book include the nostalgia factor (the memories of Greek and Italian cafes or milk bars that I grew up with, though not “in” like Stamatellis) and the social history (the documenting of such cafes and the lives that surrounded them). Stamatellis captures all this nicely, from a young insider’s perspective. Phillip is, as far as this memoir tells us, the youngest of three boys born to Greek parents. The boys all grew up “in” the cafe, and they all worked in it from the moment they could. “I’ve lost count of the number of tables I’ve cleaned”, he writes, “I could do a three-plate carry by the time I was eight.”

The book opens at “Lunchtime, Summer, 1977”. The opening sentence – “The midday sun was stark in the street, and the small chirruping of cicadas almost drowned the rumbling of a passing Holden GT” – captures Australian country towns in summer perfectly, noisy cicadas and noisy Holden cars. It also reminded me of a song written in 1975 about another regional Australian city, Newcastle. The song, by Bob Hudson, includes the lines:

All the young men of Newcastle
drive down Hunter Street
in their hot FJ Holdens
with chrome plated grease nipples
and double reverse
overhead twin cam door handles,
sitting eight abreast in the front seat,
and they lean out of the window
and say real cool things to the sheilas
on the footpath, like ‘Aah g’day’.

Stamatellis, in his opening paragraph, describes teenagers in the cafe: “Cigarettes hung from their lips, the girls with their arms around their boyfriends’ waists.” It’s all so 1970s Australian – as is, unfortunately, the racism. “Thanks wog“, says a customer. A little further on is an anecdote in which “the boy’s” mother confronts racist graffiti on the cafe’s toilets, and then treats an indigenous person generously. All she says is to her son is:

‘Life is hard for some people but the sun shines for everyone, not just the wealthy’.

It’s not all serious though. There are funny, family anecdotes here too – brothers getting up to mischief, for example. There are stories about local characters, such as fun parlour owner Uncle Con, jeweller Ange Zantis, and the priest Father Sinesios, not to mention the challenge of serving the annual influx of an often unruly snow crowd. (If you are from this region you’ll know all about the trek to the snow through Goulburn, Canberra and Queanbeyan each winter). And there are the reflections from the present. These modern chapters round it out nicely. Through them we learn a little about where “the boy” is now, but overall I most enjoyed the chapters focusing on the past. They provide insight into a life now gone, and yet the lessons – such as tolerance, hard work, family cooperation – are timeless.

In the last chapter – set in 2015 – Stamatellis reflects on nostalgia:

I suppose at this very moment I’m feeling nostalgic and it seems that nostalgia makes a point of highlighting the good stuff and even finds positives among sadness – but my nostalgia is burdened by an unseen weight, a sense of entrapment …

Stamatellis doesn’t expand upon this, but I wonder if this little “small” is the beginning of something larger. It’s certainly a time and place that could do with some further scrutiny because we haven’t yet, I think, properly documented the experiences (and contributions) of that wave of southern European immigration.

(Note: I did find several typos, which is rare in my experience from Finlay Lloyd.)

Phillip Stamatellis
Growing up café
(fl smalls 8)
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2015
63pp.
ISBN: 9780987592972

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Hanif Kureishi, The buddha of suburbia (Review)

Hanif Kureishi, The buddha of suburbiaThe first thing to say about Hanif Kureishi’s 1990 Whitbread award-winning novel The buddha of suburbia is that it’s pretty funny. It’s a comic satire – over-the-top at times, confronting at others. It has its dark moments, but it’s also brash, irreverent and ultimately warm-hearted towards its tangled band of not always admirable but mostly very human characters. I’ve come late to this book, and only read it now because my reading group decided to align one of our books with ABC RN’s bookclub, which this year is featuring novels from the subcontinent. Kureishi’s book was one of the few we hadn’t read, so it got the guernsey.

It’s a coming-of-age novel about Karim, who is seventeen years old at the start and the son of a Pakistani/Muslim father from Bombay and an English mother. He lives in the suburbs south of London, a place populated, in his eyes, by “the miserable undead”. He wants to live “intensely: mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever people and drugs”. The dreams of a young man which, of course, run counter to everything his parents would wish for – except that his parents aren’t watching. His father leaves his mother early in the novel to pursue his own mid-life crisis enlightenment as a “buddha” dispensing wisdom to other suburbanites, while his mother sinks into her misery and her bed. And so the scene is set …

This is a rather raunchy, bawdy read in which characters push the sexual envelope with little concern for consequences. They engage in all sorts of sex for all sorts of reasons that represent a broad spectrum of human experience and behaviour, some loving, some brutal, some exploratory, some exploitative. The novel is set in early to mid 1970s England, before AIDS, at the dawn of punk, and just before Thatcher’s England (1979 to 1990). This could date it, but I don’t think it does, because its concerns remain relevant today: racism, multiculturalism, the stereotyping of “other”, materialism versus the search for meaning, the role of the arts in our lives, and of course, given the title, the urban-suburban divide.

So, what happens? Both a lot, and not much, in that this is a character and ideas-driven novel rather than a plot-driven one. Told first person by Karim, the novel has two parts – “In the suburbs” followed by “In the city”. In the first part Karim talks of his life in the suburbs, of his friends and family, and describes the breakdown of his parents’ marriage as his father moves in with the lively go-get-’em Eva. It’s a life characterised by racism:

The thing was, we were supposed to be English, but to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it.

Aspirations are low, and education is not seen as being useful:

This was the English passion, not for self-improvement or culture or wit, but for DIY, Do It Yourself, for bigger and better houses with more mod cons, the painstaking accumulation of comfort and, with it, status – the concrete display of earned cash.

The city, on the other hand, is a place where you can remake yourself. It seemed, to Karim, like “a house with five thousand rooms, all different”, far from the stultifying dullness of the ‘burbs. But the dichotomy is not as simple as it sounds. Having moved to the city, like his father and Eva, Karim continues to return to the suburbs to see friends and family. He experiences warmth and support there, while the city, where “the piss-heads, bums, derelicts and dealers shouted and looked for fights” can intimidate him.

Nonetheless, once in the city, Karim does start to remake himself – as an actor. But, as elsewhere in the novel, there’s a sting in the tail. The first role Karim is offered is Mowgli in The jungle book. He does well, and his white family and friends praise him, but his honest, feisty childhood friend Jamila sees it differently:

‘And it was disgusting, the accent and the shit you had smeared over you. You were just pandering to prejudices …’.

Karim, who has, earlier and somewhat defensively, described himself as “beige”, moves on to another theatre group where he is chosen because he is “black”:

‘We need someone from your own background,’ he said. ‘Someone black.’
‘Yeah?’ I didn’t know anyone black, though I’d been at school with a Nigerian.

I think you’ve got the drift now. The humour is sharp, with stereotypes being subverted, twisted or just plain skewered. The book is full of witty asides, clever but insightful quips, and some downright absurd situations. There’s tenderness too. I loved the “heart-ambulance”, in the form of a sister and brother-in-law arriving to take Karim’s mother home with them when her heart is broken.

There’s a fascinating subplot involving Jamila and the marriage arranged for her by her father, Anwar. She accedes, but when her husband, the physically disabled hapless but kind-hearted Changez arrives, she lays down the rules for their so-called marriage, and then sets about reinventing herself – in the suburbs – as a strong, independent, liberated woman.

I said at the beginning that this is a coming-of-age novel, but it’s more than that. It’s about transformation and shape-shifting for people of all ages. The only character among the central group, who is unable to accept the challenge of change, is Jamila’s father Anwar, and his ending is not a positive one. By contrast, his friend, Karim’s father, seeks enlightenment. He wants to be something more than a Civil Service clerk who will never be promoted above an Englishman. So, he sets himself up as a “buddha”, a “visionary” who will provide wisdom from the east. I loved the multiple satire here – the joke of suburbanites seeking wisdom from a so-called eastern mystic, and the subversive idea of a Pakistani Muslim setting himself up as that mystic, a buddha.

The novel is about other things too, such as the arts and culture, and the possibility they offer for salvation. While Karim develops a career as an actor, working out how he can or should use his “culture” to further his goals, his friend Charlie reinvents himself as punk star, Charlie Hero. Like Karim, though for different reasons, he discovers it’s not all as straightforward as he thought.

It’s also about love – romantic love, sexual love, parental love, and the love between friends. All the characters seek it, though not all find it. And underpinning all this is the “immigrant condition”, and the idea that, perhaps, “the immigrant is the Everyman of the twentieth century”.

But, in the end, what it’s really about is the desire for a meaningful life and, without giving away details, I think it’s fair to say that most of Kureishi’s characters achieve this, albeit somewhat messily. That said, I can’t help thinking that Karim’s conclusion that “I thought of what a mess everything had been, but that it wouldn’t always be that way” has an ironic edge.

Hanif Kureishi
The buddha of suburbia
London: Faber and Faber, 1990
ISBN: 9780571249398 (epub edition, 2008)

Olivera Simić, Surviving peace: A political memoir (Review)

Olivera Simic, Surviving peace

Courtesy: Spinifex Press

I hadn’t heard of Olivera Simić when Spinifex Press offered me her book, Surviving peace: a political memoir, to review, but her subject matter – the Bosnian war, to put it broadly – was of particular interest to me, so I said yes. You see, I worked for several years with a woman who, like Simić, was also “survivor” of that war, and while she’d talked a little about it, I was hoping this book would fill in some of the gaps. It sure did – and then some.

Simić was born in the former Yugoslavia, and lived through the Yugoslav Wars (1991-1999). She was nineteen years old and living in Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) when the Bosnian War (1992-1995) broke out. To keep her safe, her parents sent her to friends in Serbia for the duration of the war. She was living in Serbia* in 1999 when NATO bombed it –  Operation Merciful Angel** (really!) – as part of the Kosovo War (1998-1999). These aren’t her only traumatic experiences, but I won’t give her whole biography here.

According to her Spinifex author page, Simić is now “a feminist, human rights activist and academic at the Griffith Law School, Australia”. She teaches international law and transitional justice, suggesting that her personal experience of war and peace is underpinned by thorough academic grounding. The book has an extensive bibliography, which not only substantiates her arguments, but provides an excellent resource, both fiction and non-fiction works, for further reading on the subject.

So, how does an academic, working in an area in which she has been personally involved, write and teach about it? Surviving peace is described as a memoir so, as she says in her Preface, “the personal ‘insider’ perspective assumes the lead” in this book, but she also wants to increase understanding of war trauma and its impact on people’s lives. She’s a feminist, and brings a feminist sensibility to her academic work, one which accepts that personal experiences provide legitimate evidence in research. She believes, as I do, that there is no such thing as “objective knowledge”. Consequently, this “memoir” can also work as a scholarly study of the consequences of war, of the challenge of living post-conflict, of, as she describes it, surviving peace.

One of the features that makes this book more than “just” a memoir, is that it’s not told in a simple linear chronology. She does start with the beginning of the war in 1992, and end pretty much with the present, but in between she structures the book more thematically, so I’ll do that too, roughly aligned with her themes.

Where are you from?

In Chapter One Simić describes how within a decade of Tito’s death, Yugoslavia had changed from a place of “collective identity” in which ethnicity was not an issue to being an ethnically divided society that descended into war and genocide. She now “identifies”, reluctantly, as a Serb (Bosnian Serb/Orthodox Christian), formally separated from her old compatriots, Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats (Roman Catholics). “The war”, she says,”erased my country, my language, my youth”. Her discussion of how language has played out in this breakdown of society is fascinating – but her description of the impact of having an identity “forcibly attached” to her, is painful:

The ethnic identity that I have been reduced to in peacetime has become a chain around my neck that threatens to choke me. It determines everything I do, say and write … Every time someone starts to enquire about my ‘ethnic identity’ I find myself walking a minefield of people’s judgements and closed-mindedness.

Of course, she’s not the only one caught in this trap – and she supports her discussion of the issue with academic writings and the personal experiences of others. Later in the book she describes how her father changed from communist to “ultra-right nationalist”. He now mixes only with Serbs, and has “nothing to discuss” with Bosniaks and Croats, among whom he’d had close friends pre-war. It’s impossible not to generalise, and draw truths, from the “stories” she tells, truths about constructing ethnicity which extend far beyond Bosnia and the Balkans.

Speaking the truth – and moral responsibility

In Chapter Two, titled “Traitor or truthseeker”, Simić discusses why she is driven to write about atrocities – particularly the Srebrenica massacre – committed in “my name” by her people. It has brought her into direct conflict with her father. “Truth” she shows is a relative thing – if we didn’t know it before. Each ethnic group has its own truths about what happened, making it “almost impossible to have respectful conversations about politics and war in today’s BiH”.

I found this section particularly interesting, because its generalities extended, for me anyhow, beyond the Bosnian War to indigenous relations in Australia. She discusses her feelings of “moral responsibility” for acts committed in her name, and argues

Of course, I cannot be held accountable for atrocities perpetrated by members of my ethnic group; that is their burden. However, I can and do feel a responsibility to demand justice and examine crimes committed by ‘my clan’.

That makes perfect sense to me. Simić quotes Hannah Arendt as saying that every government should assume “political responsibility for the deeds and misdeeds of its predecessors, and every nation, for the deeds and misdeeds of the past”. She also quotes Bernard Schlink (of The reader) who wrote that the past can “cast a long shadow over the present, infecting later generations with a sense of guilt, responsibility and self-questioning”. Oh yes! I do hope we here in Australia are finally recognising this … (Interestingly, she also raises the issue of survivors feeling they have sole ownership of their experience and that only they have the right to talk about it. This reminded me of our discussion on this blog earlier this year about whether white writers can write indigenous characters.)

Simić talks of “dirty peace”, which she defines as a time when killings have stopped but ‘war’ is still being fought. In BiH, for example, those who speak uncomfortable truths – and she gives examples – are ostracised and threatened. She talks about forgiveness (which I discussed earlier this year in another post) and argues that real peace is unlikely to be achieved until once-warring parties can sympathise with each other. Reconciliation, she says, means something more than simple co-existence.

“The answer to violence can never be more violence”

Simić is a pacifist and abhors violence. She details in the memoir her own painful experience of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). It is the most personal, intimate part of the book. Her PTSD primarily stemmed from her experience, as a civilian, of the NATO bombing. She is particularly bitter about NATO’s actions. She discusses it at some length, including both her personal experience, and the “facts”. She doesn’t excuse what the Serbs did in Kosovo, but argues “there must be other ways”. What those other ways might be, however, is not the subject of this book.

Her discussion of modern warfare, in fact, is chilling – and reminded me of Andrew Croome’s inspiration for his novel Midnight empire. The more remotely war is conducted, the easier it is for those conducting it to not see the real people, real lives, being affected. In this new warfare, the number of “ungrievable lives”*** multiplies.

The ramifications of war, then, are enormous, besides the loss of life and destruction that occur during the violence, besides the PTSD suffered by combatants and civilians afterwards. She writes of her own life as a refugee, of dislocation in the lives of others, of a “peace” that for many is no life at all. Some of this she conveys in Chapter Four through letters between three women, including herself, which bear direct witness to violence and its aftermath.

Incorporating truth into history

You’ve probably gathered by now that I found this a deeply engrossing book. It is unapologetically written from the point of view of a survivor. Quoting academic Elizabeth Porter, Simić believes that stories provide the basis for incorporating truth into history. I like this because for me history is more than facts and events, more than great men and their actions. It comprises the truths drawn out of – generalised from – people’s lived experiences. Nonetheless, there were times when I wondered if Simić were pushing her personal barrow a little too far, but then remembered that this is, first, a memoir.

I’m never one to say you must read a book. However, if the subject interests you, then Surviving peace would be well worth adding to your pile!

awwchallenge2014Olivera Simić
Surviving peace: A political memoir
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2014
188pp.
ISBN: 9781742198941

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

* I mistakenly wrote Sarajevo in my original version of this post.
** The name reported to Simic by a pilot, but this name, used briefly in Yugoslavia, was a misnomer.
*** Janet Butler’s term for whole populations “barely considered as human” by those conducting or reporting on war.