Mirandi Riwoe, The fish girl (#BookReview)

Mirandi Riwoe, The fish girlMirandi Riwoe was joint-winner of the 2017 Seizure Viva La Novella prize with her book, The fish girl – and it has now been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize. As you may already know, it was inspired by Somerset Maugham’s short story “The four Dutchmen”, which I reviewed a few days ago. Indeed, Maugham’s story provides the epigraphs to each of the novella’s three parts. Do you then need to have read Maugham’s story to appreciate Riwoe’s take? I’d say not – and would hate that assumption to put people off reading her book. Nonetheless, I’m glad I read Maugham’s work. How’s that for a foot in both camps?

To recap briefly, “The four Dutchmen” tells of four fat, jolly Dutchmen who work together on a boat plying the southeast Asian seas. Immensely loyal to each other, they plan to all retire when the first of them dies. The only blot on their togetherness is the captain’s penchant for Malay girls. However, the chief officer usually cleans up after him – paying off the girls, in other words, when the captain tires of them – until the day the captain decides to bring one of these girls along on a boat trip. Tragedy ensues.

Now, Maugham’s story is told first person by an observer-narrator, a traveller in the region, rather than one who’s involved in the events. The story has a matter-of-fact tone. Not so Riwoe’s story, which, although told first person, gets into the girl’s heart. Unlike Maugham, Riwoe gives her a name, Mina, and from the start, we realise that Mina’s fate is tied to men. Hers is a world controlled by men – regardless of whether that world is her village or the Dutch Resident’s house.

I should, perhaps, clarify some terminology at this point. Maugham uses the terms “Javanese” and “Malay girl” in his story. These days, we differentiate Javanese, who come from Java which is part of Indonesia, from Malaysians, who come from Malaysia, which neighbours Indonesia. However, in Maugham’s time, Malay was used for Austronesian people, which include today’s Malaysians and Indonesians, amongst others. Mina, Riwoe’s version of Maugham’s Malay girl, is from a Sunda village in this region.

Riwoe tells her story in three acts, each preceded by epigraphs from Maugham’s story. In the first part, Mina is offered by her father to a man who comes searching for “cheap labour for the Dutch Resident’s kitchen.” The barely pubescent Mina doesn’t want to go, has never left home before, but for her parents, her father in particular, there is hope that she will be able to send them things they “need, like more spice and tobacco.” Mina is scared, but we also get an intimation of resilience when we’re told of the “tremor of excitement finally mingling with the dread in her stomach.” Maybe it will work out alright we hope.

By the end of part 1, she has arrived at the Dutch Resident’s place where she works in the kitchen to the unsympathetic, unkind head cook Ibu Tana. She seems to be a favourite of the Dutch Resident who treats her kindly, and requests her to serve table in his house. Is he grooming her? Or is he decent? We fear the answer.

Part 2 introduces the four Dutchmen who dine with the Dutch Resident, and, in particular to the captain – the man described in the epigraph from Maugham as “losing his head over one brazen hussy or another”. That should warn us, though in this part he seems gentle. He wants her to teach him her language. In return he teaches her his, and gives her gifts. Hmm … our antennae are up. Meanwhile, Mina has fallen for Ajat, her village chief’s son who does some work for the Dutch Resident. Her sexuality is awakening, but Ajat treats her cruelly. Part 3 commences with her arrival on the boat with the captain, after which the story plays out pretty much as Maugham tells in his short story.

What Riwoe does in this story – her post-colonial response to Maugham’s – is to look at it from the angle of the colonised, and particularly colonised young women. What she shows is that young women are not only pawns in the hands of colonial powers but also in the hands of their own men (in this case her father who trades her for potential material gain, and the chief’s son who tricks her and uses her ill).

This may all sound same-same, as in “I’ve heard all this before”, and at a simple level that’s so. However, what makes The fish girl such a good read is the character Riwoe gives Mina. She’s young and naive, but she’s not a type. She has dreams and at least an attempt at having agency. Here she is, as she’s about to be taken to the boat by the Captain:

Kanjeng Ratu Kidal (Ocean Queen): By Gunawan Kartapranata (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Mina leans against a tree, rolls her head gently against the prickly bark. She takes a deep breath. She will need to be very strong. She will need to be like one of the dhalang’s wayang puppets, as hard as lacquer, enduring.

Also, Riwoe adds a mythical element through Mina’s love of the sea, and her belief in the Ocean Queen. The sea is presented as a curative force – both physically (for her rash, presumably eczema) and spiritually.

She calls for the Ocean Queen. Only when she feels Nayai Loro’s strong, smooth pull, feels the soft arms suckle at her damaged thighs, does Mina scatter the flowers upon the sparkling water.

Finally, although this is short, Riwoe unfolds the story slowly, developing Mina’s character and allowing us to hope that Mina will endure. But that, of course, would be a fairy tale and, despite its heartening mystical conclusion for Mina, this is definitely not that. An engaging but powerful read.

AWW Badge 2018Mirandi Riwoe
The fish girl
Sydney: Xoum, 2017
ISBN: 9781925589061

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart (Review)

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart

First edition, from Heinemann (via Wikipedia)

At last I’ve read that classic of African literature, China Achebe’s Things fall apart. It all came about because this year ABC RN’s classics book club is doing Africa. As I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time, and as my reading group has been making a practice of choosing one ABC RN bookclub book a year, I recommended Things fall apart and – woohoo – they agreed. I am so happy! OK, so I’m easily pleased, but …

The funny thing is that as I started it, I did wonder what all the acclaim was about. Yes, I was finding the writing gorgeous, and yes, I found all the detail about life in the little Igbo village of Umuofia fascinating, but were these enough for its huge reputation? Then, I got to Part 2 – this is a classic three-part book – and the arrival of white man and the missionaries in southeastern Nigeria. The plot started to thicken – but, not just the plot. The whole gorgeous structure of the novel, its complexity and its sophisticated analysis of human society and the colonial imperative started to become clear.

Here, though, is my challenge – a challenge faced by all bloggers writing about much-analysed classics – what can I add? I haven’t actually read any of the analysis, except for my edition’s introduction, so I risk either going over the same old ground, or heading off on a completely irrelevant tangent, but I’m going to try. And how I’m going to try is to talk about a few of the aspects of the book that stood out to me, which, as is my wont, will focus more on how it is written than with the story itself.

However, I will start with a brief synopsis of the story, just in case there are others out there who haven’t read it. The plot is fairly simple: it tells the story of Okonkwo. Born to an “ill-fated”, “lazy and improvident” man, he decided early in life that he would not be like his father. He becomes a powerful and respected “warrior” in his community, one known to be hardworking but who could also be cruel to his family or to anyone who showed weakness. He is determined to be a “man”, to never show a “female” side. Male-female dichotomies are, in fact, an underlying thread in the novel. Whenever things go wrong for him, his response is always aggressive: if you aren’t confronting a situation head on, you are a “woman”. This inflexibility, his unwillingness to waver from his tough-minded course, results in his downfall. He could be seen I think as a classic tragic hero, as the man who could have been great but for a tragic flaw, an inability to be flexible, an unwillingness to marry his two sides.

This idea of two parts is fundamental to how the novel is structured and how the themes are developed – and Achebe conveys it through dichotomies and parallels. There’s the male-female one, which Okonkwo battles within himself. “When did you become a shivering old woman” he asks himself regarding the distress he feels after engaging in a violent act. Later, he is surprised to hear of a husband who consulted his wife before doing anything:

 ‘I thought he was a strong man in his youth.’ ‘He was indeed,’ said Ofoedu. Okonkwo shook his head doubtfully.

But there are other dichotomies, and two, in particular, that I found interesting. One is between  Okonkwo and his friend Obierika. Both are respected men in the village, and both adhere to their traditions and conventions, but Okonkwo, who is “not a man of thought but of action” is so fearful of appearing weak he follows the “laws” rigidly. Obierika on the other hand is more thoughtful:

Obierika was a man who thought about things. When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed?

A similar dichotomy is set up between two missionaries:

Mr Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith, and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.

So, we have dichotomies established within the two cultures he’s describing – the African and colonial/missionary – but these two sets of dichotomies also work as parallels for each other, reflecting the differences, the conflicts in fact, that can occur within both (all) cultures.

Now I get to more uncomfortable ideas. Okonkwo’s tragedy could be seen to mirror Africa’s, but this is a tricky thing to consider. Okonkwo’s flaw we know. Did Africa, likewise, have a flaw or weakness? We criticise colonialism – and surely it is a bad thing, the subjugation of one people by another, the taking of one people’s land by another – and yet … Achebe himself benefited from the education brought by the missionaries, and in Things fall apart he tells us that some Igbo villagers saw positives:

The white man had indeed brought a lunatic religion, but he had also built a trading store and for the first time palm-oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuofia.

Some even saw positives in the religion.

So, Achebe is not uncritical of either side of the colonial equation – the colonisers and the colonised – but his final point in the novel makes clear his attitude to the colonial project. In the last paragraph we learn that District Commissioner plans to write a book. Its title, “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger”, euphemistically describes the colonisers’ mostly violent/aggressive subjugation of African people as “pacification” and demonstrates an arrogant assumption that a society not like their own is “primitive”. For Achebe, then, the overriding point of Things fall apart is not so much to present the positives and negatives within the two opposing cultures, but to expose the disdain with which the colonisers treated African people, and the way they denigrated African culture.

This is such an honest and provocative book, one that would bear multiple re-readings – like all good classics. Have you read it?

Chinua Achebe
Things fall apart
London: Penguin Classics, 2001 (orig. pub. 1958)
ISBN (e-book): 9780141393964

The magnificent River Red Gums

River Red Gum

River Red Gum, Valley of the Winds Walk, Kata-Tjuta

River Red Gums, or Eucalyptus Camaldulensis, are among our most ubiquitous of gum trees, but that doesn’t mean they’re a boring tree. As their name implies they grow along watercourses – including ones that are very very dry such as those you find in Central Australia. They are also a significant part of what makes the Murray River such a gorgeous old river. Apparently, though, they are not found in Tasmania.

One of the well-known places to see these gums is the beautiful Barmah Forest of the Murray-Darling Basin. It boasts trees that are over 500 years old. Sadly, though, there are concerns that due to the extended drought that area has been experiencing, many trees are threatened, if not already dying. I’ve been to this forest and it is a treasure – it would be tragic to lose it.

Being ubiquitous – and beautiful – they feature regularly in Australian arts (in poetry, song, fiction, and art). Of course, they feature in Murray Bail’s captivating novella Eucalyptus:

River Red Gum

Warty River Red Gum, Jessie Gap, East MacDonnells

Over time the River Red Gum (e. camaldulensis) has become barnacled with legends… there’s always a bulky Red Gum here or somewhere else in the wide world, muscling into the eye, as it were: and by following the course of rivers in our particular continent they don’t merely imprint their fuzzy shape but actually worm their way greenly into the mind, giving some hope against the collective crow-croaking dryness. And if that’s not enough the massive individual squatness of these trees, ancient, stained and warty, has a grandfatherly aspect; that is, a long life of incidents, seasons, stories.

River Red Gum

River Red Gum, Bond Gap, West MacDonnell Range

Too many poets to mention have written about this gum. I thought I’d choose just two. First is David Campbell, who addresses the threat to their continuation. Here are some lines from his poem “The Last Red Gum”:

So we stand, me and my brothers, just the bones of ancient trees
that have lined the riverbank since time began.
In a bare and barren landscape, fed by red dust on the breeze,
we’ve been ravaged by the careless hand of man.

Second is Lisa Bellear, an indigenous poet who, in her poem “Beautiful Yuroke Red River Gum”, uses the Gum to symbolise the post-colonial history of Aboriginal Australians. The poem starts:

Sometimes the red river gums
in the beginning of colonisation
and other Kulin nations
sang and danced

Not too long and there are
fewer red river gums, the
Yarra Tribe’s blood
the river’s rich red clay

If this isn’t poignant enough, the poem concludes with:

Red river gums are replaced
by plane trees from England
and still
the survivors

What more can I say?