Nella Larsen, Passing (#BookReview)

For last year’s Novellas in November, Arti (of Ripple Effects) posted on a book and author I’d never heard of, Nella Larsen’s Passing. She also discussed its 2021 film adaptation. Quite coincidentally, that same month, my Californian friend Carolyn wrote positively about the film in a letter to me. It sounded right up my alley, so how grateful was I when, this month, Carolyn sent me the book. I decided to squeeze it in …

According to Wikipedia, Nella Larsen (nee Walker) was born in a poor part of Chicago to a Danish immigrant mother, and a father “believed to be a mixed-race Afro-Caribbean immigrant from the Danish West Indies”. He disappeared early in Nella’s life, and her mother married another Danish immigrant. Because of Nella they were seen as a “mixed” family and were not welcome in the mostly white neighbourhood where they’d moved. Nella grew up in that difficult limbo of being neither white nor black.

Eventually, she married a Black-American* physicist and they moved to Harlem where they became involved with “important figures in the Negro Awakening”, later known as the Harlem Renaissance. I share all this because it is relevant to Passing, which was her second novel.

Passing, set mostly in 1927, tells the story of two Black women, Irene and Clare. Both can pass as white, but Irene lives in Harlem with her darker doctor husband, while Clare lives in white society, as a White, with her Black-hating banker husband. At the start of the novel, Irene receives a letter from Clare, referring to an accidental meeting they’d had in a swish hotel in Chicago where both had been “passing” as white. This meeting had been 12 years after they’d last seen each other as teens in Chicago, at which time Clare had been whisked away by her White aunts after the death of her drunken janitor father.

Two years had passed since that uncomfortable Chicago meeting, two years during which Irene had done her best to forget an occasion “in which even now, after two years, humiliation, resentment, and rage were mingled”. But now, Clare was wanting to see Irene again …

“they always come back” (Brian)

Much has been written about this book, which speaks directly to the challenges and conflicts faced by African Americans at the time. There was a new Black bourgeoisie – a professional middle class – to which Irene belongs, and in which she feels comfortable. She’s committed to the whole “uplifting the brother” project and does good works to that end. Clare, on the other hand, has turned her back on her race. The scene is set, we think, for conflict.

And there is, but if you think it’s going to encompass a simple dichotomy, you would be wrong. From the start, Larson keeps us on our toes, forcing us to see two very different ways of living as a black woman in that place and time. The story is told third person, but through the perspective of Irene. She is the conservative rule-follower who is sure of her path, while Clare, who is probably closer to Larsen herself, is more adventurous, a risk-taker. She’s lively, sensual, a breath of fresh air, but how are we to read her – and, for that matter, Irene?

As the novel progresses, we (and our allegiances) are tossed between the two, just as tensions between the two ebb and flow. Are we to approve Irene’s conscientious approach to life, or should we empathise with the “lonely” Clare who wants to reconnect with the black community? Both are flawed characters. Irene’s choice involves buying into the whole aspirational, consumerist, success-focused values of the bourgeoisie, so much so that she rides rough-shod over the wishes and needs of her husband and sons. Clare, on the other hand, might be lively but she can also be “selfish” and “wilful”, with her risk-taking being potentially dangerous or damaging to others, including her neglected young daughter. It’s clear that if her husband discovered she’d been touched by “the tar brush”, she’d be in deep trouble. It’s to Larsen’s credit that we do not see these characters as black and white (hmm!).

Irene and Clare are not the only characters in this tight novella, but the most interesting of the others is Irene’s husband, Brian, who finds himself caught between the two women after Clare inveigles herself into their lives. At the end of Part 1, just after the meeting in Chicago, Irene is preparing to return home to New York and Brian whose “old, queer, unhappy restlessness had begun again within him, that craving for some place strange and different, which at the beginning of her marriage she had had to make such strenuous efforts to repress.”

“caught between two allegiances” (Irene)

Passing is told in three parts – Encounter, Re-encounter, and Finale. In Re-encounter we learn more about these characters through their interactions, and we discover the source of Brian’s restlessness. He is, potentially, another adventurer, though different to Clare.

Early in this final part, Irene and Brian discuss Clare, “passing” and race. Brian has a more nuanced understanding of “race”, it seems. Answering Irene’s question about why those who pass “always come back”, he says, “if I knew that, I’d know what race is”. Much later, we learn that race is at the core of Brian’s restlessness. When Irene upbraids him for honestly answering their son’s question about lynching, he lashes out:

…I’d feel I hadn’t done my duty by them if I didn’t give them some inkling of what’s before them. It’s the least I can do. I wanted to get them out of this hellish place years ago. You wouldn’t let me. I gave up the idea because you objected. Don’t expect me to give up everything.

Passing is about many things, only some of which I’ve discussed. It’s about convention and security versus risk and adventure, about gender and marriage, about class and money, and about self-definition. There is much here that is universal about human nature, but, of course, race is a driving factor. As the novel draws to its conclusion, Irene finds herself

caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race? The thing that bound and suffocated her.

But, there is another layer to this novel, a foreshadowing of something darker. Half-way through the novel, Irene says to Clare that “as we’ve said before, everything must be paid for”, while a little further on, Clare says to Irene

“Can’t you realize that I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe.”

It’s chilling, but I’ll leave it there. I was engrossed by this novel from its opening sentence to its clever, unsettling ending.

* I’m uncertain about nomenclature, given the language used in this 1920s novel is not what we use now. I hope I’ve made a fair call.

Nella Larsen
Passing
New York: Penguin Books, 2018 (orig. pub. 1929)
128pp.
ISBN: 9780142437278

James Weldon Johnson, Stranger than fiction (#Review)

Several months ago, I bookmarked a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering – as I often do for later use – but, despite its being a very brief offering, I’ve only got to it now. It’s on James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), and was timed, 17 June 2021, to synchronise with the 150th anniversary of his birth.

American readers here may know Johnson, but many of the rest of us probably don’t. Wikipedia describes him as an American writer and civil rights activist, but that hides a wealth of accomplishments. LOA, lists his achievements in a news item. He

  • wrote one novel, The autobiography of an ex-colored man, “which is considered by many critics to be the first modern African American novel and a major inspiration for Harlem Renaissance writers”.
  • was a lawyer, the first African American from his county, or perhaps state, to pass the Florida bar exam.
  • was an educator, and president of the Florida State Teachers Association (for Black teachers).
  • was a songwriter who, with brother Rosamond and friend Bob Cole, wrote dozens of popular songs. Many ended up in Broadway musicals of the early 1900s. They also wrote two songs used for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 campaign. One of these, “Under the bamboo tree,” was a big national hit in 1902 and was later performed by Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis). He and his brother wrote and composed the hymn “Lift every voice and sing,” also known as the “Black national anthem”.
  • was a diplomat, U. S. Consul in Venezuela (1906–1909) and in war-torn Nicaragua (1909–1912).
  • was a journalist at The New York Age, supervising its editorial page and writing a daily column for over ten years.
  • was an activist with the NAACP, who, in his role as field secretary, significantly increased the number of branches and the size of the membership.

LOA’s Story of the Week includes some biographical information that inspired his novel, and the text of his 1915 New York Age editorial which discussed the critical reaction to the novel.

“Stranger than fiction”

When I saw the title of this offering, I expected an essay, perhaps an entertaining one, on that old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction”, but I didn’t the author then. What I got was something far more interesting.

LOA prefaces the essay, as usual, with some explanatory material. In this case, they start with two “dramatic experiences that would inform his writing and activism for the remainder of his life”. One occurred in 1895, when, as an enterprising new teacher (a black man, remember) he asked to visit a white school to see and compare practices. He did so, but apparently a few days later he learnt that his visit “had raised a hullabaloo”. Parents had objected to the presence of a “Black man” in their children’s classrooms. Johnson wrote that “The affair was fomented to such an extent that the board of education felt it necessary to hold a meeting to inquire into the matter and fix the responsibility for my action.” To their credit, the superintendent and the school’s principal stood their ground, and it all blew over.

The second involved his meeting a journalist in a park in 1901, at her request. She wanted to fact-check an article she was writing on the disproportionate damage done to Jacksonville’s Black neighbourhoods by the Great Fire. They were confronted by “eight or ten militiamen in khaki with rifles and bayonets” who had “rushed to the city with a maddening tale of a Negro and a white woman meeting in the woods”. Again, it was resolved, but the ordeal left its mark.

Johnson’s novel, The autobiography of an ex-colored man (1912), which was inspired by experiences like these, has been described as the first fictional memoir by a black person. Set in late nineteenth to early twentieth century America, its protagonist is a young biracial man, known only as the “Ex-Colored Man”. Because of such experiences as witnessing a lynching, he decides to “pass” as white for safety and advancement reasons. The book chronicles his experiences and ambivalent feelings about his decision.

The book did not sell well initially, but sold very well three years later, after, says LOA, Johnson revealed himself as the author and “distributed several thousand copies of a glowing review that had appeared in Munsey’s Magazine“. This brings us, finally, to the essay, “Stranger than fiction”, which was published in 1915 in his daily column in The New York Age, where he was editor.

His aim was to give “a brief overview of the novel’s critical reception” but it was partly inspired, says LOA, by rumours that the estate of a wealthy woman publisher, Miriam (Frank) Leslie, was being contested by her late husband’s relatives on the grounds that she was the daughter of an enslaved women and therefore ‘her relatives had “no heritable blood”‘.

Johnson states at the beginning of his essay, that his book (novel)

produced a wide difference of critical opinion between reviewers on Northern and Southern publications.

Northern reviewers generally accepted the book as a human document, while Southern reviewers pronounced the theme of the story utterly impossible. A few of the Northern reviewers were in doubt as to whether the book was fact or fiction.

For many Northern reviewers, in other words, the work was so “real” they could barely believe it was fiction. (It doesn’t sound that, like Helen Garner’s critics, this bothered them.) Southern critics, on the other hand, asserted that the work was unbelievable because, writes Johnson,

the slightest tinge of African blood is discernible, if not in the complexion, then in some trait or characteristic betraying inferiority. This is, of course, laughable. Seven-tenths of those who read these lines know of one or more persons of colored blood who are “passing.”

As it turned out the Miriam Leslie rumours were unfounded, but Johnson at the time, believed it could have been true, and, if so, was “stranger than any fiction”. Which, ironically, just goes to prove the adage, whether the story was true or not!

Meanwhile, I was interested, though not surprised given how things are still playing out, in the disparity between Northern and Southern critical responses some 50 years or so after Abolition. Not strange at all, unfortunately.

James Weldon Johnson
“Stranger than fiction”
First published: New York Age, 1915
Available: Online at the Library of America

Bill curates: Mary Church Terrell’s What it means to be coloured …

Bill Curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. In 2011, when today’s post was first published, Barack Obama was in his first term as President and then Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, was pursuing a scorched earth policy of refusing to even allow Democrat legislation to be debated, with the stated aim of making Obama a one-termer. Obama got a second term, but then there was Trump, and racism in America seemed to take a giant step back into the light, giving new relevance to this talk from 1907.

This is the last Bill Curates post he sent me a few months ago. I intended to publish it then, but life, reading and blogging got busy, and I tucked this away in my drafts folder for another time. I think now is the time to post it and to thank Bill for the wonderful support he gave my blog through my dark year. It was so appreciated. Thank you Bill, you helped save my sanity.

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My original post titled: Mary Church Terrell, What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States

Mary Church Terrell. Public Domain, National Parks Service, via Wikipedia

I heard a radio interview this week with Jane Elliott of the brown-eye-blue-eye experiment fame, and she suggested that racism is still an issue  in the USA (through the efforts of a vocal minority) and is best demonstrated by the determination in certain quarters that Barack Obama will not win a second term*. It’s therefore apposite (perhaps) that my first Library of America post this year be on last week’s offering, “What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States” by Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954). This essay originated, according to LOA’s introductory notes, in a talk Terrell gave at a Washington women’s club in 1906. It was then published anonymously, LOA says, in The Independent, in 1907.

Now, I’d never heard of Terrell, but she sounds like one amazing woman. Not only did she live an impressive-for-the-times long life, but she had significant achievements, including being, it is believed, the first black woman to be appointed to a Board of Education (in 1895). She also helped found the National Association of Colored Women. On a slightly different tack, she was a long-time friend of H.G. Wells. Interesting woman, eh?

I have a few reasons for being interested in this essay, besides Jane Elliott’s comment. I lived in the DC area – in Northern Virginia – for two years in the early-mid 1980s and was surprised by some of my own experiences regarding race there. And, as a teen in the 1960s and early 1970s, I was aware of and fascinated by the Civil Rights movement in the USA. I was surprised but thrilled to hear, late last year, an audio version of John Howard Griffin‘s book, Black like me, that I read and loved back in those days.

But enough background. To the essay… I’ll start by saying that I’m not surprised that it began as a talk, because it seemed to ramble a bit. However, as I read on, some structure did start to appear. She starts by listing the various areas in which she, as a black woman, was (or would have been if she’d tried) discriminated against in the national capital. These include finding a boarding house and a place to eat, being able to use public transport, finding non-menial employment, being able to attend the theatre or a white church, and gaining an education. She introduces her section on transport as follows:

As a colored woman I cannot visit the tomb of the Father of this country, which owns its very existence to the love of freedom in the human heart and which stands for equal opportunity for all, without being forced to sit in the Jim Crow section of an electric car …

The irony here is not subtle – but she’s in the business of education where subtlety would not get her far!

She then returns to many of these issues – and this is where I started to wonder about her structure – but what she does is move from introducing the issues by using herself as an example to exploring each one using real examples of people she knows or has heard of. She describes, for example, how employers might be willing to employ a skilled black person, but are lobbied by other staff and threatened with boycotts by clients and so take the easy path of firing (or not hiring) the black person in favour of a white person. In one case the employer is  a Jew,

… and I felt that it was particularly cruel, unnatural and cold-blooded for the representative of one oppressed and persecuted race to deal so harshly and unjustly with a member of another.

You can guess why, in 1907, this was published anonymously!

Anyhow, I won’t repeat all the examples she provides to demonstrate the extent of prejudice at play, because you can read the essay yourself. I will simply end with her conclusion:

… surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep.

Some 100 or so years later, the US sees itself as the leader of the free world and yet it seems that this chasm is still rather wide. What are the chances that it will completely close one day?

* Please note that this is not a holier-than-thou post. We Aussies have our own problems with racism and prejudice, and so I am not about to throw stones at anyone else.

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I love that Bill decided to choose a non-Australian post for this BC. It’s so depressing to think that no improvements seem to have been made in the decade since I wrote this – there, or I fear in most countries. Certainly, statistics coming out here in Australia are showing no improvement in important measures, like life expectancy and incarceration. Indeed there’s been some sliding. This is not good enough.

Thoughts?

Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, woman, other (#BookReview)

If ever there was a “zeitgeist” book, Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize winning novel, Girl, woman, other is it. It might be an English-set novel about black British women, “the embodiment of Otherness”, but its concerns, ranging from ingrained inequality, racism and sexism to newer issues such as globalisation, are contemporary – and relevant far beyond its setting.

Take, for example, sexual violence. One young woman, after being raped, is not sure exactly what happened:

    wondering if he’d done anything wrong or was it her fault
    she should have stayed and talked to him about it
    he might have said he hadn’t heard her saying no

(Chapter 2: LaTisha)

This could have been set in Australia, given discussions happening here right now. It is truly troubling how many young women apparently feel uncertain about what they’ve experienced, and turn it back on themselves. But now, having leapt in to make my “zeitgeist” point, I’ll start again, properly!

Girl, woman, other is an astonishing book, as most of my reading group agreed. It’s fresh and exuberant, but oh so biting too. As much poetry as prose, it has minimal punctuation and yet it just flows. It’s a risky book – what great art isn’t? – because, in addition to its idiosyncratic style, it comprises multiple points-of-view that move back-and-forth in time. There are four main chapters, each divided into three parts with each part in the voice of a different character. This makes 12 voices in all! The voices within each chapter are closely related in some way – mothers, daughters, friends – but the links between the four chapters are more subtle. This demands much of the reader.

Fortunately, the voices are captivating. Spanning over a century, they range from the ultra-confident 19-year-old Yazz, daughter of a lesbian mother, to 93-year-old Hattie, a strong-minded farmer and great-grandmother. All are women, and all have some genetic links with African or Caribbean cultures, some from a few generations back, others being themselves migrants. Through them, Evaristo interrogates a diversity of experiences and responses to colour, in particular, in contemporary England. Hattie’s mother, for example, had an Abyssinian father, and she herself had married an African-American GI. However, with the colour fading amongst her descendants, the family is less than happy when it is reintroduced by Julie who “saw not the darkness of his skin but the lightness of his spirit”. Hattie reflects

    none of them identifies as black and she suspects they pass as white, which would sadden Slim if he was still around 
    she doesn’t mind, whatever works for them and if they can get away with it, good luck to them, why wear the burden of colour to hold you back?
    the only thing she objects to is when they objected to Chimango when he arrived on the scene, a fellow nurse at the hospital where Julie worked, from Malawi
    Hattie was sickened by their behaviour, they should’ve been more enlightened 
    but the family was becoming whiter with every generation 
    and they didn’t want any backsliding

(Chapter 4: Hattie)

You can see how well the language flows, and how accessible it is. It’s experimental but unforced. You can also see the author’s approach to her subject matter, which is to show, through her characters, different behaviours, values and attitudes. With 12 characters telling of their interactions with even more people, the breadth of humanity Evaristo encompasses is breathtaking – and it is all done without judgement. Some characters might, and do, judge each other, but Evaristo doesn’t. She lets them speak for themselves, which requires us to read attentively.

So, when Dominique’s female lover increasingly restricts her life, we see abusive control long before she does. And, when 93-year-old Hattie’s mother, Grace, experiences postpartum depression in the early 20th century, it is not named. Who talked about that then? But we recognise it immediately.

Issues come and go in this novel, whether they are up-to-the-minute topics, such as Brexit or transgender rights, or ongoing issues in women’s lives such as violence or ageing. Underpinning it all, however, is race and inequality. Being “othered” is common to Evaristo’s characters, and they all deal with it differently, but we see very clearly its debilitating, devastating impact.

    oh to be one of the privileged of this world who take it for granted that it’s their right to surf the globe unhindered, unsuspected, respected

(Chapter 2: Carole)

By now you might be thinking a few things – that the novel is heavy-going, perhaps, or that it’s chaotic. But nothing doing. For all its seriousness – and there are definitely grim moments – the novel has a light touch, frequently bitingly satiric, sometimes simply funny, always human. Nineteen-year-old Yazz, for example, is a hoot with her teenage know-it-all confidence. Many recognise their failings, as they grow older, such as Amma appreciating her father too late or Carole realising her supportive teacher had feelings. Transgender Morgan, the epitome of the modern activist, speaks many truths:

    Megan was part Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian, and part English
    which felt weird when you broke it down like that because essentially she was just a complete human being

Chapter 4: Megan/Morgan

And, although the novel may sound chaotic, it does have an overarching structure. It starts hours before Amma’s play – the one she hopes will finally make her name – is to premiere at the National Theatre, and it ends with the After Party and an Epilogue, which, combined, bring most of the characters together. The ending, in fact, is clever. The After Party is political, drawing together the threads and reminding us that there’s a long way to go before black people in white societies are not defined by their colour. The Epilogue, on the other hand, is personal, showing us that there’s always human connection and that that, really, is the stuff of life – if only we could all see it.

Girl, woman, other is such a read. Uncompromising in its politics, but also warm and cheeky, it offers heart and intelligence in equal measure.

Bernadine Evaristo
Girl, woman, other
Hamish Hamilton, 2019
453pp.
ISBN: 9780241985007 (ebook)

Karen Jennings, Upturned earth (#BookReview)

Book coverIntroducing my review of South African writer Karen Jennings’ debut novel, Finding Soutbek, I noted that I don’t normally accept review copies from non-Australian publishers but that I will, very occasionally, make an exception if the writer or subject matter interests me. Upturned earth, Jenning’s fifth book, is set in a nineteenth century mining town. Given some general similarities between colonial South Africa and Australia, and my own, albeit youthful, experience of living in a mining town, I was intrigued to read it.

Upturned earth is set in 1886 in Namaqualand, the copper mining district of what was then Cape Colony. It’s an arid region crossing the South African-Nambian border, with its largest town being Springbok (Springbokfontein at the time of the novel). The novel commences with the arrival by boat from Cape Town of 28-year-old William Hull, who is due to take over as magistrate. On first appearances, Hull seems almost like an antihero:

Weak-willed, forgetful, Hull was a poor employee. He did as he was told, yet somehow was never able to fulfil the chores of the position with the same success as his colleagues did. He confused cases, misfiled documents, knocked over inkwells.

In fact, it seems that he is more interested in nature, than work. “He carried,” we’re told, “the droppings of animals folded in handkerchiefs, kept pink newborns warm in his hat”. However, on realising he had been given the job “because no other man would take it”, he resolves to “be firm. Punishments would be meted out. The law would be laid down.”

Unfortunately, life as Okiep’s Magistrate is not as he expects. Slowly, he learns that no-one in Okiep is independent, not even the Magistrate, because the town is unofficially run by the Cape Copper Mining Company. Its head is the Super, Mr Townsend, whose widowed daughter, Iris McBride, returns to Namaqualand on the same boat as Hull. Initially, despite hints to the contrary, he doesn’t realise the true situation, so settles down to a life of work and following his naturalist’s heart, which sees him going out in every spare moment to collect plant and animal specimens. He’s keen to contribute to scientific knowledge. But, the irony is that in “trying to understand the dead things around him”, he is overlooking the live ones.

The narrative is told through two parallel stories. Hull’s is one, the other is Noki’s. He’s a Xhosa mining labourer, one of many who come into Okiep to work and send money home to families in the surrounding regions. Noki, though, has an added concern. While he is away visiting family, his 17-year-old brother Anele is arrested for drunken and disruptive behaviour, and is imprisoned in the gaol attached to Hull’s Residence. This gaol is managed by gaoler-cum-Hull’s-manservant, Genricks. He dissuades Hull from inspecting the gaol. After all, he has it all in hand, and weak Hull, though making an attempt to do the right thing, lets himself be put off.

Given the novel is set in a colonial society, and one involving mines with white and indigenous workers overseen by an arrogant brutal man, you’ll have a picture of what this novel is about. Gradually, things come to a head and people’s true colours are exposed. It’s to his credit that Hull comes to his senses and finds a strength he didn’t know he had – but the calamity can’t all the righted, and the ending is an appropriate one. This is literary historical fiction, so it doesn’t all play out to form, opting for something a little more realistic. I’ll leave the plot at that.

The perfectly titled Upturned earth is Jennings’ third novel. Her writing is tight and expressive. She talks about indigenous workers being “broken down into acceptance”, and here is Hull’s perspective of the place after he suffers a disappointment:

… and he saw as though with new eyes what he had lived in and grown accustomed to these past months. The dull sky, the wearying streets and stained homes, the disgrace of the prison building.

Plain language, but it is all that’s needed.

Why?

The important question to ask about historical fiction is – why? The obvious answer is that there are many stories worth telling, stories that the majority of us have never heard, like, for example, Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay (my review) about abortionist Rebecca Sinclair who was gaoled in Long Bay in 1909, and Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (my review) about the demolition of homes in the 1920s to make way for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Jennings explains her reason for writing this book in her Author’s Note and Acknowledgements. She was inspired John M. Smalberger’s book, Aspects of the history of copper mining in Namaqualand (1846-1931), in which she found magistrate William Charles Scully. From there she went to various other books, including Scully’s own reminiscences. This is fiction, however, so, says Jennings, her character Hull’s “weaknesses are all his own”. However, the brutality (and name) of gaoler Genricks are fact, though the events relating to him, the Super and others have been fictionalised. Then comes her main point: she sees her novel as being “a comment on the history of commercial mining in South Africa – the exploitation, conditions and corruption that began in the 1850s and continue to the present”.

The novel, then, is a plea for humanity, for kindness. Here is Hull, halfway through the novel, talking with Cornish miner Tregowning whom he has just met. Tregowning describes the mistreatment of the miners, and particularly the indigenous ones, but Hull can’t quite believe or accept what he is saying:

Tregowning turned to face the magistrate. ‘Are we not taught to vindicate the weak and fatherless, to help the afflicted and destitute, to rescue the feeble and needy? To deliver them out of the hands of the wicked?’

Hull looked around uneasily. His tongue felt thick as he spoke. ‘Some would call those revolutionary words.’

‘I thought they were biblical.’

Which way will our weak Mr Hull go is the question we confront as we read. But, the theme is clear from the start – man’s inhumanity to man (especially in these colonial environments) and what can be done about it. Pondering what has changed and what hasn’t is why we read historical fiction. I enjoyed this book.

Karen Jennings
Upturned earth
London: Holland Park Press, 2019
202pp.
ISBN: 9781907320910

(Review copy courtesy Holland Park Press)

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The hate race: A memoir (Review)

This is how it changes us. This is how we are altered.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The hate raceMaxine Beneba Clarke’s Stella Prize short-listed memoir, The hate race, is one powerful book. I’ve been reading about racism since my teens during the Civil Rights years, and have read many moving novels and memoirs. Clarke’s book holds its own in this company.

The book chronicles Clarke’s life from early childhood through to the end of high school, but she bookends this chronological story with a prologue and epilogue which are set later, during her son’s first year of school. This approach to structuring her story is effective, because it enables her to reflect on what’s changed a generation later. And the answer is, not much, which is such an indictment on Australian society.

Before saying more, though, I need to back-pedal a bit, and make sure you know who Clarke is – besides being the writer of a well-reviewed collection of short stories, Foreign soil. She’s the Australian-born daughter of West Indian-born parents who migrated to Australia from England in 1976. As a young girl she was mystified by people asking her where she was from, and confounded when these same questioners became angry when she responded, honestly, Australia. This is, I know, a common story, but is not, I think, well-documented in our literature. However, as Clarke would say, what’s a story for, if not to tell how it went.

And that’s what she does, tells us how it went – and went, and went. The bulk of the story is, as I’ve said, told chronologically but Clarke hangs each chapter, each step in her chronology, around a specific topic, such as her involvement in sport or debating, or that transition period between primary school and high school. She captures beautifully the trajectory of thirteen years of schooling from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s. Although everyone’s experience is different, much of what she describes is universal: the first day of school, the yearning for a specific toy (like a Cabbage Patch Kid), parties, first love, getting braces, and so on. What isn’t universal, though, is her experience of being a child of colour.

This is how …

Reading her story is gut-wrenching. She faces racism – direct and indirect, intended and unintended – from her first day of pre-school to the end of high school. One high school class-mate, who ranks the girls in the class (as if that’s an acceptable thing to do anyhow), doesn’t rank her at all “because animals didn’t count. Greg Adams said that would be bestiality”. She’s called every name you could possibly think of – and more you probably couldn’t. She’s spat at and threatened. Luckily, she has friends too – otherwise it’s hard to imagine how she could have survived.

The disappointing thing is the inept handling by the schools, because it’s clear that for all the work ostensibly being done in schools to promote tolerance and harmony, only some of it is getting through*. There’s only so much schools can do, of course, given students’ main role models are their parents, but the least teachers can do is take the racist behaviour seriously and respond in a meaningful and supportive way. This, however, is not always the case: “He’s trying to wind you up. It’s just a little bit of nonsense. Don’t give him the satisfaction, Maxine”, says one high school principal, for example. That’s not good enough. Writing about her early primary school years, Clarke says this:

I knew before I started big school that, for me, the playground would always be a battlefield: a world divided into allies and enemies. At five and a half, racism had already changed me.

After a while, you start to breathe it. Another kid’s parents stare over at our family on the first day of school with that look on their faces. You make a mental note to stay away from that kid … You tell a teacher someone is calling you names. Blackie. Monkey girl. Golliwog. The teacher stares at you, exasperated, as if to say: Do you really expect me to do something about it? The next time you have a grievance, you look for a different teacher. This is how it changes us. This is how we’re altered.

Towards the end of the book, her boyfriend asks her to come to his place to swim in his family’s pool. She’s uncertain:

I had no reason to believe Marcus’ family would have an issue with the two of us, based on what I knew of them, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself through the stress of finding out.

This is how we edit our lives.

How we brace against the blows.

The book isn’t unmitigated misery. Clarke mixes up the tone, sometimes using humour to make her point – it never hurts, after all, to see the absurd side of things – but the book is a memoir, not an autobiography. This means that it is not about the whole life but a part of it, and in Clarke’s case the part that she wants to share, to expose, is her experience of racism while growing up. Her goal was not vindictive. She writes in her Acknowledgements that she loves Australia, but she wanted to show “the extreme toll that casual, overt and institutionalised racism can take: the way it erodes us all”. That, she certainly does.

There are things about the book that I could quibble about, but they are petty in the face of its overall power. I don’t like to describe books as “important” or to say that everyone must read them, but for a readable and devastating understanding of how racism, in all its guises, impacts on a personal, rather than a theoretical or historical level, The hate race is essential. It’s a story that needs, as indeed Clarke aimed, to be “written into Australian letters”. It deserves the accolades it has received.

Kim (Reading Matters) also admired this book.

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Maxine Beneba Clarke
The hate race
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2016
261pp.
ISBN: 9780733632280

* This is the 1980s and 1990s I know, but I use present tense here about schools because it’s pretty clear that not a lot has changed.

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)

Barbara Baynton, Billy Skywonkie (Review)

awwchallenge2014Well, I must say that “Billy Skywonkie”, my fifth* story from Barbara Baynton’s Bush studies, fair near defeated me, so I was rather relieved to read in Susan Sheridan’s introduction that “in this story and others, Baynton’s use of dialect to represent the speech of these uneducated bush folk can also act as a barrier to understanding”. I did understand it, but only just in places. I reckon it would be a good one to hear in audio version.

The story concerns a woman from the city coming to work as “a housekeeper” on a station in drought-ridden outback Australia. It starts on the train, in which she travels with a bunch of drovers accompanying their cattle. En route several cattle die in the heat and squash of their carriage, and the drovers make no attempt to speak nicely to the woman sharing their journey. This sets the scene for the coarse speech, lack of any sort of chivalry, and racist attitudes that feature in the rest of the story after she is picked up by rouseabout Billy Skywonkie in the buggy.

On the first page, Baynton describes the country our female passenger is coming to:

The tireless greedy sun had swiftly followed the grey dawn, and in the light that even now seemed old and worn, the desolation of the barren, shelterless plains that the night had hidden, appalled her.

As she alights at the Gooriabba siding her dismay – and hesitation – as the train disappears in the distance is palpable. There is a buggy waiting but, although she is the only person to alight, the driver seems not to recognise that she is his passenger! We’ve been given no description of our passenger – we have no idea how old she is, what her background is, or why she’s coming outback –  but clearly she’s not the “piece” Billy was expecting. “There’ll be a ‘ell of a row somew’ere” he rather ominously pronounces.

Most of the rest of the story concerns the 12-mile trip – perhaps a bit more given Billy’s shortcut to the “shanty” – to the station. Nothing that happens on the trip goes anywhere near reassuring our passenger or, in fact, the reader, that things are going to get better. Billy evinces no kindness to his charge – leaving her sitting in the hot buggy while he has a drink and a flirt with Mag in the shanty – though he is kind to the drunk kangaroo-shooter collapsed in the sun outside the shanty. That’s telling.

This is racist country. Chows or Chinks in particular are not liked. “Blanky bush Chinkies! I call ’em. No one can tell them apart”. Billy would rather “tackle a gin as a chow any day”, and we soon learn why. His missus, Lizer, is “dusky”, and has him under her thumb, though not enough to prevent his little side-trips to Mag!

There’s rough humour here. The characters tease Billy Skywonkie (whose name apparently means “weather-prophet”) with the question, which they find hilarious, “W’en’s it goin’ ter rain?”. There’s no lightness in the story’s humour though. It’s mostly bitter, unkind stuff, as though the land doesn’t encourage any sort of empathy or genuine relationship. Baynton’s people in this story are not the heroic or tragicomic bushmen of Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and Adam Lindsay Gordon. They are, well, base – and the story’s unrelenting language leaves us in no doubt regarding how we are to read it.

When Billy finally arrives at the station with his charge, things do not turn out well, but why is something I’ll leave you to found out (by reading the story in the link below). My problem, though, is that not telling you why severely hampers my discussion of this story. It’s interesting that “Billy Skywonkie” is not as well known as “The chosen vessel” or “Squeaker’s mate” because its exploration of racism, in particular, must surely be pioneering. I certainly found it powerful when I realised what had been going on under my nose! It may be that the challenges involved in reading it, and the ambiguities it contains, put readers off, but it deserves wider readership and attention.

And now, I have one story to go to complete my reading of Bush stories. What an interesting and eye-opening collection it is for one used to romanticising the bush!

Barbara Baynton
“Billy Skywonkie”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953

Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg.

*For my previous reviews of stories in this book, click the appropriate title: A dreamerScrammy ‘and, Squeaker’s mate, The chosen vessel.

Paddy O’Reilly, The salesman (Review)

I’ve been wanting to read Paddy O’Reilly for the longest time but somehow haven’t managed to get to her so, as is my wont, I decided to read a short story of hers in the Griffith Review. She made her name, I think, with her short stories, but has also written novels/novellas and a screenplay, and is a regular contributor to Australia’s best literary magazines.

I know you wouldn’t expect this of me, but I’ve just told a lie – just a white one, your honour – because I have read a couple of articles by Paddy O’Reilly, and I did read her opening story in Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2, published in 2010. The story was titled “How to write a short story”. It’s a very short piece, just over a page, but it was my first, albeit very short, introduction to O’Reilly. The piece is presented as a recipe, with a list of steps, such as:

Test whether the story is done by inserting a reader. If the reader comes out clean, the story is done. If the reader comes out sticky, place the story back into the situation for another 500 words.

This story suggested to me that O’Reilly is not afraid to let women’s experience underpin her writing. But, this doesn’t mean that she wants her writing to be labelled “women’s fiction”. As she asks in her recent post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012, what is women’s fiction? Writing for women? About women? By women? I’m inclined to agree with her that it’s not a useful distinction. What after all is “men’s fiction”? Categorising works as “women’s fiction” has the potential to (and in fact does already) marginalise, trivialise even, women writers and readers. So, like Paddy O’Reilly, I tend not to think in terms of “women’s fiction”. I do, however, and I’d argue this is quite different, like to focus on “women writers”.  Hence, here I am, reading (more) Paddy O’Reilly …

“The salesman” is set in a working class suburb of Melbourne where there’s 80% unemployment. It features a salesman (obviously), a young woman named Marly, and her boyfriend and his mate. The story opens with the young woman alone at home. It’s hot and life is clearly not much fun. Her boyfriend Shaun and his mate, Azza, spend their days working on cars, their heads “under the bonnet like stupid long-necked emus”. And, the fridge is “moaning”. Such language in the first paragraph makes it pretty clear that Marly is not a happy woman. In fact, we learn a little later on that she has lost part of a leg, creating an effective metaphor for a life that is missing something critical. Pran, the salesman, appears in the fourth paragraph. He’s a Hindu from Delhi but Marly, and later Shaun and Azza, persist in calling him a Paki.

Pran insists he’s not selling anything, but after Shaun and Azza return, we finally learn that what he is “selling” is a free offer! Shaun and Azza, as (stereotypically) men often do in these situations, lead Pran on while Marly is conflicted. Shaun is an “attentive” boyfriend. “She would not do better than this”, not better, she thinks, than a man “who had not once in eleven months raised a hand to her”. But, she’s attracted to Pran, to his “rich burnt-toffee” coloured skin and his “runny dark brown” eyes. It’s not just the physical though.  She senses through him, through her questions about his beliefs, that there could be more to life than hanging around waiting for the men to bring home beer and pizza. She does not want his visit to end in violence as, we are told, has happened before.

I’ll say no more about the plot. This is a story about the underside of modern Australia. It’s about poverty and deprivation and how these result in an arid, goal-less life in which there is little empathy for other. It’s about racism, about how, if you are the wrong colour, years of study can lead you to peddling “free offers” to people who can’t afford them. The ending is clever. While we are told the general outcome, we have to guess what really went down. What we do know, though, is that no-one ended up a winner. This is just the sort of story I like – it’s accessible, it has a clear vision with a tight focus, and it raises more questions than it answers. You can read it online at the link below.

Paddy O’Reilly
“The salesman”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 29, August 2010
Availability: Online at the Griffith Review

Mary Church Terrell, What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States

Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell (Public Domain from the National Park Service, via Wikipedia)

I heard a radio interview this week with Jane Elliott of the brown-eye-blue-eye experiment fame, and she suggested that racism is still an issue  in the USA (through the efforts of a vocal minority) and is best demonstrated by the determination in certain quarters that Barack Obama will not win a second term*. It’s therefore apposite (perhaps) that my first Library of America post this year be on last week’s offering, “What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States” by Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954). This essay originated, according to LOA’s introductory notes, in a talk Terrell gave at a Washington women’s club in 1906. It was then published anonymously, LOA says, in The Independent, in 1907.

Now, I’d never heard of Terrell, but she sounds like one amazing woman. Not only did she live an impressive-for-the-times long life, but she had significant achievements, including being, it is believed, the first black woman to be appointed to a Board of Education (in 1895). She also helped found the National Association of Colored Women. On a slightly different tack, she was a long-time friend of H.G. Wells. Interesting woman, eh?

I have a few reasons for being interested in this essay, besides Jane Elliott’s comment. I lived in the DC area – in Northern Virginia – for two years in the early-mid 1980s and was surprised by some of my own experiences regarding race there. And, as a teen in the 1960s and early 1970s, I was aware of and fascinated by the Civil Rights movement in the USA. I was surprised but thrilled to hear, late last year, an audio version of John Howard Griffin‘s book, Black like me, that I read and loved back in those days.

But enough background. To the essay… I’ll start by saying that I’m not surprised that it began as a talk, because it seemed to ramble a bit. However, as I read on, some structure did start to appear. She starts by listing the various areas in which she, as a black woman, was (or would have been if she’d tried) discriminated against in the national capital. These include finding a boarding house and a place to eat, being able to use public transport, finding non-menial employment, being able to attend the theatre or a white church, and gaining an education. She introduces her section on transport as follows:

As a colored woman I cannot visit the tomb of the Father of this country, which owns its very existence to the love of freedom in the human heart and which stands for equal opportunity for all, without being forced to sit in the Jim Crow section of an electric car …

The irony here is not subtle – but she’s in the business of education where subtlety would not get her far!

She then returns to many of these issues – and this is where I started to wonder about her structure – but what she does is move from introducing the issues by using herself as an example to exploring each one using real examples of people she knows or has heard of. She describes, for example, how employers might be willing to employ a skilled black person, but are lobbied by other staff and threatened with boycotts by clients and so take the easy path of firing (or not hiring) the black person in favour of a white person. In one case the employer is  a Jew,

… and I felt that it was particularly cruel, unnatural and cold-blooded for the representative of one oppressed and persecuted race to deal so harshly and unjustly with a member of another.

You can guess why, in 1907, this was published anonymously!

Anyhow, I won’t repeat all the examples she provides to demonstrate the extent of prejudice at play, because you can read the essay yourself. I will simply end with her conclusion:

… surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep.

Some 100 or so years later, the US sees itself as the leader of the free world and yet it seems that this chasm is still rather wide. What are the chances that it will completely close one day?

* Please note that this is not a holier-than-thou post. We Aussies have our own problems with racism and prejudice, and so I am not about to throw stones at anyone else.