AndAlso Books, All We Could Do

Nicky Boynton-Bricknell & Duncan Richardson (editors), All We Could Do: Queensland flu stories 1918–1920 (AndAlso Books 2020)

AndAlso Books is a self-described boutique publishing house based in Brisbane. Last year they published Bjelke Blues, an excellent collection of reminiscences about the Jo Bjelke-Petersen days, which was a startling reminder that Australia is not immune from erratic authoritarianism. When I read that at the beginning of May this year AndAlso had published a collection of prose pieces about the flu pandemic in Queensland 1918–20, I was in awe of the timing. And who better to initiate the project than commissioning editor Matthew Wengert, whose City of Masks: How Brisbane Fought the Spanish Flu was published in 2019?

I’m sorry to report that my overwhelming sense of this book is of a wasted opportunity.

The history is fascinating, The New South Wales border was closed and hundreds of travellers were stranded in Tenterfield and then Wallangarra. The flu came to Queensland late, but it did come. The town of Mackay went into self-isolation, completely cut off from the rest of the world for a time. Beef tea, eucalyptus oil and occasionally raw onions had almost talismanic status. Masks, isolation and quarantine chime with out current experience. Then as now, heroic individuals put their lives on the line to care for the infected, and for the general community in small towns. Over it all, there was the terrible reality that the pandemic followed on the heels of the Great War.

But the book feels as if it was put together on a shoestring without the input of professional designers or proofreaders. The latters’ absence is most desperately evident in what might otherwise have been one of the most engrossing pieces, which seems to have been saved from MS Word with the Track Changes button left on – so that original text and replacement are both still there. This isn’t just me being my usual nitpicky self: the reading experience was often physically unpleasant and in on a couple of pages the text was unintelligible.

Having said that, there are fascinating photos including some of the quarantine camps at Wallangarra and Tenterfield, and one of the contents page of a booklet of Recipes for Invalid Cookery that made me glad all over for Australia’s current cultural diversity. And most of the stories are worth the struggle.

Matthew Wengert’s introduction describes the pieces in the book as ‘creative non-fiction narratives’. That description covers a range – from historical fiction to narrative history, with various hybrids in between, of which the most successful to my mind is a fictional narrative interspersed with historical documents. Call me rigid, but I like to be clear about the relationship what I’m reading has to what we know really happened.

The piece I found most engaging is ‘Breath of Life’, a straightforward piece of fiction by Edwina Shaw, who (full disclosure) is my niece and my reason for having heard of AndAlso at all. ‘Breath of Life’ is the Maryborough story, though a good half of it is taken up with the wartime experience of its protagonist. We don’t care if the protagonist is based on a historical person. The writing makes us believe in the physical reality of his experiences of mustard gas, of killing a young German man at close range, of re-entering civilian life, of contracting the flu.

Andrea Baldwin’s ‘Love and Duty’, the Eidsvold story, does a nice job of incorporating bush-fiction tropes into its tale of a doctor called out to attend sick stockmen, and then in a short Author’s Note lets the fascinating historical context come tumbling in.

Steve Capelin’s ‘Two Zero Eight’, the North Queensland story, is a first-person narrative about an Italian migrant. shockingly, Italian men living in queensland were rounded up by Australian military police and shipped off under guard to do military service in Italy. The troop ship SS Medic set out from Sydney on 2 November 1918. The war ended before it got much New Zealand and in an eerie pre-echo of the Ruby Princess it brought the virus back to Sydney. The story ends with the narrator admiring the view across Sydney Harbour from his grave in the Third Quarantine Cemetery (the grave marker doesn’t bear his name, just the number 208).

Just Plain Scared‘ by Ron Glazebrook and Matthew Wengert, is the Townsville story. Townsville was ‘the heart of the Red North’, and there was a massive demonstration of waterside workers and others demanding successfully to have an approaching ship properly quarantined. This story gives a clear, straightforward account of the history interspersed with short diary entries by a young railway worker. I would have liked a note telling us whether the diary was real or invented.

The other piece I want to single out is ‘Big Sickness Come Ailan’ by Samantha Faulkner and Rita Metzenrath, Thursday Island/Weiben’s story. This is the only piece to have First Nations characters at the centre, though others refer to the devastating effect of the pandemic on some First Nations communities. (And I note in passing that as a North Queenslander I noticed the absence of Chinese and Islander voices, but you can’t have everything.) Samantha Faulkner is a Wuthuthi/Yadhaigana woman from Cape York Peninsula and Badu and Moa Islands, and Rita Metzenrath (whose name is given incorrectly in two places) is a senior officer at AIATSIS. The story is strong, of a terribly bereaved Torres Strait Islander man forming an alliance and friendship with a white woman from Rockhampton, but the kicker comes in a short endnote: there were 96 deaths recorded for the Torres Strait and Cape York, though the “exact number of Torres Strait Islander people who were affected by and died during the influenza pandemic is hard to quantify as they were collectively included under the term “coloured people” with Malays and Japanese.’

The AndAlso website promises a new book for publication this month: Our Inside Voices:Reflections on Covid-19, featuring writers such as Nick Earls, Samuel Wagan Watson and Jessica White. If they spend the extra money on a proofreader it should be something to look forward to.

Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort Food

Ellen van Neerven, Comfort Food (UQP 2016)

tl;dr: This is a terrific book. If you want a proper, thoughtful, well-informed review, you could read ‘Caitlin Mailing Reviews Ellen van Neerven’ in the Cordite Poetry Review, 22 August 2016, link here.

A poem by Ellen van Neerven made headlines late in 2017 when it appeared in the NSW Higher School Certificate exam. That it was there without the poet’s prior knowledge or consent isn’t what made the news – evidently that’s just standard practice. The headlines came from massive social-media trolling by students, all of it disgusting, much of it explicitly racist, and some of it threatening violence.

The poem was ‘Mango’, which appears on page 19 of Comfort Food. I’ve gotta say if that sweet reminiscence from when the writer was eight years old inspires you to make death threats, then you’re not a happy camper. I hope those adolescent cyber-haters have found a way past their exam-triggered, genocide-flavoured rage to seek out this book and sit with it a while.

What they would find is a generous, richly varied collection of short poems in which van Neerven wrangles into words some of what it means to be a particular First Nations person in Australia. van Neerven is a Yugambeh woman from south-east Queensland, living – according to my reading of the poems – in inner-city Melbourne, and that simple statement contains enough complexity for any number of poems.

The book is in six untitled sections of uneven length. Food is a strong motif, from chips to kangaroo tails in a wide range of situations, not all of them comforting or comfortable by a long shot (though the old use of ‘comfort’ to mean ‘strengthening’ is somewhere there). The poems do keep coming back to food, and the effect is to assert the poet’s survival and to remind the reader of what we have in common, even when hard matters of racism and genocide are being canvassed.

If you want a considered review of the whole book, I recommend Caitlin Mailing’s review in the Cordite Poetry Review (link here) or Kylie Thompson’s in Westerly (link here). When I started writing about it I couldn’t get past the first poem, ‘Whole Lot’, so I’m not going to even try.

‘Whole Lot’ is a response to Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s monumental painting Big Yam Dreaming (there’s a photo, and the poem, at this link, but this is a painting that cries out to be seen in person, and the poem differs in minor but significant ways from the one in the book). The poem’s title is taken from the artist’s reply when asked what the painting was about: ‘Whole lot, that’s whole lot.’ (I’m grateful for a note at the back of the book, without which I might have been baffled at first reading of the poem and not returned to it.)

The poem captures an experience of standing in front of that painting, of letting it work on the viewer. Let me walk you through my reading of it, stanza by stanza. Feel free to skip my commentary and just read the poem itself. First, a hint for readers who are intimidated by poetry: think of the line-endings as full stops, or at least commas. Here goes:

Whole Lot

family, earth
dingo, eagle
fire, food
Whole Lot
it’s all of those things

These opening lines reflects on what ‘Whole Lot’ means for the speaker. These are not the elements that Emily Kame Kngwarreye named in the rest of her reply I didn’t quote above – she spoke of her Dreaming, yams, lizards, emus. This is not an explication of the painting. It’s a response to it.

what we eat comes from our roots
if we stop sharing there will be nothing 

At a literal level, the painting represents a yam’s complex root system, which gives rise to this fairly abstract reflection. I read ‘we’ here as referring to all of humanity. The book’s food theme is introduced. The second line of this couplet follows logically from the first because of the implied metaphor: our spirits are nourished by contact with our roots, and we make that contact by sharing. But then:

we start with black
let it get hold of you
look at the stars
or are you afraid to?

Here, ‘we’ are the people who are looking at the painting with the poem’s speaker. Our attention shifts to the painting’s black background, beyond the complex interconnection of yam roots, as a place to start seeing it, surrendering to it. But ‘we’ is also all humanity, and ‘black’ could be a reference to our African origins, or the darkness of the womb, or, as the next line narrows it down, the blackness of the night sky, so that the painting’s complex lines are now constellations. You almost don’t notice the shift from ‘we’ to ‘you’ in the second line. Maybe here the painting is speaking to the viewer, including me/us, the poem’s reader/s.

The fourth line evokes for me a whole tradition in European literature where the night sky, the space behind the stars, is the subject of existential dread: Blaise Pascal, grim 17th century Christian, wrote, ‘Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinies m’effraie / The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me’; Kenneth Slessor, in his poem ‘Stars’, spoke of ‘Infinity’s trap-door, eternal and merciless.’ But here, rather than a statement, it’s a question about fear, asked of ‘you’, and I don’t think it’s the same fear as Pascal and Slessor were taking about: it’s not so much fear of infinite emptiness and silence, of nothingness, as a fear of facing an underlying and possibly sustaining reality.

the day shows
country spread open
a map of all that was and will be
don’t forget it
I’m tracing it to remember
don’t be scared

Underground, the night sky, and now a map of the land in daylight. A painting like Big Yam Dreaming can sustain multiple readings. In this stanza the painting speaks to us, offering – I’ll use the word because it’s in the book’s title – comfort. It’s not comfort as a gentle soothing, but a promise of knowledge that will fortify, a solid sense of totality that you can hold in memory. The painting is not just a decorative object, but a source of strength.

In this stanza ‘I’ appears for the first time. There are no capital letters in the whole poem except for ‘Whole Lot’, ‘I’, and later ‘Mibunn’. It may be idiosyncratic of me but I think of John Henry Newman writing in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua that there were ‘two luminous beings, myself and my Creator’. In this poem there are just three capitalised beings: the speaker, the painting and Mibunn. In this stanza, though, I’m not sure if ‘I’ is the painting or its viewer.

we are not here until we sit here
we sit in silence and we are open
there are different kinds of time
I hope you'll understand

What a brilliant description of sitting in front of a great work of art and letting it work on you.

sing it
I want this to be here
when I leave again
I’ve been leaving a lot of times
it doesn’t mean I want to
there is no easy way to cry
tell them I’ll be back soon
when I come back and sit here
I want to still see Mibunn
powering through the sky

On first reading I thought this was somehow about death and reincarnation. And you may read it like that. But my mind has settled on a reading at the level of a relationship with a painting. That shifty ‘I’ has settled on being the painting’s viewer. And there is no more ‘we’: the poem is now intensely personal, having left generalisations behind. After the stillness of the previous stanza, this one begins with elation – what comes next is to be sung. I will leave the painting reluctantly, as I have many times before, but it’s important to me that it’s still here, and I will return to it.

In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker’s Indigenous identity comes into play explicitly for the first time. I had to look up ‘Mibunn’: it’s the wedge tail eagle, a totem of the Yugambeh people, harking back to the eagle in the first stanza. Somehow, Big Yam Dreaming by a great Anmatyerre artist from the Northern Territory can speak to a Yugambeh poet from south-east Queensland through a painting in a gallery in Melbourne, remind her of deep cultural truths. As a settler Australian reader of the poem, I feel welcomed to read/listen without feeling that I’m eavesdropping.

let me tell you with my skin
under the earth we will find
Whole Lot
it’s all of those things

Here it’s the poet speaking to her reader. I hear her as saying that her encounter with the painting has deepened her sense of connection to her Yugambeh cultural roots. ‘with my skin’ refers to her blac(k)ness, ‘under the earth’ to the subject of the painting, and the poem ends with a direct quote from the artist.

Enjoying a poem is one thing. Saying why is another thing altogether. This poem has pulled me in, and kept me there for any number of readings over the last weeks. Maybe it’s that it establishes such a solid ground of shared humanity at a deep level – a level I associate with religious intensity – before moving to specifically Indigenous experience, where I can’t follow, but it’s there for me to witness. That’s the best I can manage for now.


Comfort Food is the thirteenth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


This review is a contribution to Indigenous Literature Week hosted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers blog.

SWF 2020, Post 4

I read a lot, but I’ve now listened to 20 podcasts from the virtual 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival, and not only have I not read any of the books being discussed, but I haven’t read any books written by the people on the podcasts, not even, in the case of Kathy Lette, Puberty Blues. It’s some consolation that three the five sessions I’m blogging about here about about kinds of books that I rarely read these days, if I ever have.

Unlike previous sessions, each of these joined like with like: two Greens, two children of refugee parents, two YA genre writers, two journalists-turned-or-turning-crime novelists, two feminist comic performers.

Bob Brown: Planet Earth Jun 11, 2020

This chat between two environmental activists and former Greens Senators Bob Brown and Scott Ludlam is what you would expect. You (and I mean ‘I’) may not agree with Bob Brown’s every position and action, but he has surely been a major force for good in Austraoian politics. His voice is as richly sonorous as ever, and he challenges his listeners as much as he reassures. The pretext for this conversation is his new book Planet Earth, which from his description is a Little Green Book of quotations, tailor-made for this age of short attention spans, and probably to be found on the front counter of your local independent bookshop. Brown says at one point that he will be going to the Galilee Basin or elsewhere in the coming months, ‘to join with the people who are directly standing in the way of the destruction of those places,’ and he continues, challengingly and with his characteristic disdain for compromise:

It’s very hard to understand why people don’t, because to do nothing is to aid and abet the flourishing of the destruction of our planet and that’s gong faster than ever before in history. It’s very hard to understand why so many people think that that is outside their capability. It’s not. The Franklin would be dammed from end to end now had 6 thousand people not gone to Strachan in the early 80s and 1500 of those got arrested. It’s very fulfilling. I’ve not run into anybody who was arrested or gaoled during the Franklin campaign who hasn’t said, ‘That’s one of the greatest things that happened in my whole life. I’m so glad I did that.’ …

I keep saying that at the last election – 2May 2019 – ninety percent of Australians, and one must assume the majority of people listening to our conversation, voted for candidates who stood for more coal mines, more gas extraction, more forest destruction, which for the Liberal party, the National Party, the Labor Party, One Nation, is their ongoing policy. When I say this at meetings there’s always somebody who angrily comes up and says, ‘Well, I voted for one of the big parties, biggest parties, but I wasn’t voting for that.’ My answer to that is, ‘Yes, but that’s because the planet’s not your priority. Your wallet is. Take your choice, but that’s the reality.’

He has a little picture book in the works, and is planning Defiance, about taking action: ‘How do we take on what’s going wrong with the planet, and how do we catapult what’s going right with the planet into the predominant mode of action and thinking for eight million human beings?’


Vivian Pham: The Coconut Children Jun 15, 2020

This is a conversation between two Vietnamese-Australians, both children of refugees. An earlier version of Vivian Pham’s novel The Coconut Children was published a couple of years ago, when she was still a teenager. It was written as part of a project to encourage school children to write, and stands as a salutary reminder not to patronise young people. It’s a historical novel set in an era before Ms Pham was born, the late 1990s. In this podcast she talks to Sheila Ngoc Pham, who produces documentaries and stories for ABC Radio National, and who was the same age as the book’s characters in the year it’s set.

The conversation is most interesting – to me as a grisled elder – when it turns to Vivian Pham’s influences. Though the book’s characters are teenage Vietnamese migrants in Cabramatta, Shakespeare is a big presence, which he wasn’t in the original version. The author says that she was emboldened to have her characters quote Shakespeare by James Baldwin’s 1964 essay ‘Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare’. And there’s a wonderful couple of minutes where both speakers riff on their debt to James Baldwin. (I read The Fire Next Time in my late teens and felt lightbulbs flicking on all over the place: it was good to be reminded.)


Chris Hammer: Silver Jun 17, 2020

A couple of years back I looked at my probably life expectancy and my To Be Read shelf and decided not to read any more detective novels. So this conversation between two crime novelists wasn’t going to send me to the bookshop, at leas not for myself.

But it’s an interesting conversation anyhow, between Chris Hammer, much -lauded author of Scrublands and now Silver, and Paul Daley, journalist and author of a forthcoming novel Jesustown. They have been friends for a long time, encouraged each other to move from journalism to fiction, rejoiced in each other’s success. Their discussion of the differences between journalism and fiction writing is interesting. They talk about the two kinds of novelists, plotters and pantsers: plotters plan out the whole action of their books before they begin writing, sometimes to teh extent of writing a 300 page treatment, while pantsers proceed by the seat of their pants, and end up doing a lot of rewriting. Chris Hammer says that he’s a pantser, though for his third novel he’s learning to be more of a plotter. When Silver had been accepted for publication, he announced to his editor that he had decided to change the ending, and with her blessing proceeded to rewrite the last 45 pages.

My resolve not to read crime novels was sorely tested when he read the opening pages of his next novel. But I’ll wait for the movie, which will be a cracker.


Writing on a Knife’s Edge Jun 17, 2020

This session is about YA genre literature. Not that YA is a genre – the term indicates that the publishers, or at least the marketing department, consider a book suitable for teen readers, and such books can be in any genre.

It’s three-way conversation. ABC Radio’s Rhianna Patrick talks to two YA authors, Sarah Epstein (Deep Water) and Astrid Scholte (The Vanishing Deep). Among other things the plotter–pantser binary is discussed again, though not with those labels. My sense is that this conversation was really for the fans, or at least for the YA literature community. There was no YA literature in my teenage years, and I’ve got a very spotty acquaintance with the field, so I was very much an outsider listening in. I imagine that insiders will enjoy it a lot.


Kathy Lette Gets Candid 22 Jun 2020

Kathy Lette’s new novel is  HRT: Husband Replacement Therapy. She discusses it with Wendy Harmer, stand-up comedian and now ABC radio morning host.

Somewhere during their conversation, Kathy Lette, rebutting the cliché that women aren’t funny, talks about the way women talk when no man are around. This podcast is probably an example of what she means.

The conversation opens with the kind of joking-not-joking-I’m-not-bitter comments about men that used to appear in the Australian Women’s Weekly‘s ‘Mere Male’ column in the 1950s. Later, when the conversation turns serious and Kathy Lette’s relentless punning and wordplay ease up for a moment, she says that the world needs men to step up as allies to women against patriarchy, and she rejoices at some evidence that this is happening among young men. But there has been so much clever stereotyping and objectifying of men in what went before that it I found it hard to hear this as anything but dutifulness to the sisterhood.

Men, Kathy Lette complained, don’t read novels by women. Well, I haven’t read any of her books, but if they’re about post-menopausal women swinging from chandeliers with toy boys between their teeth, or encouraging women to stand firm on their own two stilettos, which was the kind of thing that took up a lot of this conversation, or about three fifty-something sisters caught up in sexual rompery on a Cougar cruise, which evidently is the set-up of HRT, I won’t be adding them to my TBR list.


I’m not complaining. I probably wouldn’t have signed up for any of these sessions at a flesh-and-blood festival, and each of them gave me a glimpse into whole worlds most of which I had only the vaguest notion of beforehand.

Margaret Simons’s Cry Me a River

Margaret Simons, Cry Me a River: The tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin (Quarterly Essay 77, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 78)

I came to this Quarterly Essay with dramatic images in my mind: outraged farmers making a bonfire of the newly published guide to the Murray–Darling Basin Plan in 2010; millions of dead fish near the Menindee Lakes the summer before last; die-back by the Murray and great stretches of parched river-bed in the Darling. There was also video, of water flowing down the Darling in February and finally reaching the Murray in May, for the first time in two years.

This Quarterly Essay was written before and during the fires that ended 2019 and began 2020. As Margaret Simons was finishing it there was rain over most of the Murray–Darling Basin and the renewed flow of the Darling was approaching Burke. The political environment was also shifting: in February David Littleproud was replaced as the relevant Federal minister by Keith Pitt.

The Murray–Darling river system covers more than a million square kilometres. It’s one of the largest drainage areas in the world. It’s of huge cultural significance to First Nations peoples. A huge amount of Australia’s food is produced by farmers who use water from the Murray–Darling to irrigate their crops. More than three million people rely on it for their drinking water. ‘But,’ Simons writes,

we are all in trouble. Over the latter part of the last century, it became clear that the river system was at breaking point. It could die. All that went with it – money, livelihoods, sense of nation – was at risk.

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan was developed by the Commonwealth government as ‘the first attempt to manage the Basin as a whole, and to make its use sustainable’.

The Plan is beset by what one man calls ‘politics gone feral’: the Commonwealth vs the states, state vs state (New South Wales being the stand-out non-cooperation), Barnaby Joyce, the National Party vs the Hunters and Fishers while Labor, after initially making progress, is missing in action, bureaucracy vs the people on the ground, cotton growers vs family farms, almonds vs everything else, upstream irrigators vs downstream irrigators, environmental scientists vs vested interests, accusations of theft and corruption, ‘pervasive lack of trust in governments of all complexions’, the South Australian Royal Commission giving everyone ‘a terrible pasting’. There is an alarming degree mutual incomprehension between people who live in the large cities of the south-east and those who live and work on the land.

Margaret Simons went on a road trip through all this with the aim of putting flesh on the bones of the abstract arguments. She interviewed people who were keen to have their point of view herd, and people who didn’t believe a journalist would ever represent them accurately. At one point, a companion asked her which of her interviewees would be most unhappy with the essay:

 I replied that I thought everyone would be unhappy. That is the nature of the issue, of the failure of governance, dating back more than a century, that the Murray-Darling Basin represents.

I hope she’s wrong. Many voices are heard through this essay, from Badger Bates, a Barkandji elder, to Philip Glyde, one of the bureaucrats most responsible for the implementation of the Plan. Simons doesn’t pretend to the ‘he said she said’ brand of journalistic objectivity, but she leaves room for the reader’s judgements. The result isn’t a coherent argument, but the picture that emerges is that the difficulties caused by drought have been made worse, to the point of calamity, by mismanagement and poor governance, by making water into a commodity to be traded. At the same time, she makes clear the size and complexity of the challenge of bringing the river system back from the brink.

In the last couple of pages, Simons talks about climate change. She met only one denier, she said, but when she raised the subject with farmers, mostly the response was ‘a million-mile stare’. Reading the essay I could feel my own million-mile stare coming on: if the challenge of saving one river system from devastation under capitalism and electoral democracy is so overwhelming, what will it take to stave off the impending multi-faceted disaster from climate change?

And on that note, I turned to the correspondence in Quarterly Essay 78 (itself about another climate change pressure point, Australia’s coal addiction).

With the exception of an academic whose scholarly critics were given voce in the essay, and the acting chair of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, the correspondents confirm my sense that the essay presents a dependable account of the situation. A number of them expand on the theme of climate change. Some discuss the way Covid-19 changes the context by making it more problematic to import food, at least in the short run. A number of people who feature in the essay spell out their arguments more fully. Maybe I can finish by quoting the final paragraphs from Maryanne Slattery, who was a director of the Murray–Darling for more than decade, then senior water researcher for the Australia Institute, and now a director of an independent water consultancy:

The Plan is a relic of a time and a system that no longer exist. Change will be forced upon us, probably by a changing climate and the changes to society it brings about. Covid-19 has brought into the present many things we thought we could put off.

If we want two irrigated monocultures in the Basin, hollowed-put regions and reliance on other countries for our food, then the water reforms are a success. If we want a diverse agricultural sector, vibrant communities and to grow what we eat, we need new water policies, as well as policies for regional economic development. To achieve this we need to allow an honest and inclusive public debate and banish the binary rhetoric.

May this essay be widely read as a substantial contribution to public debate that doesn’t fall into for-the-Plan/against-the-Plan and other binaries.


Cry Me a River is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain

Mirandi Riwoe, Stone Sky Gold Mountain (University of Queensland Press 2020)

There are precious few books set in North Queensland. This is one. Its first epigraph is a quote from Taam Sze Pui, whose Innisfail department store, known as See Poy’s, was still going strong in my 1950s childhood, dominating the street corner opposite the gate to King George V Memorial Park. In honour of that epigraph, I’ve just retrieved from oblivion a couple of earlier posts that referred to Taam Sze Pui, here and here. It reads:

To search for gold was like trying to catch the moon at the bottom of the sea.

So Mirandi Riwoe had me at the epigraph. She kept me with her story-telling. A young Chinese woman Ying and her brother Lai Yue have come to the Palmer River goldfields in North Queensland in the mid 19th century, intending to return home when they have accumulated enough wealth to save their mother from poverty and buy their siblings back from servitude. Their story unfolds in triplets, each comprising a chapter from Ying’s point of view, a second from Lai Yue’s, and a third from the point of view of Meriem, a young white woman who is the maid to a sex worker in Maytown, a settlement close to the goldfield.

The book is firmly within an Australian tradition. There are echoes of Henry Handel Richardson in the descriptions of goldfields hardships; of Joseph Furphy in the woman disguised as a boy to survive in the harsh male world; of Henry Lawson in the man going quietly desperately mad in a lonely shepherd’s hut; of Barbara Baynton in the brutal violence endured by Meriem’s employer. But that tradition expands before our eyes as Chinese characters take centre stage, dealing with harsh oppression as well as the generally harsh conditions, escaping into an opium haze, negotiating issues around language and names (‘Jimmy’ or ‘Wui Hing’), reaching tentatively and sometimes tenderly across the racial divide, communing with the ghosts of those left behind, balancing the yearning for home against the appeal of the freedoms in the new land.

The Chinese characters are not absolved of complicity in the violent dispossession of First Nations people, and I was relieved when the possibility of romance was raised only to be sorrowfully dismissed. The story moves along so smoothly that you hardly notice how much of this is new in an Australian historical novel, and how much you trust that it’s underpinned by solid research.

Thanks, Mirandi Riwoe, for adding so elegantly to the slender stock of books about the place I came from.


Stone Sky Gold Mountain is the eleventh book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

SWF 2020, Post 3

The Sydney Writers’ Festival 2020 didn’t happen, but it’s still going. I’ve now listened to five more sessions about books that I haven’t read: rich conversations between authors none of whose books I’ve read (though I have read shorter pieces by some of them), sometimes about other authors whose books I haven’t read.

Philippe Sands: The Ratline 27 May

Otto von Wächter was one of Nazi Germany’s mass murderers. In 1945 he disappeared from public view and turned up dead in a Roman hospital four and a half years later. Philippe Sands, barrister and author of other books about Nazi leaders, gained possession of a huge trove of the papers of von Wächter and his wife Charlotte, and set about rediscovering the story of this almost forgotten Nazi. He produced a podcast and radio series and now a book: The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive.

This is a terrific conversation between Sands and SBS World News presenter Janice Petersen. Because of his access to private papers – given to him by von Wächter’s son Horst – Sands has been able to give an account of Wächter’s personal life and relationships.

At the end of the conversation, Janice Petersen asked why he thinks there is such a continuing interest in the Nazis. He confirmed her premise: if you put the word ‘Nazi’ in a book’s title or subtitle, he said, its sales in the UK increase by 50 percent, though it’s probably not the same in other parts of the world, including the US.

For the British in part it’s a reminder of what is seen as a glorious episode, the vanquishing of evil, and it is also the fact that the people we are dealing with were highly educated, highly cultured, highly intelligent, highly organised and they left behind a wealth of detail. …
I think what’s different in this case is Charlotte. Charlotte is the beating heart of this story because Otto was not alone, Otto had a close, loving, dutiful, intelligent, articulate, literate wife who recorded the totality and so we’re able to get another perspective, and that enables us to think a little bit more about the question, ‘How is it possible?’ and the related question that any reasonable person might ask themselves, ‘Could I do it?’ …
In our own countries, we cross lines. In Britain as in Australia, the treatment of refugees and of certain minorities is a very very big issue. Some of the conditions, for example, in which women refugees are being held in Britain and of course the treatment in Australia of the refugee community, parts of it, parking them on faraway islands, raise very serious questions. It raises to my mind a most serious question which is evoked indirectly in The Ratline, ‘What happens when we commit ourselves as a society to cross a line?’ The lesson of Otto Wächter is that once you’ve crossed one line it becomes a lot easier to cross another line. …


James Bradley: Ghost Species 1 June

I hope to read one of James Bradley’s books one day. But as I’ve heard quite a lot of him on the radio recently, I skipped through this conversation with Cassie McCullagh of ABC Radio’s The Bookshelf about his most recent book, Ghost Species, in which there is a project to resurrect extinct species, including Neanderthal humans. In my skipping, I heard some fascinating tidbits, including this about the role of CliFi, as someone is calling fiction about climate change:

We inhabit this weird space where we know what’s going on but we don’t let ourselves know.
One of the things fiction can do is let you sit in that space for a while and let you actually let go of having to keep that other stuff at bay. You can encounter your anxieties, think about them. …
One of the things that fiction helps people do is to find their way to a space of acceptance, that space of recognising the reality of things, which seems to me to be a good place to get to, because if people get there then we can start having honest conversations about where we are.


Cassandra Pybus: Truganini 3 June

Truganini is on my TBR shelf. This is a brilliant conversation about it. Its by Cassandra Pybus, white historian, whose family ‘owned’ land on Bruny Island, Truganini’s country, land that Truganini visited often in her last years. By all accounts, including the account given in this podcast, Her book reclaims Truganini’s memory from the prevailing image of her as the archetypical victim of colonial violence, ‘the last Tasmanian’, and presents her as a woman who was never colonised, who was resourceful and strategic and ultimately in important ways successful.

Here she talks with, Jakelin Troy, a Ngarigu woman from south-eastern Australia and professor the University of Sydney, who clearly loves the book, and loves that Cassandra Pybus has written it:

For me, as an Aboriginal woman, it’s so important to have this story told, and by somebody who is an expert at interrogating the historical record but who can bring out the reality of the story. It’s obviously something that has become part of your own story. I love when you say that Truganini inhabits you now. I’m sure that’s what she intended to do by continuing to walk across your family’s country, which was her family’s country. She was making the point, I’m sure she was making the point, that this was still her country and that she’s there, and even if they didn’t think deeply about the fact that it was her family’s country, I think that in reality you can’t avoid that that’s what it is.


Kay Kerr: Please Don’t Hug Me 3 June

This is a conversation between two neurodivergent women from southern Queensland, both of whom have young-adult novels appearing at about the time of the conversation. The focus is on Kay Kerr’s epistolary novel Please Don’t Hug Me, but there is frequent reference to Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley, her interlocutor.

Both women are smart, charming and have interesting things to say, especially about autism and prevalent misconceptions about people living with autism.

If this had been a live event, I would have been hoping someone would ask about ‘own voices’, a term they used to describe their books. The term is close to self-explanatory, and I’d heard it vaguely in the past, but it sounded as if there was history attached to it. I the absence of a Q&A session, I went online, and found that #OwnVoices is a hashtag originated in 2015 by Dutch writer of young adult science fiction and fantasy novels, Corinne Duyvis (a longish interview with her about the hashtag is at this link).

A quick look around Young Adult publishers’ sites shows that the hashtag has taken off, and though sometimes used as a weapon by call-out warriors, it represents a powerful movement to recognise that the best people to write about a marginalised group are those who experience that marginalisation. Both participants in this conversation are #ownvoices authors about characters on the autism spectrum.


Eimear McBride: Strange Hotel 9 Jun, 2020

I heard Eimear McBride read, beautifully, from her first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing at the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival. Here she talks to Heather Rose (whose books are on my TBR list) abut her third novel, Strange Hotel. I enjoyed the conversation. Unlike A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the new novel is punctuated conventionally, but the author says she doesn’t think it’s any easier to understand (she’s a big fan of Joyce and Beckett). She read an excerpt, which was beautifully written, but – and this says more about me than her – it’s a scene where the protagonist is in a hotel in Auckland, and thinks of herself as being at the very edge of the earth, about to go over the edge. This raised my antipodean hackles. I was reminded of a British writer who visited my student household in the early 1970s and treated us to a stoned fantasy about how the edge of the world lay just outside the heads of Sydney Harbour. Too easy, and too unaware of the audience.


Coming when I’ve listened to them: Bob Brown and some interesting-sounding genre fiction, but still no books I’ve read.

My Brilliant Friend at the Book Group

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions 2012)
Elena Ferrante, L’amica geniale (e-book, Edizioni e/o 2011)

Before the Book Group meeting: This month’s Chooser nominated My Brilliant Friend in response to an interest in translation expressed at our last meeting (about Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk, blog post here). Given the years of buzz about Elena Ferrante and her series The Neapolitan Novels, it’s amazing that none of us had read this until now. This was a chance to find out what the fuss was about.

As I imagine everyone knows, this is the story of the friendship between two girls in a poor neighbourhood of Naples, starting when they are both in the first year of primary school and ending at the marriage of one of them. Though there is a kind of resolution at the end, this is clearly the first instalment of a long story, and a brief prologue in which the sixty-something narrator speaks to the forty-year-old son of her friend offers tantalising hints about where the narrative will go.

The narrator is Elena Greco, daughter of a porter. Her friend is Lila Cerullo, whose father is a shoe repairer. From the beginning, Lila is unpredictable, moody, a little dangerous, and, well, brilliant. Elena is more conventional, is in awe of Lila, and is also, in a more socially-approved way, brilliant. They both do well at school, until Lila drops out because she is needed at home, but then it turns out that Lila is keeping up with what Elena is learning by borrowing books from a library: she gives Elena hints about how to translate from Greek that help her excel in the classroom.

Elena is constantly in competition with Lila, now happy to know she is ahead of her (in schoolwork, in having her periods), now wretched when Lila excels (in her grasp of school subjects she is learning from books, in her attractiveness to men). It’s a striking rendition of a friendship that includes intense affection, resentment, irritation, envy and devotion.

The social environment of post-war Naples is graphically realised. Though the city is on the coast, the little girls have never seen the sea, and when they decide to go there the adventure comes to nothing. There’s a marvellous scene when a group of teenagers decide to visit a posh part of town, and it’s like being on another planet. In the coming of age process, Elena gradually learns about history – about Fascism, the war and war profiteering. At the very end of the novel, she’s sixteen years old and realises that if she starts to read newspapers and journals, beyond the novels that are all she has read until then, she will learn about how the world works.

I enjoyed the novel, but am successfully quelling any urge to get hold of the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name / Storia del nuovo cognome.

I bought a digital copy in the original Italian, so as to put at least some attention to the translation.

My high school Latin teacher once wrote ‘Good attempt’ on a translation of mine, and then was at pains to explain that this was high praise. All anyone can do is attempt to translate: it’s impossible to find an exact equivalent in one language for something written in another. ‘Traduttore traditore,’ he said, ‘Translator, traitor.’ I can’t comment on the accuracy of Ann Goldstein’s translation. I can see that her frequent run-on sentences are faithful to the original, for example, but I have no idea whether they are as irritating in Italian as they are in English.

One thing that snagged my attention is the title. In Italian it’s L’amica geniale, literally The brilliant friend. Why the change from the to my, I wondered, especially as the only time the phrase occurs in the book it’s used by Lila to describe the narrator. The Italian title leaves room for either of the friends to be the brilliant one. The English, sadly in my opinion, removes any ambiguity.

The other thing that struck me is a kind of clunkiness in the English –adverbs in an unusual order, and other places where the language doesn’t feel like that of a native English speaker. I was surprised to discover not only that Ann Goldstein is an English speaker, but that she learned Italian as an adult and works for The New Yorker, which is notoriously sticklerish for correct American English usage.

Look at this, the death of Don Achille, who was a kind of Godfather figure to the neighbourhood:

He was in the kitchen, and had just opened the window to let in the rain-freshened air. He had got up from bed to do so, interrupting his nap. He had on worn blue pajamas, and on his feet only socks of a yellowish color, blackened at the heels. As soon as he opened the window a gust of rain struck his face and someone plunged a knife into the right side of his neck, halfway between the jaw and the clavicle.

(Page 83)

Something about that last sentence felt awkward and anticlimactic on first reading. I read on, of course, but some corner of my mind marked the place. Just now, I looked up the Italian:

Era in cucina, aveva appena aperto la finestra per far entrare l’aria fresca della poggia. S’era alzato dal letto apposta, interrompendo la controra. Indossava un pigiama celeste molto usurato, ai piedi aveva solo calzini d’un colore gialliccio annerito ai calcagni. Appena aprì la finestra gli arrivò in faccia uno sbuffo di poggia e sul late destro del collo, proprio a mezza strada tra la mandibola e la clavicola, un colpo di coltello.

The first two sentences are straightforward (though ‘had on worn blue pyjamas’ is clumsy – why not ‘was wearing threadbare pyjamas’?). They establish a mundane domestic setting for the shock that is to come. But then the translation makes three choices in the final sentence that diminish that shock. First, why translate clavicola with the technical ‘clavicle’ rather than the everyday ‘collarbone’, especially when, thankfully, mandibola becomes ‘jaw’ rather than ‘mandible’? Second, the Italian language’s flexibility with word order allows the action to become apparent only in the last three words of the sentence (colpo di cotello = ‘knife-blow’), an effect lost in translation. Third, while the structure of the Italian sentence pairs the knife-blow with the gust of rain – so two things came at Don Achille through the window, one mundane and the other deadly – the English introduces ‘someone’ and ruins the parallel. Something like this would be truer to the original:

As soon as he opened the window, there came a gust of rain to his face, and to the right side of his neck, halfway between jaw and collarbone, a knife-blow.

My impression is that a lot of the translation is like that: sometimes keeping too close to the Italian rather than using a more natural English equivalent, sometimes departing too far from the Italian and losing rhetorical or dramatic effects.

I’m starting to sound like Brother Gerard, my Latin and French teacher from nearly 60 years ago. So, even though I cherish his memory, I guess that means it’s time to stop.

After the meeting: There was a brief online debate about whether we should meet in person or on screens, Screens won out, for now.

My NBN connection isn’t robust enough for zoom meeting in the evening, and I ended up joining the meeting on my phone. Next time I’ll do it on the computer using the phone’s hotspot to connect, but this time that didn’t want to work either, so I spent the two hours squinting at four faces at a time out of the eleven participants, and I expect my hand-held image wobbled annoyingly. But I won’t complain about zoom: it brought us the lovely moment when one chap said he had a son and a daughter, and a young face joined his on the screen, saying ‘I’m the daughter!’

Most of the chaps, many sporting scrappy Corona beards, loved the book. My complaints about clunkiness and quibbles about the translation were mostly received without sympathy. The simple solution to discontent with translation from Italian, I was told, was not to know Italian.

I was the second least enthusiastic. The least enthusiastic remained silent for a long time, and then, when prompted, said he had only kept reading out of love for the rest of us. He also said that as he listened to the discussion, he could see why he should have enjoyed the book, which is pretty much how I felt. I enjoyed it, but I never got invested in it. Others got really involved: remembering the politics of their own childhood communities, reflecting on male violence, recalling their own visits to Naples, being swept along by the story and experiencing shocks of recognition, even – at least one chap said – falling in love with Lila.

More than one had started reading the second book, and next meeting’s Chooser said he’ll be nominating the fourth book. I’m hoping it was a joke-threat.

Lisa Gorton’s Empirical

Lisa Gorton, Empirical (Giramondo 2019)

This is a book in two sections. The first, shorter section. ‘Empirical’, consists of eight poems related to Melbourne’s Royal Park. The second, ‘Crystal Palace’, deals with works of art – the Aphrodite of Melos/Venus de Milo, poems by Rimbaud and Coleridge.

A disclaimer: I’m not a critic. If you want to read a discussion of this book by someone who understands contemporary poetics, I recommend Michael Farrell’s flashily academic review in the Sydney Review of Books (link here) or David McCooey’s in ABR (link here), which is accessible in full only to subscribers.

The first seven poems, ‘Empirical’ I to VII, are deeply rooted in a particular place. The first poem (which you can read here) begins with a description:

A factory, the train line curving off
to cross the motorway – between them this
falling away of ground – two or three acres
where for years the council trucks
brought building rubble – mounds of shattered concrete,
brick shards, piping, steel mesh heaped here
where grass succeeds itself and flowering weeds

The poem’s speaker walks into ‘the wreckage’, and the reader, this one at least, is right there with her. Then the perspective shifts, as I read it, to the speaker’s subjectivity: she is transported to a place from her early life, perhaps a kind of template of place:

and it is the first place, place itself
grown inward to my sight, along the side of the house,
in the playground where dry ground
slants to the fence

And now I start to have trouble following. The weeds ‘have made for me a heraldry of my forgetting’, perhaps like the smell of the madeleine dipped in tilleul for Proust,

__________________________ and set me here
in its abyss giving the bright scenes place –
which is to say I have not seen it yet

This isn’t difficulty for its own sake, but a struggle to articulate what is happening for the speaker: the first thirteen lines have established the physical reality of the place, but all she can actually see is what she brings to it, so it becomes impossible to see in its own right. That’s a familiar line of reasoning among philosophers of epistemology, but here it’s not so much a line of reasoning as a description, even an enactment, of a mental process. Then the speaker takes a leap to imagine what it is that she cannot see. The place, the poem ends, is

__________________________ to itself a storm
perpetually in the front of light –

I can’t paraphrase that, and I don’t think I’m meant to. It’s reaching for something that can’t quite be said. The dash at the end suggests to me that the poem hasn’t so much finished as gone as far as it can go and then stopped.

Each of the seven ‘Empirical’ poems begins similarly with physical description, and ends similarly with a non-conclusive dash, with a similar play between what the place is in and of itself on the one hand, and what the observer/poet/artist can make of it on the other.

The eighth poem, ‘Royal Park’, begins with an echo of the start of the first poem:

A factory, the train line curving off to cross the motorway –

The reader realises, if she, or he, hasn’t already read the cover blurb, that the ‘two or three acres’ of the first seven poems is Melbourne’s Royal Park, or at least part of it.

This is a longer poem, which I found completely engrossing. It tells the history of that piece of ground, beginning with Batman and ‘what he called his treaty’. It consists mainly of a kind of collage of quotes – what the academics ‘bricolage’. A list of sources in a note up the back takes four pages: archival documents, paintings, maps, newspaper stories, learned articles. The park has been the site of a zoo, an orphanage and truant school combined, a quarantine station, a digging ground for beginners in geology, an exhibition ground for the ‘Centennial Exhibition’, a military camp, a rifle range, a Military Mental Hospital, a public recreation area. And for each of these incarnations there’s colour and movement.

In an author’s note that the publisher enclosed with my review copy, Lisa Gorton writes:

I was provoked by a statement in a heritage assessment of Royal Park that Andrew Long and Associates carried out for the government, in preparation for the East-West Link: ‘This location would not appear to have been of great likely attraction to Aboriginal past populations given its distance to local watercourses.’ This claim seemed to me to epitomise how a manufactured landscape can conceal the history of country. The ground now named Royal Park opened out alongside the Moonee Moonee chain of ponds … The dark and remarkable history of this patch of ground set up a drama of surface and depth, remembering and forgetting.’

The poem doesn’t presume to speak of or for the Aboriginal people whose country this is. It’s a colonial history of that patch of ground. It’s a mighty act of reclaiming collective memory.

In the second part of the book, the longest poem ‘Life Writing’, subtitled ‘Of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan‘, does bricolage on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his poem ‘Kubla Khan’, the historical Kublai Khan, and a constellation of related subjects. It’s likewise full of bright colour and engaging movement, though possibly because it doesn’t have the chronological through-line of ‘Royal Park’, I fond I got lost a number of times.

I am in awe of Lisa Gorton’s erudition and her ability to put words together. I’m grateful for the moments of deep pleasure I’ve found in this book.


Empirical is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing, for which I am grateful.

Proust Progress Report 10:

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): continuing Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe

I’ve now been reading À la recherche du temps perdu for ten months. One unexpected feature of this project is that Proust and this work keep turning up elsewhere. It’s happened least twice this month.

First, on a recent episode of the ABC’s Conversations podcast, the guest Maira Kalman told Sarah Kanowski about a ‘Proust group’ – eight people who read the whole of ‘Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time‘ over seven years, a year for each volume. They read 50 pages a month, and met monthly to discuss and read aloud to each other:

It put the world in order in all of its madness, and such beauty that it was incomprehensible.

The group has moved on to other things, but will return to Proust because ‘it’s not a good thing not to have him in your life’. You can listen to the whole Conversation at this link (the Proust discussion is at about 2:30 minutes).

Then, in the latest season of the US policier Bosch, the Haitian crime boss is seen reading a suspiciously slender hardback with À la recherche du temps perdu emblazoned on its cover.

I’m reading quite a bit faster than Ms Kalman’s group, though I’m evidently enjoying it a lot less than them. And since I read it in the morning before getting out of bed, I don’t get to flaunt it as a sign that I’m more than just another evil thug.

There’s still a lot about the politics of salons, dinners and at-homes, still a lot about unconventional sexual practices, which I’ve just realised might be meant to be read with an ooh-la-la inflexion, still a lot of laboriously explained wordplay, still a lot of rhapsodic descriptions of scenery. There’s also still a lot that’s left brilliantly unsaid, much silliness, an occasional flash of self-mockery, and then observation that cuts right to the reader’s heart.

There are shocking moments, too. For example, in the middle of some gossip about the aggressively vulgar Mme Verdurin there’s this, about a Princess who had taken up her cause with people of high society (le monde):

Elle avait même prononcé son nom au cours d’une visite de condoléances qu’elle avait faite à Mme Swann après la mort du mari de celle-ci, et lui avait demandé si elle les connaissait. 

She had even mentioned her name [that is, Mme Verdurin’s name] in the course of a visit of condolence which she had paid to Mme. Swann after the death of her husband, and had asked whether she knew them [the Verdurins]. 

Unless I’ve missed something, that throwaway line is the first – and, so far, the only – mention of the death of Swann, who has been so significant in the narrator’s life and whose mortal illness has been achingly observed earlier in the book. Blink and you miss it.

And then, in the midst of an interminable recount of a dinner party, where conversations overlap and intersect like in an Altman movie, the narrator will rhapsodise about a beautiful sunset, will take a letter from his pocket and criticise the quirks of its writer, of will plunge without warning into melancholy reflections on lost loves of youth, like this one which reminds us sharply that the narrator is in terrible health, looking back at the events he describes, and also reminds us of his frankness about sexual maters (sorry, it’s a bit long):

On peut quelquefois retrouver un être, mais non abolir le temps. Tout cela jusqu’au jour imprévu et triste comme une nuit d’hiver, où on ne cherche plus cette jeune fille-là, ni aucune autre, où trouver vous effraierait même. Car on ne se sent plus assez d’attraits pour plaire, ni de force pour aimer. Non pas bien entendu qu’on soit, au sens propre du mot, impuissant. Et quant à aimer, on aimerait plus que jamais. Mais on sent que c’est une trop grande entreprise pour le peu de forces qu’on garde. Le repos éternel a déjà mis des intervalles où l’on ne peut sortir, ni parler. Mettre un pied sur la marche qu’il faut, c’est une réussite comme de ne pas manquer le saut périlleux. Être vu dans cet état par une jeune fille qu’on aime, même si l’on a gardé son visage et tous ses cheveux blonds de jeune homme ! On ne peut plus assumer la fatigue de se mettre au pas de la jeunesse. Tant pis si le désir charnel redouble au lieu de s’amortir ! On fait venir pour lui une femme à qui l’on ne se souciera pas de plaire, qui ne partagera qu’un soir votre couche et qu’on ne reverra jamais.

(page 1422)

 We can sometimes find a person again, but we cannot abolish time. And so on until the unforeseen day, gloomy as a winter night, when we no longer seek for that girl, or for any other, when to find her would actually frighten us. For we no longer feel that we have sufficient attraction to appeal to her, or strength to love her. Not, of course, that we are, in the strict sense of the word, impotent. And as for loving, we should love her more than ever. But we feel that it is too big an undertaking for the little strength that we have left. Eternal rest has already fixed intervals where we can neither make a move or speak. To set a foot on the necessary step is an achievement like not missing the perilous leap. To be seen in such a state by a girl we love, even if we have kept the features and all the golden locks of our youth! We can no longer undertake the strain of keeping pace with youth. All the worse if our carnal desire increases instead of failing! We procure for it a woman whom we need make no effort to attract, who will share our couch for one night only and whom we shall never see again.

I’m finally just gong with the flow as I read this book, and just today realised that I look forward to my daily 20 minutes or so. I’ve also started looking up some of the unfamiliar words. Sometimes it turns out that the general meaning had been obvious even if the English word hadn’t leapt to mind; at other times, the dictionary translation of a word is no help at all. When aa boy is described as coqueluche de toutes les dames, I could tell from the context that it meant he was the darling of all the ladies, which sure enough is how Moncrieff translates it. But the dictionary tells me that coqueluche is whooping cough. I do my best attempt at a Gallic shrug and read on.

Other times, the dictionary is more fun. As in these from the last week or so, pretty much all in the context of a Thursday evening chez Mme Verdurin:

  • gourgandine hussy
  • gredin crook, wrongdoer
  • astucieusement slickly, diplomatically
  • escarmouche skirmish
  • débandade stampede

That’s it until next month.

SWF 2020, Post 2

The Sydney Writers’ Festival, cancelled in deference to Covid-19, has gone virtual and is appearing in as a series of podcasts. This is my second post about it: five sessions I’ve listened to since 9 May (when I posted my first report, here). With any luck I’ll post about future sessions with shorter intervening intervals.

This time: five books that I haven’t read, all by authors none of whose books I’ve read talking to and sometimes about other authors whose books I haven’t read. So I’ve been learning a lot

Sophie Hardcastle: Below Deck 12 May 2020

Sophie Hardcastle talks to journalist and feminist commentator Georgie Dent about her novel Below Deck. She wrote it, she explains, in her time as a visiting scholar at Oxford University, where in her weekly meetings with her tutor she read to him from the work in progress. She reads to us at the start of the session, and to judge from that short and beautifully-written passage it wears its academic genesis very lightly. Nor does it show traces of what she says later in the session were its beginnings as a facebook status.

The key incident in the book is a rape at sea, and the podcast includes there’s a nuanced conversation about consent, sexual assault and #MeToo. An unexpected bonus is a fascinating chat about synaesthesia, a condition (or should that be superpower) shared by Hardcastle and her novel’s protagonist, in which a person sees sounds, numbers and other non-visual things as colours.

My favourite moment is this exchange, soon after the 30:40 mark, about a terrible relationship in the book:

Georgie Dent: Obviously I can’t ask you, but was it difficult to find inspiration for that relationship?
(Sounds that can probably be best described as snigger-snorting.)
Sophie Hardcastle: No.
Georgie Dent: That’s what I thought when I was reading it.


Intan Paramaditha: The Wandering 13 May 2020

Shirley Le from Western Sydney, who is working on her first novel, chats with Intan Paramaditha, Indonesian and currently living in Sydney, author of The Wandering, which is described on the Festival website as ‘a choose-your-own-adventure story’. The conversation feels intimate in a way that would have been hard to achieve on a stage in front of hundreds of mostly white festival-goers, and ranged widely – tips from a more-experienced to a less-experienced writer; the idea that the category of travel writing looks very different if you think of it as including Behrouz Bouchani’s No Friend but the Mountain as well as the usual books by white men and Eat Pray Love; brief but fascinating notes on the translation process (in this case the translator, Stephen J Epstein, worked closely with the author and the translation has some significant differences from the original); and much more.

I haven’t been a fan of the choose-your-own-adventure genre, which emerged when my sons were in the target audience, but it sounds as if in The Wandering it becomes a powerful – and also entertaining – way to embody stark contrasts between different modes of travel (as in tourism at one extreme and flight from threatened death at the other).

If this had been a live session, perhaps someone would have asked if either of the speakers had read Michelle De Kretser’s monumental novel Questions of Travel (my blog post here), which tackles similar issues, in a more conventional manner.


Ellen van Neerven: Throat May 19, 2020

Throat is second poetry collection from Mununjali Yugambeh writer Ellen van Neerven. In this podcast she talks with poet Tessa Rose. van Neerven reads her homage to a Brisbane suburban shopping centre, ‘Chermy’. The poem is a beauty, filled with affection for the place, family lore, and an occasional ember burst of long-range history. It’s a ‘page poem’ rather than spoken word, and you can read it in full on the Overland website, here, but I’m infinitely glad I first encountered it in this beautiful reading. van Neerven’s account of how she wrote it – interviewing elder relatives so that it became a social poem – is wonderful.

There’s a lot more to the conversation: the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art commissions poets to write poems inspired by their exhibits; though still relatively young, van Neerven works as a teacher and mentor and feels like ‘an emerging Auntie slash Uncle’; van Neerven speaks of young people and elders as both having a kind of wisdom that people in between may lack through being caught up in the day-to-day; a visit to German enriched van Neerven’s understanding of colonislism; there are many ‘Queensland Blackfeller’ artists who inspire the poet; and the process by which the book came together is described in an illuminating way. It’s now on my To Be Read list.


Richard Cooke: On Robyn Davidson May 20, 2020

Robyn Davidson is known almost entirely for her 1980 book Tracks, which told of her trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean in 1977 at the age of 27 with only camels for company. Self-described fan Richard Cooke sets out to expand her image in the latest title in Black Inc’s Writers on Writers series of books. In this conversation with Michaela Kalowski, he observes that in his case it could have been called the Non-writers on Non-writers series, given that Davidson hasn’t exactly been prolific. Nevertheless, he makes some big claims for Davidson’s status as an Australian writer.

It turns out that this session is the middle of a trio about travel writing. I would love to have seen Richard Cooke on a panel with Intan Paramaditha and Liam Pieper, with the brilliant Roanna Gonsalves as moderator.


Liam Pieper: Sweetness and Light May 25, 2020

This is the third session in the trio about travel writing. Liam Pieper is a white man whose novel, Sweetness and Light, involves a white Australian man and a white US woman in India. There is no elephant in the room, as Roanna Gonsalves names the obvious with characteristic acuteness and generosity right at the outset:

As an Indian Australian I am particularly interested in that version of India and Indianness as experienced by white people that you render on the page in a very interesting way in Sweet ness and Light. In some ways the book may be read as part of a long tradition of white people, including many white Australians whose names we shall not name here, of writing about finding themselves or losing themselves in India or saving Indians with no mention of the crucial work being done by Indians on the ground already, or of using India as a backdrop for coming to terms with their own frailty or … India as a catalyst for their true natures being validated or confirmed

What follows is a wonderful conversation. I love the moment where the speakers find common ground: neither can swim, and both have experienced the humiliation of being an adult in a swimming class with seven year olds.


I’m still missing the milling crowds, the glare from the Harbour at Walsh Bay, the celebrity spotting and eavesdropping, the queuing for muffins and hot drinks, the odd poetry readings that almost certainly won’t make it onto the podcast program, and all that. But this is turning out to be a terrific Festival.