The Falls, Johns River

[10 August 2020: I originally uploaded this post on 13 October 2004. Last night, the Emerging Artist and I stayed at the current incarnation of the Falls. As you’d expect, it’s moved on. Mary White has died, but has left a marvellous legacy. The Falls Forest Retreat (web address unchanged from 14 years ago) is a lovely place to spend a night, and even more so to spend a weekend and go on walks in the convenanted bushland.]

A couple of months ago when I was looking on the WWW for places to stay on this break, I came across The Falls Forest Retreat. I’d been led to it by a smaller notice that indicated it was a gay-friendly nudist site, but the prospect of hanging about with a lot of naked people wasn’t what enticed me to click on the link. In fact, it seems that I didn’t even mention the site to Penny at the time, probably because of that, plus a whiff of (for want of a better word) eco-hucksterism. But as we were driving up the coast on Saturday, I remembered it and suggested that we leave the main road at Johns River and drop in at The Falls, possibly to stay the night.

The reason for my suggestion, and for Penny’s alacrity in taking it up, lies some 35 years in the past, when The Falls was a farm that had seen better days, at the foot of a small volcanic cone, incorporating many acres of bushland, a waterfall, a huge fig tree, cow paddocks covered in bracken, a decrepit orchard and a sad farmhouse.

About that time, Mollie had a vision. (In case anyone comes in late, Mollie is my mother-in-law, now in a nursing home with dementia.) She had been a quixotic environmentalist for decades – she boycotted the first supermarket in Adelaide in the early 1950s for selling environmentally harmful pink toilet paper. When she was in her early 50s, her husband Ron had been pretty much sacked from his job as general manager of a large insurance company (a new, hard-edged managerial style was to be introduced), and was running a consultancy with Mollie as secretarial worker – which both of them found frustrating. With quite a lot of organising experience behind her thanks to her involvement in the anti-Vietnam-war movement, and a head full of ideas about organic gardening and environmental responsibility, Mollie decided to go for a bigger life. She set her heart on establishing a sustainable community somewhere in the country. She and Ron joined forces with a number of other couples – initially similarly well-off people in their 50s who had been with them in the anti-War movement – to build a commune. When they responded to the ad for The Falls, they fell in love at first sight, and the project was under way.

When I met Penny in 1976, she would refer to her parents as early-retiree hippies living on a geriatric commune. (They were probably about the age that Penny and I are now, but I won’t dwell on that.) We were still in our first flush of low-serotonin euphoria – that is to say, newly fallen in love – when I first met the parents: Mollie in compost-stained overalls and Ron coming in on the tractor from an afternoon slashing bracken. By that time, the buildings were pretty much complete. There was a communal building, The Roundhouse, with a large kitchen, a pool table and a sunken triangular conversation pit in front of an ample fireplace; and six units for the participating couples. Not all of them were occupied yet, and Penny and I slept on a mattress on the bare cement floor of one of them. They had a huge vegetable garden – Mollie was passionate about mulching. There were bees, chickens, ducks, a paddock of agisted cattle, newly planted fruit trees, plus bracken and lantana to slash and rocks to be cleared from the paddocks. Visiting members of the younger generation were expected to lend a hand. We were also expected to join in bush-walking, skinny-dipping, tea-drinking with the elders. The place was magic.

Over the next years, the saga of The Falls formed part of the backdrop as Penny and I were setting up our life together. On their visits to Sydney, Mollie and Ron would regale us with tales, of the joys certainly (a visitor from China praised them for keeping the outside pit toilet, the ‘Loo with a View’ looking up the mountain, as well as the septic system, quoting Chairman Mao’s dictum about walking on two legs), but also of the anguishes of their life. There were now six participating couples, each living with a degree of independence, but all involved in the communal enterprise. Ron and Mollie’s previous experience in variations of the nuclear family hadn’t prepared them for the inevitable politics of regular decision making meetings, and the different, often conflicting, ideas of what the place was all about. The other participants were: Mike and Toby, formerly of New York, he retired from work in advertising, she a graphic designer who would have liked to be an opera singer; Phil and Bill, Quakers with a passion for the environment; John and Anita, shopkeepers from nearby Taree who were attracted by the idea of communal living; Jack and Carol, farmers who liked the idea of working towards retirement by farming with a group; and Beryl, the only single person, a magnificent eccentric who seemed to see it as an intellectual adventure.

So there was Mollie, completely inexperienced in country ways, pushing for organic gardening, in fierce argument with Jack who understood how to make a farm work and had little respect for her high-falutin’ ideas; there was Toby singing arias to the cows when there was Work To Be Done; there was someone having an affair with somebody in town and the spouse going predictably nuts; there was Bill insisting on everything being ideologically pure, and Mike adamant about the need to be laid back. Mollie was often distraught about being accused of guilt-tripping. Someone left, and a new couple arrived, ten years younger than the others, the woman a Communist activist from Melbourne, fiercely intolerant of the middle-class muddling-through she met there. And through it all affable, tolerant Ron acted like a social leaven, a warp to Mollie’s earnest weft, a reminder that they all liked each other. I’ve got no doubt he was as dedicated to the place as Mollie was, but in a way I think he loved it for what it was while she loved it for what it could become.

When Ron had a stroke in 1979, it was a disaster. Partly paralysed and with his vision affected, he could no longer do his share of the work, and nor could he fill his crucial peacemaking function because he became irritable and depressed. After some months, Ron and Mollie sold their share and moved away, disappointed and at least a little bitter. The commune lasted only a few years after that, and the property was soon sold, with some unpleasantness about the divvying up of the profits. On her wall in the nursing home, Mollie has an image of one of the units that a friend painted from a photograph. And apart from occasional vague whispers, I knew nothing about it until I saw that web site earlier this year, claiming a history as a resort going back to 1910, and touting the set of a long-forgotten television series as one of its attractions.

So on Saturday night, as John w Howard was being voted in as Prime Minister yet again, Penny and I drove down the gravel road to The Falls 2004-style, with muted expectations. The impact was almost physical as we drove through the gate, around the huge fig tree and up the sweep of drive through recently mowed lawn, past the sculptural rocks that (I think) had been dragged to their present position as one of The Men’s projects, and up to the farmhouse. The ancient lemon tree near the house was gone, the garden had shrunk, but the roundhouse, the units, the sheds, the lay of the land, were all familiar.

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As we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by a vigorous, white-haired woman who turned out to be the owner, Mary E. White. She shuddered when I told her of the nudist-friendly reference. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Someone said it would be suitable for a nudist resort because it’s right at the end of the road, but I couldn’t bear the thought of those naked bottoms sitting on my furniture.’ Though she didn’t say so, I believe that the web site is as it was when she bought the property 12 months ago – she has been much too busy to attend to it. She has covenanted the part of the property that is under bush, which is a way of protecting it from future development. She has spent the last year, helped by a son, uncovering the old gardens, ridding the property once more of lantana and bracken, establishing a new vegetable garden and chicken run, converting to a bore water supply (which made it necessary to dig up and replace all the pipes laid by Mollie’s generation of builders). The result is that where we had half-expected to find a more or less cynical commercial enterprise, we found the place as if uncannily preserved. Ron and Mollie’s unit had the same light fittings, the same tiles, the same built-in cupboards. The stone walls built by Ron and The Men were as they had been – a result of hundreds of hours work rooting out lantana, but the effect was as if time had stood still. The books on the Roundhouse shelves had the same eclectic feel – much about conservation, but also what you’d expect from a reader born in the 1920s.

Mary said that over these 12 months of hard work, suddenly in this new place after living in the same house in the northern suburbs of Sydney for decades, she has felt that she was living in someone else’s dream. It’s hard to resist the idea that the dream was Mollie’s. An extraordinary number of factors make her an ideal heir to Mollie’s dream: she is close to 80, just a little younger than Mollie; she is a passionate environmentalist, palaeo-botanist to be precise; what’s more, her family home was in Balgowlah, a couple of blocks from where Mollie and Ron lived 50 years ago. Her aim is to have the place functioning as an environmental education and conference centre, and she’s well on the way: 40 people from National Parks and Wildlife are arriving for a conference/ meeting in the near future. Once things are settled, she plans to get back to her writing: she is the author of many books, mainly on the history of the Australian environment,  the most recent covering the last 5 billion years.

It was an emotional visit for Penny and me. Meeting Mary was a total delight, and she was equally delighted to hear what Penny could tell her of the history of the place. We went for walks in the evening and again in the morning – to the Falls themselves, and the beautiful Cascades, and yes, past the relics of the set of the forgotten TV series. I don’t think Mollie’s Alzheimer’s would let her understand what we were talking about if we tried to tell her, but it’s deeply gratifying that her baton has been passed on, not down the generations, but to someone of her own generation eminently fitted by passion and expertise to take it.

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The Cascades, where the communards went skinny-dipping
falls
The eponymous Falls

Apart from anything else, it’s good to be reminded that elections aren’t everything. (Mary, incidentally, told us a story about John Howard being a true gentleman once when she was struggling with luggage at an airport. Perhaps that’s an omen …)

Tara June Winch’s Yield

Tara June Winch, The Yield (Hamish Hamilton 2019)

The Yield won the 2020 Miles Franklin Award, making Tara June Winch the fourth First Nations writer to win it, all of them this century. The Miles Franklin is awarded each year to a novel ‘which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases’. It’s not that ‘phases’ of Australian life that include First Nations people have been comprehensively ignored by other winners, but it’s heartening that Kim Scott (twice), Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko and now Tara June Winch have received this recognition. To echo Tara June Winch in an interview with Stephanie Convery in the Guardian (at this link), ‘It’s just about bloody time, you know?’

Ellen van Neerven, in a review in the Australian Book Review, describes The Yield as a ‘returning novel’. Like Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip it begins with a woman returning to her childhood home on the occasion of a death and re-engaging with her family’s internal politics and its history of dealing with colonisation. In this case a thirty-year-old Wiradjuri woman, August Gondiwindi, comes home after years London to the fictional New South Wales town of Massacre Plains on learning of the death of her grandfather, Poppy Albert. The painful business of picking up the threads of family life in a time of grief, facing the unfinished business that led her to leave in the first place, is made even more gruelling by the discovery that her family home is about to be destroyed by a mining company.

What makes this book stand out is that the way this story is interlaced with two other stories, each told in the first person. Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf writes a long letter to the British Society of Ethnography on 2nd August 1915, and ‘Poppy’ Albert Gondiwindi writes an annotated partial dictionary of the Wiradjuri language. The former, an Author’s Note informs us, is derived from the writings of an actual missionary who founded and ran a mission; the latter draws on the work of Dr Stan Grant Snr and linguist John Rudder, particularly The New Wiradjuri Dictionary.

As the novel progresses, with a chapter for each of these narratives, the three timelines play off against each other. The well-meaning missionary’s account of colonial violence against Wiradjuri people, and his resistance to it, is seen from a different perspective when the present day characters muse about whether he was actually a good man, or whether he was, for all his good intentions, part of the oppressive system. Though Albert tells us in the brief opening chapter what he is trying to do in compiling his dictionary, we only understand his intentions properly when we’re well into August’s timeline, and her hunt for the document becomes a key part of her story.

Contrary to what you might expect, Albert Gondawindi’s dictionary chapters are where the book really takes hold. It’s much more than a list of words and meanings. Through it, Albert (and Tara June) sets out to communicate his cultural perspective on many things, to tell parts of his personal story, and parts of the history of his place. In among the definitions, he tells the terrible story behind the disappearance of August’s much-loved sister, and he tells dark secrets of his own life. He shines through as a brilliant character, and his prose is clear and strong – with none of the awkwardness of Greenleaf’s second-language English (Greenleaf/Grünblatt hailed from what was then Prussia), or the occasional strained lyricism of August’s narrator. He has the novel’s first and last words. Here’s the opening:

I was born on Ngurambang – can you hear it? – Ngu-ram-bang. If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words. Every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language – because that is the way to all time, to time travel!

‘Can you hear it?’ The novel ends, pretty much, ‘Say it!’

The book tells harrowing tales of colonial paternalism, genocidal violence, lateral violence, ruthless capitalism, cultural theft, betrayal: and running through it, every third chapter, is an extraordinary proclamation of survival – a language survives, and with it a world – and a challenge: ‘Can you hear it? Say it.’


The Yield is the fifteenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.


Full disclosure: Opening the book to a map with the word Nurambang written across it in big letters struck a strong chord in me, as the short film I wrote with my son Alex Ryan, which he directed, came to be called Ngurrumbang. You can watch it on Vimeo here.

William Gibson’s Agency

William Gibson, Agency (Viking 2020)

It’s more than a decade since I’ve read any William Gibson. Picking him up again has been a joy.

The book starts in San Francisco, in roughly our time. Verity Jane, our hero, has just come out of a period of hiding away from the tabloids after breaking up with a celebrity tech billionaire, and has got a job testing a cool new device. The device consists of a headset and glasses: when she puts them on, she is immediately in contact with an entity who identifies herself as Eunice, who sees through the glasses, has a great line of patter and a vast store of knowledge whose origin she herself doesn’t know. Eunice is pretty bossy. She shields her conversations with Verity from the surveillance of the company that owns her, amasses a fortune by playing on the internet, and has soon organised a network of agents who know her only as Verity’s PA. As the story develops we realise that this is a world where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, and Brexit didn’t happen, but things aren’t all roses: there’s a threat of imminent nuclear war over an incident in Turkey. Eunice is a miraculous new form of AI who may be on track to prevent the nuclear disaster.

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, a group of characters in a weird, technologically advanced future (implanted phones, invisible flying driverless cars, animated tattoos, and un-described things with names like stub, peri, controller) go about their lives looking after babies and getting by in a society dominated by a group called the klept, with ‘the pandemics’ and ‘the jackpot’ mentioned as major past events. These characters are taking a godlike interest in Verity and Eunice.

That’s the set-up. It’s all told with an infectious delight in detailed invention,

Paragraph by paragraph, it’s witty, surprising, and inventive. The stakes are high, the humour is sly. The unexplained technologies and relationships are tantalising. As far as I was concerned nothing could go wrong.

And, though for great slabs there was a lot of colour and movement that didn’t amount to much, and some bits were complete nonsense, I loved every moment.

I was enthralled by Gibson’s first three books of dazzling and often incomprehensible science fiction, the Sprawl trilogy – Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). I was less thrilled by the Bridge trilogy, which came next – Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). I read the first two books of the Blue Ant trilogy – Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007), and didn’t bother with Zero History (2010). These six books are also science fiction, but set in a time and on a planet very like ours with technology not that different from ours, with a lot of virtual reality, location-based art and social media.

It turns out that Agency, a birthday present from a friend, is the sequel to Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral. If I’d read that book, the not completely unpleasant disorientation I felt in the first half of this one might have been mitigated, though – this being William Gibson – maybe not. I’m attached to these characters and to these (spoiler alert) bifurcating time lines. The Peripheral and whatever comes next are now on my to-be-read list.

These socks were made for walking

When I was new to this whole blogging thing, I remember how thrilled I was when someone I didn’t already know responded to one of my posts. In a blog post that has now disappeared without trace, I’d written something about Mary Magdalen – and M-H commented. I was thrilled, and soon after, as one does when one is eight years old, invited her to my 60th birthday party. She was pleased to be invited, but didn’t come. Instead she knitted me a pair of socks.

They are beautiful socks, and this is just part of their story.

Here they are on our couch, brand new:

Not only were they beautiful, they were comfortable and I tended to wear them a lot. Among other places, I wore them to New York. There, I had driven directly from the airport to a small workshop-type gathering in Brooklyn, where they played a useful social role. I was introduced to a young Korean woman, and we were being very formal with each other, me jetlagged and her very polite. I hitched my trousers as I sat down, and when she glimpsed my socks she burst into peals of laughter. The ice was broken.

I was wearing them when we visited the Taj Mahal, where tourists are required to remove their shoes. Here they are outside the Taj Mahal:

They were on my feet during the Caminho de Santiago in Portugal. Here they are in the gardens near the ancient bridge in Ponte de Lima:

They did good service for more than a decade, but inevitably they grew thin, and their heels gave way. I was reluctant to throw them away and they lay in my sock drawer, beautiful but unwearable, until in a time of Covid, the Emerging Artist’s darning skills came into play, and she spent an episode of Vera playing her needle:

And now, not perhaps as beautiful as when they came into existence, they’re back on the feet, and warm:

A new chapter begins …

SWF 2020, Post 5

One of my favourite poets, Eileen Chong, has been mounting a formidable campaign against racism in Australian literature. She’s been tweeting up a powerful, deeply considered storm as @EileenChongPoet, and some of the storm has been captured as a single article on the Meanjin website (link here). Among other things, Eileen tweeted:

I call on you, literary festivals, to examine your commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity. I call on you to ensure these festivals for writers & readers are safe spaces for our reading & writing community. I call on you to step up, to acknowledge you have this responsibility.

I don’t know what processes the Sydney Writers’ Festival has in place, but so far the 2020 festival seems to be doing OK on the diversity front. We’ve had a white man who wrote about India in conversation with a woman from India; a white woman who wrote about Truganini in conversation with a Ngarigu woman; and a number of other Indigenous people and people targeted or marginalised by racism speaking about their own work, interviewing others, and chairing sessions. In this batch, my fifth, two of the five sessions are all white (though one of the white people, being Irish, would have been classed otherwise 150 years ago in the USA), one is mixed, two feature people of Asian, Pacific and African heritage, and questions of racism and diversity are at the heart of several of the sessions.

Paul Kelly: Love Is Strong As Death 24 Jun

In 2019 singer-songwriter Paul Kelly published an anthology of other people’s poetry, Love Is Strong As Death. At the start of this podcast, Tony Birch asks him about his early introduction to poetry. He talks about the Christian Brothers introducing him to Shakespeare (Macbeth has everything for 15 year old boys, violence, sex, revenge …) and Gerard Manly Hopkins (‘The Christian Brothers loved Hopkins, who was a Catholic priest’), and about the way his family would have get-togethers where everyone did an ‘item’, and items ranged from a niece tying a knot in a snake lolly using only her tongue to someone reciting a poem. Tony Birch said, ‘The Christian Brothers gave you Gerard Manly Hopkins. They gave me corporal punishment.’ ‘Oh well,’ Paul Kelly and I replied in unison, ‘they gave me that too.’

I was taken back to Brother Paulinus, a Marist Brother, using the dreaded cane to conduct the combined 4th and 5th grade in a recitation of Henry Lawson’s ‘The Teams’, a poem I still love; Brother Wright, a Christian Brother, entertaining a class of 15 year olds in the last week of the school year by reading the whole of Macbeth, doing the voices, for one period each day; and my mother cheerfully reciting the opening lines of Francis Thomson’s ‘The Hound of Heaven‘ at the drop of a hat. So I knew something of what Paul Kelly was talking about.

They talked about specific poems, including Archie Roach’s ‘They Took the Children Away‘, for which Paul broke his rule of not including song lyrics, and poems by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kev Carmody, Seamus Heaney, Paula Meehan, Eavan Boland. Bruce Dawe was one of the few poets mentioned who was neither First Nations Australian nor Irish.

The conversation sent me off to discover or revisit the poems that inspired their enthusiasm and love. The links in that last paragraph are to the text of the poems they discussed (except I couldn’t find Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Canoe’ online).


Kawai Strong Washburn: Sharks in the Time of Saviours 29 Jun 2020

Western Sydney writers are a big presence at this festival. In this session, Winnie Dunn, general manager of Sweatshop, talks to Kawai Strong Washburn about his debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviours. True to form, I haven’t read any books by either writer.

The interview, recorded when demonstrations against racism and genocide in the US and around the world were in full flight, is a very interesting conversation about many aspects of racism, though not without reference to the novel’s strong anti-colonial theme. Strong Washburn, now living in the US, has one parent of African ancestry and one white, and was born and raised in Hawai’i, which as he says was colonised by the US, making him part of the coloniser group. Adding to the complexity, he was lived closely with an Indigenous Hawai’ian community as a child. When Winnie Dunn asks the awkward question of whether he has the right to tell the story of Hawai’ian characters, the conversation is as carefully nuanced and respectful as anyone could wish.

I learned a lot about Hula – or at least I learned that there’s a lot I don’t know. The ‘hula girl’ image is a trivialisation of a powerful tradition, an ‘extractive male-driven fantasy’. The word ‘extractive’ used in this way is new to me, and very eloquent.


Lisa Taddeo: Three Women 1 Jul 2020

Lisa Taddeo’s work of narrative non-fiction, Three Women, does, as they say, a deep dive into the lives, including the sex lives, of three women in the USA. This conversation with the Wheeler Centre’s Sophie Black talks about the immersive process of interviewing the women, and perhaps even more interestingly about their reactions to the book. The picture that emerges of Taddeo’s relationship with her three subjects is fascinating, and implicitly raises very important questions about the responsibility of a writer, or any artist, to the people they write or make art about.

Lisa Taddeo mentions in passing, that a grand total of seven men have read this best-selling book, so even allowing for that being an exaggeration, I’m not alone in not having read it. Maybe I should suggest it for my all-male book group. I’ll certainly keep my eyes open for the television series currently in preparation.


Golriz Ghahraman: Know Your Place 6 July 2020

Golriz Ghahraman, Iranian-born member of the New Zealand parliament, here talks to Roanna Golsalves who is one of our great literary interviewers. She sets up the conversation with characteristic generosity:

As I read your book, Know Your Place, I was moved to tears by some of the horrific abuse you have had to face in your life as a politician but also moved to tears by the way you write about loss and hope and transformation … It’s a timely account of how one woman navigates public life while also speaking to the broader issues that we all have to navigate in this world, and you do this in a nuanced, polyphonic way through the stories and voices of so many others woven in with your own story, which makes for compelling reading.

In this delightful chat, Golriz cheerfully subverts a number of memes in western culture that can be harmful: the grateful immigrant, the good refugee (‘Look, this refugee went on to get a Masters Degree in International Law, so it was a good thing to take her in’), the perpetual victim. Talking about her maiden speech in parliament (which is on YouTube here – listen through to where she thanks ‘a very large, loud white boy’), she said, ‘Everybody should sit down and think about what they would write in a 15 minute maiden speech.’

They discuss a line from US public intellectual Cornell West: ‘Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.’ And though in her maiden speech Golriz laughs when she quotes it, ‘That’s not me, that’s Cornell West,’ she comes across in this conversation as someone who has made that her motto.

I love the bit where Golriz talks about her reaction when she first came to New Zealand and saw people walking about barefoot. So much poverty! And meanwhile the barefoot people wanted to know if she had electricity back in Iran.


Remembering Clive James 8 July 2020

Clive James died in November last year, and it would have been odd for the Sydney Writers’ Festival not to mark the occasion. It may be a missed opportunity not to have included in this celebration of the man and his multifaceted work some participants who were excluded from his genial regard: climate change activists, for example. But I guess that’s for another occasion.

Participants are Irish poet Paul Muldoon, Peter Goldsworthy whose writing life is almost as multifaceted as James’s, Richard Glover whose Flesh Wounds could be seen as his own version of Unreliable Memoirs, Kathy Lette, carrying the torch for womankind, and Trent Dalton who along with James himself finally stops me from saying I haven’t read books by anyone taking part in this festival.

The session is good fun, if at times given to hyperbole and strained phrase-making. There are some sweet anecdotes, some quoted wit and analysis of that wit, some reading from James’s emails and poems (‘Japanese Maple‘ and ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered‘), and part of the dunnyman incident from Unreliable Memoirs.

Ellen van Neerven’s Throat

Ellen van Neerven, Throat (UQP 2020)

This is Ellen van Neerven’s second book of poetry. It picks up the themes of the first book, Comfort Food (my post here), and expands and deepens them wonderfully (and sometimes alarmingly). van Neerven discussed the book with poet Tessa Rose at the virtual Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year. The podcast, which you can access here, spurred me to buy a copy. And I’ve just listened to the inaugural episode of UQP’s podcast series, Extraordinary Voices for Extraordinary Times, where van Neerven chats with Western Sydney poet Eunice Andrada (Soundcloud here). It feels as if they are everywhere. (Gender fluidity features in Throat, and I believe that ‘they’ is van Neerven’s preferred pronoun.)

In the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast, van Neerven reads the long poem ‘Chermy’ – about the Westfield shopping centre, Chermside – and describes its evolution as a social poem for and by her First Nations family in south-east Queensland (it’s on the Overland website, here). Another long poem, ‘The Only Blak Queer in the World’ is a similarly social poem about the poet’s identity as part of the Blak Queer community (you can read it on the SBS site, here). ‘Blak’, by the way, is a word coined by artist Destiny Deacon to signify urban First Nations people in Australia, a coining whose origins you can read about here. These two poems, appearing early in this book, provide a kind of backdrop for much of what follows. I love this from about the midpoint of ‘The Only Blak Queer’:

I hadn't yet been to Mardi Gras.

I saw the white gays and the white gaze I was used to and
then I saw Blak Queers everywhere and every conversation 
was an insight into a Blak Queer past, the street becoming a 
site of multi-time, the past-present beat, the future love, and 
forty years of Blak Queer pride spread into more than sixty 
thousand years of we-have-always-been-here.

My dance joined a big dance. I saw a Wiradjuri/Yorta Yorta 
lesbian couple who had been marching since the beginning, 
who chanted, 'Stop Police Attacks! On Gays, Women and 
Blacks!' in 1978 and they told me off for knowing fuck-all.

Every chant is a line of a continuing poem and I am 
learning the words.

You don’t have to be Blak or Queer to feel the huge joy of finding a community and a history in those lines. And you don’t have to be a 78er to love the humility in the second paragraph and the pride in the last sentence.

The book’s five loose sections all revolve around the lived experience of being Aboriginal/Blak and queer. There are poems commenting on political news, from ‘The Last Apology’ which likens Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations as the apologies of a domestic abuser (‘You want to make up and make out / with the Aboriginal flag / I want you to promise /you won’t do it again’), to ‘Four Truths and a Treaty’, which begins: ‘We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the community. No point pretendin it don’t exist’, or ‘Engaged’, a wry take on the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Some poems turn a challenging eye on white allies. ‘Expert’, for example, begins:

poor me
don't know how it happened
think I got
a non-Indigenous girlfriend
who thinks she's an expert
don't know how she got her expertise
think I'm the first one she's met

Some poems celebrate being part of the community of Aboriginal women and find strength there. There are poems of connection to Country, and poems of travel – solidarity found with Indigenous people elsewhere, and dread at returning to Australia. ‘Questions of Home’ ends:

I brace my self so much on arrival
I forget to breathe.

There are joyful poems about queer relationships. My favourite lines in the whole book (from ‘Pleasure Seeking’):

Tell her ...
go'n, tell her ...
you're not really dating
unless you're dating each other's ancestors

Like Comfort Food, this book features a number of poems responding to works by other artists and writers, including Destiny Deacon ( ‘Portrait of Destiny’), Kerry Reed-Gilbert (‘White Excellence’), Candy Royalle (‘Queens’), Michelle De Kretser (‘Questions of Travel’ and perhaps two other poems), Alice Walker (‘All that is loved (can be saved)’), an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery (‘Body Flow’). In a category of its own is ‘HOMOFOMO’, brief, bitterly hilarious descriptions of eight (imaginary?) queer-themed mainstream movies.

It’s a rich, accessible, many-faceted collection from a strong, challenging and self-questioning voice. I had to use a search engine occasionally, but each time it was rewarding. I laughed a number of times. There is at least one too-much-information moment, but I think my embarrassed averting of the gaze was exactly the response the poet would have expected of me.

There’s so much to respond to but as usual I’ll just pick one poem to talk about in detail. Here’s ‘Call a Spade a Spade’. It wasn’t my first choice, but it kept waving its arms in the air demanding my attention:

Call a Spade a Spade

a heart a heart
a diamond a diamond
a club a club
call in invasion not settlement
call it genocide not colonisation
call it theft not establishment
don't call January 26 Australia Day
don't shy away from telling the truth
do't say 'no worries' say 'I worry'
for the future of our country, our environment
if we fail to listen and to act
don't say 'we're full'
say 'we're open'
call yourself an ally
call yourself a mate

This is one of a number of poems in the book addressed to non-Indigenous/settler readers. At first glance it feels pretty prosaic, even preachy, more Facebook post or Twitter thread than poem (though of course the categories aren’t exclusive). But if you take it slowly, that is if you read it as a poem, it opens out like a fan.

The poem falls into five parts: 1) the title 2) three lines, syntactically dependent on the verb ‘call’ in the title, with the form ‘a x a x’; 2) three lines that repeat that verb, and go ‘ call it x not x’; 3) four sentences starting with ‘don’t’, two of one line each, one of three lines, and the fourth of two lines; 4) two lines, back to the word ‘call’, each with the shape ‘call yourself x’.

The title for a start: it means of course, ‘Speak plainly without euphemism or hi-falutinness’: don’t call a spade an agricultural implement. As the title of a poem by an Indigenous woman, it also evokes a term of racist abuse, and if that were the primary meaning it would be a directive to use racist language. Clearly, in this context, that’s not what the poem is about to do, but the ambiguity hangs about, subliminally posing a question about the effect of racist abuse, and unsettling the white liberal reader (which is the only kind of reader I can speak for).

The first three lines takes us to a third and mercifully harmless meaning of ‘spade’ by enumerating the card suits. But thanks to the charged ambiguity of the title, each of these suit names now resonates with a charge of its own: ‘heart’ – these are people; ‘diamond’ – wealth, greed and the profit motive are major forces in our society; ‘club’ – so is violence.

If you were reading the poem as an instructional text, the next three lines are the core: four examples of language that names the reality without pussyfooting around. The list could have included, say, ‘call it massacre not dispersal’, ‘call it Uluru not Ayer’s Rock’, ‘write Aboriginal not aboriginal’, a seemingly endless stream of injunctions.

The first of the next three lines – lines starting with ‘don’t’ – adds to the list, and locates the poem as part of the current long-running conversation about 26 January, a conversation that ranges from Stan Grant’s Australia Day and the Twitter hashtag #ChangetheDate, and so carries with it a whiff of acrimony, a suggestion perhaps that the poem so far is making demands in the spirit of what is being called ‘cancel culture’, what an open letter to Harpers Magazine signed by 150 luminaries called ‘the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides’: use the language that I am specifying here or … But then, in my reading, there’s a turn away from that tone: ‘don’t shy away from telling the truth’ could still mean ‘my truth’, but it would be a stretch. The remainder of this section moves further away with ‘don’t say”no worries” … don’t say “we’re full”‘. Although the language is still about what the speaker wants us to say or not say, these are no longer instructions on how to clean up our language. The first is an exhortation against complacency; the second quotes a battle of slogans about asylum seekers and gives it tremendous metaphorical power: ‘say “we’re open”‘ surely is an appeal to the reader to open himself up to possibility, to other people’s reality, specifically the reality of Indigenous lives.

And the final couplet brings it home: ‘call yourself an ally / call yourself a mate’. The speaker isn’t calling on us for compliance, but for active allyship (is that a word?), and then, and this is the thing that lodged in my brain and made me go back to the poem, to be a mate, with all the associations of that word. We started out with card games, we stopped off at the problematic national day and what Wikipedia says (here) may be white Australia’s national motto, and we end with mateship. This isn’t about getting the words right or conforming to the current demands of wokeness: it’s an appeal for decency and an implied offer of friendship. An ally can retain a sense of superiority; not a mate.

For me this poem is a lesson in the value of slow reading. Skimmed, there’s not a lot to it that you haven’t heard at a hundred demonstrations. Taken meditatively, it pierces the heart.

Added later: If you’re interested in a review from an Indigenous perspective, there’s ‘On the Power of Being Still’ by Wiradjuri woman Janine Leane in the Sydney Review of Books, link here.


Throat is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


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

Proust Progress Report 11: Luminous something of the inner life

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

As I emerge from my eleventh month reading À la recherche, references to Proust crop up regularly, from crossword clues to conversations in bookshops. (Yay! Bookshops are here again, at least for now.) This month, in a podcast from the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival, someone spoke of ‘the luminous beauty of the inner life that Proust expresses so well’. Even though I have no desire to be in a Proust discussion group, I’m glad to have at least that much discussion: a throwaway line to bounce off. The novelist who said it has clearly read a different À la recherche from the one I think I’m reading.

I may wrong, as I’m mostly skipping words I don’t know, but my Proust is a meticulous, and longwinded, dissector of social behaviour, who pays minute attention to the workings of memory and the idiosyncrasies of language. He sometimes gets luminous when describing plants, young women, paintings or sunsets, but it’s the politics of the inner life rather than its beauty that exercises him.

I feel as if I’m finally getting the hang of the book. The narrator is remembering temps perdu, which means both ‘forgotten time’ and ‘wasted time’. In the first book, Proust makes a distinction between two kinds of memory: those that make up the narratives we tell about ourselves and the spontaneous, unbidden memories that are apparently trivial, but carry an emotional charge. When the narrator goes on in excruciating detail about dinner party conversation, he’s capturing a flood of detailed memories without sifting for significance. In the middle of a dramatic story he tells us that the lift operator coughed on him – and the reader has no way of knowing if this will turn out to be a key plot point or an aside that goes nowhere. Certainly things that I thought were passing observations in the earlier books turn out to have been laying the grounds for incidents in this one – someone makes a joke about an absent person’s name in Du côté de chez Swann, and that person turns up in Sodome et Gomorrhe, to have the joke repeated in a different, more explicit form; Albertine has taken three books to emerge as a significant character; and so on.

In Sodome et Gomorrhe, the baron de Charlus, develops from being a creepy minor character to the focus for Proust’s extended meditations on the nature of homosexuality, to a focus for biting observations about bourgeois titillation, to a pathetic, almost tragic sufferer from unrequited love. The other development in what I take to be the through line of the narrative is the narrator’s developing relationship with Albertine (which I gather is based on Proust’s relationship IRL with his male chauffeur, Alfred). It’s getting ugly: the narrator claims not to love her, but in effect to be in lust with her, and is intensely jealous, doing all he can to stop her from being out of his sight for even a moment with other men or women (he suspects she is lesbian). It’s deeply unpleasant, and I hope to be reading Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do in tandem with later books in the sequence.

The last page I read (page 1583) is a good example of much of the above: a social interaction observed at close quarters, then analysed for its broader significance. It’s part of a long section in which the narrator and Albertine are travelling regularly on the local train at Balbec, the place on the coast where they and many Parisians spend their summer. Among the many encounters that take place on these trips he and Albertine are chatting with the aristocratic Saint-Loup, a matter for some anxiety since Albertine has previously commented (innocently?) on Saint-Loup attractiveness, when the narrator’s old friend Bloch turns up and asks him to come chat to Bloch senior, who is waiting in a carriage nearby. The narrator’s absurd jealousy makes him unwilling to leave Albertine and Saint-Loup alone even for a couple of minutes, and he refuses. Bloch assumes that he does so because of snobbery – Saint-Loup is an aristocrat, while Bloch is not only bourgeois but a Jew. The narrator doesn’t clear up the misunderstanding because the truth is too humiliating. Bloch takes grave offence and that is the end of their friendship. There follows almost a page of reflections, teasing out the detailed politics of the incident. Here’s a taste:

Et d’ailleurs même sans expliquer à Bloch, puisque je ne le pouvais pas, la raison pour laquelle je ne l’avais pas accompagné, si je l’avais prié de ne pas être froissé je n’aurais fait que redoubler ce froissement en montrant que je m’en étais aperçu. Il n’y avait rien à faire qu’à s’incliner devant ce fatum qui avait voulu que la présence d’Albertine m’empêchât de le reconduire et qu’il pût croire que c’était au contraire celle de gens brillants, laquelle, l’eussent-ils été cent fois plus, n’aurait eu pour effet que de me faire occuper exclusivement de Bloch et réserver pour lui toute ma politesse. Il suffit de la sorte qu’accidentellement, absurdement, un incident (ici la mise en présence d’Albertine et de Saint-Loup) s’interpose entre deux destinées dont les lignes convergeaient l’une vers l’autre pour qu’elles soient déviées, s’écartent de plus en plus et ne se rapprochent jamais. Et il y a des amitiés plus belles que celle de Bloch pour moi, qui se sont trouvées détruites, sans que l’auteur involontaire de la brouille ait jamais pu expliquer au brouillé ce qui sans doute eût guéri son amour-propre et ramené sa sympathie fuyante.

In English, mainly from Moncrieff’s translation, of which incidentally I am now completely in awe, given the complex way Proust plays with the French language – though not so much in this bit:

Besides, even without my explaining to Bloch, since I could not, my reason for not going with him, if I had begged him not to be angry with me, I should only have increased his anger by shewing him that I had observed it. There was nothing to be done but to bow before the decree of fate which had willed that Albertine’s presence should prevent me from accompanying him, and that he should suppose that it was on the contrary the presence of people of distinction, the only effect of which, had they been a hundred times more distinguished, would have been to make me devote my attention exclusively to Bloch and reserve all my civility for him. It is sufficient that accidentally, absurdly, an incident (in this case the presence together of Albertine and Saint-Loup) be interposed between two destinies whose lines were converging towards one another, for them to be separated, to stretch farther and farther apart, and never come close again. And there are friendships more precious than Bloch’s was to me which have been destroyed without the unintentional author of the offence having any opportunity to explain to the offended party what would no doubt have healed the injury to his self-esteem and called back his fugitive affection.

For my first several months with Proust, I read this sort of thing as comedy. I suppose I still do, but I used to find it ridiculously obsessive, whereas now I read it almost as if Proust is looking at our species, himself included, under a completely unsentimental magnifying glass, and capturing a terrible pathos in the process.

Another week and I’ll have finished Sodome et Gomorrhe, and be on to Volume 5, La Prisonnière, which I’m told a world expert on Proust has described as the one volume of the novel that a time-pressed reader may safely and entirely skip. Wish me luck.

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.