Monthly Archives: July 2015

Leila Yusaf Chung’s Chasing Shadows 

Leila Yusaf Chung, Chasing Shadows (Vintage Books Australia, 2014)

1csIn August 2001, John w Howard kept the press away from the asylum seekers who had been rescued by captain Arne Rinnan of the Norwegian ship Tampa. It was crucial to Howard’s strategy of depicting the would-be refugees as ‘illegals’ and ‘queue-jumpers’ that Australians not see them as individual men, women and children. His famous utterance, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,’ could not have sounded like a defiant assertion of sovereignty if its hearers knew the wretched terror and misery – not to mention courage and determination – of those who were being ‘decided’ against.

Short of meeting asylum seekers in person, and so far I haven’t bestirred myself to do that, fiction has to be a good way of engaging imaginatively with this class of people who are still being relentlessly disparaged and dehumanised in our media. I bought a copy of Leila Yusaf Chung’s novel with those considerations in mind after hearing her speak, beautifully, at the Sydney Writers Festival about the importance of women in refugee communities.

I’m happy to report that the book filled the brief I had given it. Set mainly in Israel and Lebanon from the 1940s to the 1980s, it has real people who suffer real losses, confront real mysteries, and make their ways through the violence and indifference they meet at every turn. The form of the book mirrors the complexity of Middle Eastern politics, to the extent that plot summaries either misrepresent the book or are close to impossible to unravel. A character who seems to be the main driver of the plot becomes marginal to the point that when he dies we hardly notice; sympathetic characters do terrible things, and a shift in perspective reveals what looked like – and was – abuse to be an act of love; an early scene narrated from an uncomprehending child’s point of view turns out to contain a mystery that is central to the story; there are many false starts, many shifts of location and allegiance.

The book has a Zelig quality – characters find themselves on the spot just in time to be on the wrong side of a disastrous event: a Polish Jew living in Israel converts to Islam just before the naqba, so that he and his new family are among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven from their homes by the Israeli army into apparently permanent exile; a young Palestinian woman is persuaded to marry an Iranian official, only to arrive in Tehran the day of the 1979 revolution and be gaoled along with hundreds of women who don’t meet the requirements of Ayatollah Khomeini’s new regime; characters are caught up in the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Identity is fluid, and sometimes a  pragmatic choice: the Jew Lavi becomes the Muslim Abu Fadi in order to marry a young Muslim woman; his Arab daughter poses as a Christian Armenian to give her infant daughter a safe environment to grow up in; another daughter finds a source of strength in strict Islam. Nothing is simple.

I recommend the book. If you read it I’d love to hear your response in the comments.

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Chasing Shadows is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Of Mice and Men and the Book Group

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (1937)

ommEvery now and then the Book Group reads a classic. As one of us is currently performing in the play of Of Mice and Men, it seemed like an obviously good idea to read the book and see the play together.

Before the meeting: This is one of those books that you feel you don’t actually need to read. Like the photos of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, it’s a solid part of our understanding of the US in the 1930s. A little skinny guy and a lumbering giant with intellectual disability team up in rural USA during the Great Depression. The big man is a gentle soul, but doesn’t know his own strength and bad things happen.

Predictably, the book turned out to offer any number of surprises. First was the lyricism of the opening. I vaguely knew that Elmore Leonard’s disparagement of ‘hooptedoodle‘, the descriptive bits that readers tend to skip, cited Steinbeck as an authority. It was a surprise, then, to meet an opening paragraph that describes a pool over which arch the ‘recumbent limbs and branches’ of sycamores, and to which water ‘has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight’. That ‘twinkling’ challenged my assumptions mightily.

But then the humans appear, and there’s no more twinkling or recumbent arches until the final chapter, where ‘row on row of tiny wind waves flowed up the pool’s green surface’. The return to that pool carries a huge emotional thwack. Steinbeck knew a little hooptedoodle goes a long way, but he knew how to do it well. In this case, it’s the equivalent of a theatrical backdrop.

The story unfolds in six scenes, each of which observes the classical unities of time, place and action – that is, we see only what happens in a given place, and we see everything that happens there in sequence. The settings, described briefly at the start of each scene, are: an idyllic clearing on the bank of the Salinas river on a Thursday evening; a ranch bunkhouse the next morning; the bunkhouse again that evening; the harness room, which is also the bedroom of Crooks, the stable buck, on Saturday night; the barn, Sunday afternoon; the pool again, still Sunday.

Almost everything is conveyed by dialogue and action. It’s a short book, just about 100 pages – it could have been twice as long in the hands of a writer who wanted to tell us what his characters were thinking, rather than trusting us to get it.

There’s another passage of ‘fine writing’ that stands out. Unlike the other characters – the old man Candy, Crooks, Curley – who reveal themselves by their words and actions, Slim first appears in a long descriptive passage. Here’s the end of that passage:

There was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love. This was Slim, the jerkline skinner. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their action as those of a temple dancer.

This eloquent prose telegraphs Slim’s function as moral touchstone: we know that his judgement is to be trusted, that his point of view is as close as we’ll get to the author’s. Then the prose snaps back to normal, not so much undercutting the hoptedoodle as saving it from itself, when Slim speaks:

‘It’s brighter’n a bitch outside,’ he said gently. ‘Can’t hardly see nothin’ in here.’

As I was reading this book, Barack Obama made headlines for using the N word. (As someone said, he is the first US President to use that word without referring to someone he claimed to own.) Given the extreme sensitivity to that word in the US today, it’s gratifying that Steinbeck’s use of it hasn’t been bowdlerised, at least not in the edition I read. The characters’ casual use of it to refer to Crooks, the only African American character, is very uneasy-making. Then there’s a scene where the woman addresses him by the vile term, and reminds him that she could have him ‘strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny’. Steinbeck and Obama would agree that racism is not just a matter of it not being polite to use some words in public.

After the meeting: We didn’t have a group meeting as such, as we spent two and a half hours at the Sport for Jove production of Steinbeck’s play, directed by Iain Sinclair, with an all-round excellent cast. All good intentions of joining our actor-member after the show evaporated at the final curtain, and we all made our way home to warm mid-week beds.

It was interesting to see the play so soon after reading the novel. Maybe Steinbeck had the play in mind when he wrote the novel, because it really did feel largely as if as if the book had been magically transmogrified into flesh and blood. Maybe George wasn’t as wiry as I’d imagined, and Curley’s wife (her lack of a name much more noticeable in the play) was less sexy; the scene in Crooks’ bunk felt truncated; the dog was cuter and more alert than the book’s smelly wreck. But these were minor variations. The novel was walking and talking in front of our eyes. But no twinkling water or recumbent sycamore branches.

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Inside My Mother

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside My Mother (Giramondo 2015)

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If you haven’t read anything by Ali Cobby Eckermann, you’re not keeping up. In the last five years or so, in three books of poetry, two verse novels and a memoir, she has made a huge contribution to our general understanding of what Australia is. She was taken from her Aboriginal family when she was a small child, and brought up by a white, German heritage family. Her writing is largely animated by the charge from her reunion as an adult with her mother and with  her Yankunytjatjara and Kokatha relatives and heritage.

The memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, tells her story and is on my reading list. The poetry in Inside My Mother touches on it in many ways – on her relationship with her mother, and the pain of her death soon after renewing contact; and also on her rediscovery of Aboriginal culture, as in the first poem in the book:

Bird Song
 our birds fly
 –––––on elongated wings
 ––––––––––they fly forever
 –––––––––––––––they are our Spirit

–––––––––––––––our bird song
 ––––––––––is so ancient
 –––––we gifted it
 to the church

This kind of assertion of the power of Aboriginal culture is hard to pull off without coming across as defensive or preachy, but Cobby Eckermann manages it here, and throughout the book, with grace and a faint satirical edge.

The poetry here is wonderfully varied: love lyrics, fables, autobiographical narrative, polemic, surrealism and some silly humour.

As I’ve been ruminating about this book over the last couple of weeks, my mind keeps returning to ‘Hindmarsh Island’, not because it stands out as excellent, but because it cries out to be read alongside Les Murray’s ‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’ in his most recent book, Waiting for the Past.

Les Murray’s fine poem can be read online here. It celebrates the renewal of the mouth of the Murray River, in particular the prosperity and vitality that has come to Hindmarsh Island thanks to the bridge that has recently joined it to the mainland. It has Murray’s characteristic joy in linguistic display, the wonderful image of the bridge throwing houses onto the island, and the joyful underlying pun on ‘Murray mouth’.

Then along comes Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Hindmarsh Island’:

hindmarsh Island 

Cars drive over the babies!

And we realise that for all his emphasis on the importance of the past, Les Murray as a non-Indigenous poet can glide over some elements of our history. The Signal Point café is part of the thriving scene celebrated in ‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’, but from an Aboriginal perspective, we don’t have the luxury of forgetting that the bridge was built over the prolonged protests of a group of women who asserted that it meant the destruction of a significant cultural site. It’s possible that Cobby Eckermann had read the Murray poem (which was first published in Quadrant in September 2010), but I doubt if it’s a deliberate response: this is just a different take on the same phenomenon, one that demonstrates how important Aboriginal voices are if our national conversation is to have integrity.

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s previous books of poetry are Kami (a Vagabond Press Rare Objects chapbook, 2010) and little bit long time (Australian Poetry Centre’s New Poets Series, also 2010) and love dreaming and other poems (Vagabond 2012). Her two verse novels are His Father’s Eyes (OUP 2011) and Ruby Moonlight (Magabala Books 2012). Her memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, was published by Ilura Press in 2013.

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Inside My Mother is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.