Monthly Archives: February 2016

Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country

Stan Grant, Talking to My Country (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)

talking-to-my-country.jpg

The cover of this book is great. The image on the left here may not look like much, just some bold type with a couple of gumleaves. But the actual cover held in your hands is scattered with (images of) tiny grains of sand as if the book has been out in the bush, exposed to the elements, suggesting that Stan Grant may be a journalist with an impressive international CV but you can never brush the Wiradjuri country from him.

Stan Grant appeared on Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery this week. That’s a TV show where celebrities take us to visit places from their childhood usually with awkwardness and embarrassment. Stan Grant’s episode was an exception in not being awkward at all, because he had something to say about growing up and working as an Aboriginal person in Australia. That TV show provides an excellent easy-listening introduction to this book.

The cover tells us that this is ‘the book that every Australian should read’. I don’t know about that ‘should’, but if every Australian did read it we’d be living in a much wiser and possibly kinder world. Part memoir, part essay, inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and perhaps Ta Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, it’s a personal account of the effects of dispossession, colonisation and racism on individual lives into the 21st century. It includes the most powerful account of a ‘mental breakdown’ I have ever read, not as a medicalised episode of ‘depression’, but as generations of pain inflicted by colonisation finally breaking through to the surface.

And it’s all told with a sense, not of complaint, but of wonder. The journalist Grant, who wants to understand the world and communicate what he learns, here turns his attention to his own story with the same curiosity and – not detachment, but concern to get it right.It’s a marvellous book.

 

Laura Tingle’s Political Amnesia

Laura Tingle, Political Amnesia: How we forgot how to govern (Quarterly Essay Nº 60, Black Ink 2015)

qe60.jpgAs always with the Quarterly Essay I turned to the back section of this issue for the correspondence on the previous one. The responses to David Marr’s profile of Bill Shorten aren’t argumentative – they mostly praise, summarise, amplify and contextualise. My favourite paragraph is from Michael Bachelard:

The dilemma is that, though fascinating to insiders, the grindings of Labor’s factional machine – at once impenetrable, distasteful and apparently crucial – are to outside observers dull to the point of stupor. But without understanding and accounting for the networks of influence and patronage that bind the union bosses, the branches (more accurately, the branch-stackers), the ethnic warlords and the parliamentarians, there is no explaining the Labor Party and how it identifies and promotes talent.

Marr’s ‘Response to Correspondence’ doesn’t actually respond, but reflects on the timing of the essay’s publication. Its portrait of Bill Shorten as the man who might beat Tony Abbott for the Prime Ministership lost a lot of topicality when Malcolm Turnbull did the job on the eve of publication – but, Marr says, ‘Anything can happen between now and the uncertain date at which Australia will go to an election.’

Political Amnesia asks us to turn aside for a moment from politics as soap opera or contest of personalities, and look instead for structural changes underlying our current political malaise. She argues, convincingly, that there is a growing loss of institutional memory in Australian public life. ‘Without memory,’ she argues

there is no context or continuity for the making of new decisions. We have little choice but to take these decisions at face value, as the inevitable outcome of current circumstance. The perils of this are manifest. Decisions are taken not as informed by knowledge of what has worked, or not worked, in the past, or even by a conscious analysis of what might have changed since the issue was last considered. … Rational debate about the pros and cons of an issue becomes too hard for both advocates and audience. We slip into the habit of conducting our debates in the present tense.

Or worse, three word slogans. The rot has been a long time coming, she argues, and has had complex causes, including the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, where the media beast must always be fed something new (am I the only one who finds it unnerving that even on the ABC news bulletins often tell us about announcements that will be made the next day?), the politicisation of the public service (beginning in a big way when John w Howard sacked department heads he considered politically unacceptable), the blurring of the roles of political advisers and policy advisers (perhaps beginning as early as the Whitlam government, but reaching the heights with Peta Credlin’s role in the Abbott government). She sums up the extent of the problem:

[The] institutions which have made Australia’s political system so vibrant and successful have been changing profoundly over the past few decades. These changes include the rise of unstable executive government (because it has lost the capacity to build institutional memory) at the cost of the parliament (which has also lost its memory as it struggles for relevance); the decline in the influence of the public sector (as a result of a range of forces which have robbed it of much of its institutional memory); the relative rise of the national security establishment (which retains its influence and its memory); and the transformation of the media into a channel for present-tense information, rather than a reliable repository of the historical record. In the background there has also been a nibbling away at our civil rights, as relentless incremental change has left many of us unaware how far the law has moved in the last couple of decades.

The essay has a refreshing focus on systems and structures rather than personality. It ends on a tentative note of hope, and some general suggestions for how the erosion of memory could be slowed or even reversed. Though she can’t be much more than 50, it’s clear that Laura Tingle is one of the precious vessels of memory, a journalist auntie. Much of what she describes if familiar to anyone who has worked in the public service, or really to anyone who has been paying attention. We can hope that this essay contributes towards a change for the better.

AWW2016.jpgPolitical Amnesia is the first of hopefully ten books by Australian women that I will read this year as part of the Australian Women Writers 2016 Challenge.

If not for the challenge, I might not have noticed an element of the essay that would have been unlikely to been there if the essay had been written by a man. The essay pretty much begins with a quote from the ancient Roman historian Tacitus, which describes the Roman people as seduced by Augustus Caesar into preferring ‘the safety of the present to the dangerous past’. That could easily have been done by a man, but Tingle frames the quote in a story about helping her daughter study for an Ancient History exam: so the quote slips into the reader’s mind as something that anyone’s teenage child might know, with none of the elitist baggage that quotes from the ancients – and by extension arguments about institutional memory – might otherwise carry.

Overland 221

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 221 (Spring 2015)

As usual, this Overland is well worth reading. Two articles stand out for me:

  • Transgender justice by Eliora Avraham. Noting that the mainstream media’s fascination with transgender didn’t start with Caitlin Jenner (I remember being fascinated by an article on Christine Jorgensen while my mother was under a dryer in a hairdressing salon in the mid 1950s), the essay moves on to a discussion of economic discrimination against trans people, and makes an interesting contribution to the debate about whether calling an event for women, say, ‘Pussy Power’ is oppressive to those trans women who have penises. The essay makes an excellent companion to the recent episode of the Jill Soloway’s TV series Transparent where the Jeffrey Tambor character is shattered to discover that only ‘women who were born women’ are welcome at the Wimmin’s Music Festival. Apart from occasional moments such as the bald characterisation of some disagreers as purveyors of hate speech, the case is argued carefully and respectfully all round.
  • Are Australian universities creating good artists? by Lauren Carroll Harris,  an excellent general article on the state of art education under neoliberalism in Australian universities. The writer attended the institution now known as UNSW Art and Design, and perhaps it’s an interesting product of the rivalries and snobberies the permeate the art education scene that she  fails to mention the National Art School in Sydney as a surviving studio-based tertiary art education institution. Likewise, no mention of the recent evisceration of art education in TAFE NSW.

There’s a lot more besides. Sophie Cunningham has another study of urban USA in Gold Rush, about the politics of murals in San Francisco’s Mission District. Stephen Wright’s column On male fear does a nice turn on sexism as a key concept in addressing domestic violence. Alison Croggon’s reliably elegant column defends vulgar language as often less vile than perfectly polite words (an argument that has turned up in the newspapers recently in New South Wales as prosecution of profanity is coming under question). In The excellence criterion, Ben Eltham lays out the arguments against George Brandis’s recent proposed changes to arts funding – proposals not substantially changed by Brandis’s departure from the ministry. Facebook absolution by Laurie Penny makes me seriously consider quitting facebook before it’s too late.

There are the judges’ reports and winners of two short story prizes the Victoria University Short Story Prize and the Story Wine Prize, the winner of the latter, with an 800 word limit, soon to appear on a wine label. I enjoyed all the stories but none of them took me by storm.

There’s Peter Minter’s last selection as poetry editor, with joanne burns (‘fate curves like a recycled / frisbee in search of destiny’) and  John Kinsella (‘I hear no birds at night / through thick concrete /and the lack is critical’) heading the bill.

And there’s a very welcome three-page selection of drawings by Sam Wallman from time spent recently working to support people crossing europe’s borders.

One advantage of being late to write about this issue of Overland is that most if not all of its content is now available online, hence my links

 

Pat Barker’s Noonday

Pat Barker, Noonday (Hamish Hamilton 2015)

noonday.jpgJust a short post on this:

Pat Barker’s Regeneration  trilogy is a magnificent work about World War One. Noonday is the final book in a different trilogy – one which began, in Life Class, before that war, and which takes its characters, those who survive, into the London of the Blitz.

I read Life Class too long ago – all I remember is the life drawing class that it opens with, in which the woman protagonist is dumped on by the instructor, and my blog entry about it explains why I didn’t go chasing after the second volume, Toby’s Room.

Noonday is worth reading for its evocation of London during the blitz. These days when the slogan’Keep Calm and Carry on’ and its parodies adorn a million mugs and tea towels, and the movie of Dad’s Army approaches with its no doubt charming and hilarious ragtag segment of the land army (not that there’s anything wrong with either phenomenon), it’s good to have this vivid reminder that it was a time of great suffering and great heroism.

But the main characters, three artists with varying degrees of success, aren’t all that interesting. Two of them are married at the start and not at the end, and it’s never very clear what happened. There’s adultery, which seems to be a big deal, at least for one of them, but I kept thinking of Bogart’s line in Casablanca: ‘It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’

Then there’s a weird subplot involving a grossly overweight woman who is both a charlatan claiming to give the bereaved messages from their dead loved ones, and a genuine psychic. I didn’t know what to make of that, and in the end didn’t care.

So, at the risk of sounding as if I’m ten years old, I’d say read it for the account of London during the Blitz, but skim the talky-talky lovey-dovey bits.

Asia Literary Review 28

Martin Alexander (editor) Asia Literary Review 28, [Northern] Summer 2015

alr28This issue of Asia Literary Review was part of a collaboration with Australia’s Griffith Review. I subscribe to ALR (actually I have a complimentary sub, for which I am grateful) but have only read one or two issues of the GR, which I guess makes me an atypical Australian reader of this joint publication.

Because the ALR is an English-language journal, every issue engages with cultural complexities: inter generational stories, post-colonial hybridity, expat and emigrant writing, and some translation. In this issue, Australia is the non-Asian pole of much of the interaction. As always, the Asian presence is nothing if not diverse, including writing from or about mainland China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kashmir, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea (a defector), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Among the Australian contributors, Omar Musa – rapper from Deniliquin, spoken-worder and author of Here Come the Dogs – strikes a different tone in ‘Supernova’, a sober, reflective story about an older emigrant who has returned to Malaysia and takes part in the political process there; Ellen van Neerven’s ‘Half a Butterfly’ reports on a visit to Goa as part of a cultural exchange between Aboriginal Australian writers and Dalit writers; and Jessie Cole’s ‘The Asian Invasion’ is, among other things, a memoir of her childhood in Hippie Nimbin that challenges the received version of that community as drug-fuelled, self-indulgent and delusional, offering instead a recollections of one that was diverse, open to new experiences and other cultures.

One or two articles seem to be written with Australian readers in mind: Keane Shum’s marvellous ‘Ripple from Hong Kong’ tells a history of that island from the perspective of a Hong-Konger whose people were there long before the Chinese ceded it to Britain; in ‘All for the People, without the People’, André Dao starts from his own experience of voting in Melbourne, complete with sausage sizzle, and goes on to consider what democracy and ‘human rights’ might mean in Vietnam, a familiar subject presented through a personal prism; Miguel Syjuco’s ‘Beating Dickheads’, an argument for mockery as a form of resistance to tyranny, invites Australian readers to consider their own practice of mocking those in power (‘Every nation has its unfair share of dickheads. douchebags, dingleberries and degenerates. But my country, the Philippines, bests most in democratic tomfoolery.’); when Prodita Sabarini’s ‘Let Bygones Be Bygones‘ discusses the great Indonesian silence about the 1965 massacres, her main non-Indonesian reference point is Joshua Oppenheimer’s movies The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence – Oppenheimer is a USer, but his films have made a big splash in festivals here, as, evidently, they have in parts of Indonesia.

I don’t want to give the impression that everything is geared towards Australian readers. Far from it. The pleasure of encountering the unfamiliar, of being an invited eavesdropper, is as strong here as in any other issue. A number of pieces, for instance, discuss the role of humour, which notoriously travels poorly. Apart from ‘Beating Dickheads’, there’s Murong Xuecun unpromisingly titled ‘Chinese Thinking the Age of the Internet’. ‘If President Xi Jinping is clearheaded,’ he writes, ‘he will understand that although he may be able to seal people’s mouths, he can never stop them sniggering.’ Fair enough, one thinks, but the essay becomes really interesting when it gives examples of the subversive humour that the Internet allows to spread:

New English words with Chinese characteristics are popping up: Chinese citizens become shitizens; Chinese democracy begat democrazy; secretaries with Chinese characteristics (especially the female secretaries of high officials) are sexcretaries. Political jokes are also spreading. Here’s one I encountered recently: Xi Jinping went into the Qingfeng Dumpling Shop and asked what the fillings were. The waitress answered, ‘This one is cabbage and pork; this one is pork and cabbage; this one is pork with added cabbage. Which do you want?’ Xi thought about it for a moment and said, ‘They’re all the same, there’s no choice.’ The waitress responded, ‘Aren’t you forgetting, that’s how we chose you?’

You have to love the people who make these jokes, even if you don’t laugh. And though the essay doesn’t mention Ai Wei Wei, it changes the way one sees what some critics describe as his self-promoting poseurdom (and incidentally, I recommend the Ai Wei Wei / Andy Warhol exhibition that’s currently at the National Art Gallery of Victoria).

I also recommend Asia Literary Review. This blog post has barely skimmed the riches of this issue.