Monthly Archives: March 2017

Hisham Matar’s Return

Hisham Matar, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (Viking 2016)

returnWikipedia describes Hisham Matar as a Libyan novelist. Actually, it’s more complex than that: he’s a British citizen, born in the USA, who spent six childhood years in Libya before being exiled with his immediate family to Egypt. But despite these complexities he is Libyan, deeply invested in the history, culture and fortune of that country. This wonderful book is built around his return there during the brief window of peace and hope after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011. Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar, an influential political dissident, was kidnapped in 1990, never to be seen again by his family. Hisham, 19 years old and studying in London at the time of the kidnap, spent the next two decades trying to find out what happened to his father, and working for the release of his uncle and cousins who had been arrested at the same time.

As the story of the author’s visit to his Libyan family unfolds, the book travels back in time to his childhood relationship with his father, his life as a literary person in London, his many encounters with men who had been in the infamous Abu Salim prison at the same time as his father, the testimony of his uncle who spent 21 years in Abu Salim, the story of a heroic younger cousin who died in the resistance, a truly bizarre series of encounters with one of Gaddafi’s sons who makes and breaks endless promises to help, and a witness account of the massacre in which his father probably died. It’s a far cry from painless, but it’s a dramatic and engrossing lesson on the recent history of Libya.

It’s also a passionate account of what it means to have your beloved father snatched away by an oppressive regime and to spend decades imagining the worst and having only partial success in finding out what happened. It’s that emotional charge that animates the narrative. There are passages that readers from less expressive cultures might find a little florid, but for me they were among the strongest things in the book. This passage, for example, rings completely true to me, and makes me regret that I never managed to acknowledge anything of this debt to my father when he was alive:

The country that separates fathers and sons has disoriented many travellers. It is very easy to get lost here. Telemachus, Edgar, Hamlet and countless other sons, their private dramas ticking away in the silent hours, have sailed so far out into the uncertain distance between past and present that they seem adrift. They are men, like all men, who have come into the world through another man, a sponsor, opening the gate and, if they are lucky, doing so gently, perhaps with a reassuring smile and an encouraging nudge on the shoulder. And the fathers must have known, having once themselves been sons, that the ghostly presence of their hand will remain throughout the years, to the end of time, and that no matter what burdens are laid on that shoulder or the number of kisses a lover plants there, perhaps knowingly driven by the secret wish to erase the claim of another, the shoulder will remain forever faithful, remembering that good man’s hand that had ushered them into the world. To be a man is to be part of this chain of gratitude and remembering, of blame and forgetting. of surrender and rebellion, until a son’s gaze is made so wounded and keen that, on looking back, he sees nothing but shadows.

A version of the opening of the book was published in the New Yorker in April 2013. It’s available online here.

Jennifer Maiden’s Metronome (paper)

Jennifer Maiden, The Metronome (Giramondo 2017)

metronomepaper.jpegI don’t have anything new to say about The Metronome since I posted about the ebook version in January, and sadly I missed the launch at Gleebooks on the weekend. But for the sake of completeness, this is a short post to tell my readers the book is now out in the world, launched by Robert Adamson at Gleebooks on 26 March 2017. There are photos of the event on the Quemar Press website, and here’s a video of Jennifer Maiden reading ‘Mary Rose’ from the book:

One of the many things I love
about Gen Y is that they’re ready to accept
transgender in anything, as if Caitlyn Jenner
was the best fan fiction ever.

The Book Group in an Ian McEwan Nutshell

Ian McEwan, Nutshell (Jonathan Cape 2016)

1911214330.jpgThe Meeting: This is the first time I’ve been to a Book group meeting without having read even one page of the book that’s up for discussion. The Emerging Artist asked me what excuse I was going to give. I replied haughtily, and a little disingenuously, that I didn’t need an excuse, because the group is about much more than discussing a book.

There’s food, which this time was excellent: our host had taken a day off work to buy ingredients and cook a fabulous Malaysian meal. (He joked that he had thought of making smoothies but decided against it – a joke which I only got a week later when half way through the book.) And there’s bonhomie: we caught up with each other’s lives, relationships, illnesses and other milestones.

We eventually did discuss the book. I gleaned that it is beautifully written, with many sentences that at least one person was compelled to read more than once. A couple of people laughed so hard at some parts they had to put the book down. The plot had to do with Hamlet, but not obviously. The central conceit, that the narrator is a foetus in the last weeks of gestation who knows an awful lot about the world from listening to podcasts, was either amusing (most of the group), richly metaphorical (one person), or one-joke tedious (the main dissenter who, incidentally, says he is an Ian McEwan fan).

I snuck a quick look at a page close to the end, and was enthralled. Here’s the paragraph I read, without spoiler anxiety, because after all it would have been odd for the narrator not to be born at the book’s end:

A slithering moment of waxy, creaking emergence, and here I am, set naked on the kingdom. Like stout Cortez (I remember a poem my father once recited), I’m amazed. I’m looking down, with what wonder and surmise, at the napped surface of the blue bath towel. Blue. I’ve always known, verbally at least, I’ve always been able to infer what’s blue – sea, sky, lapis lazuli, gentians – mere abstractions. Now I have it at last, I own it, and it possesses me. More gorgeous than I dared  believe. That’s just a beginning, at the indigo end of the spectrum.

In the course of the evening someone read a passage that he particularly enjoyed. To my uninformed ear it was a dry if elegantly constructed list of items such as one hears on the news every night, with nothing particularly clever, pleasant or moving about it.

The discussion must have been enticing enough because when the library emailed that a copy had finally become available, I borrowed it.

After the meeting: It turned out that the main challenge for me as a reader was the requirement that I willingly suspend, not so much disbelief, as my sense of late prenatal awareness as an actual thing, one that bears little or no resemblance to the sophisticated rumination, moral discrimination, wine connoisseurship and intense visualisation that characterise the narration here.

Once you are reconciled to the fact that there’s no attempt to imagine an actual foetus’s mental processes, and have set aside any anxiety about the potential damage from the mother’s copious alcohol consumption or vigorously receptive sexual activity, you can pay attention to the story, in which the narrator listens and feels helplessly while his mother (Trudy/Gertrude) and her lover/brother-in-law (Claude/Claudius) plot the death of his father.

Like a number of recent and forthcoming books, though not part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project (Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn will be doing Hamlet for that project), this is a novelistic riff on a Shakespeare play. The names and the incest–murder scenario aren’t all that links it to Hamlet. There are plenty of verbal echoes  – ‘To be’, though not ‘not to be’; ‘Seems, nay tis’, and so on. And Hamlet’s indecisiveness is parallelled in the narrator’s vacillations as he is influenced by his mother’s hormonal fluctuations and his own divided loyalties. The narrator toys with the idea of killing himself, with a literal ‘mortal coil’. There’s even a Shakespearean ghost.

The narrative swings along, and the remarkably well-informed foetus’s reflections are engaging, but I kept wondering if the central conceit was really any more interesting than the one in the movie Look Who’s Talking. In an odd way, it was this rather than the narrative question – would the plotters get away with murder? – that kept me in suspense. In the end, it was a passage very like the one that had so failed to impress me at the meeting that brought the narrative’s metaphorical power home for me. The narrator is well informed, like so many of us in the age of social media, about things he is all but powerless to influence. This helplessly informed state is the novel’s equivalent to Hamlet’s indecisiveness. ‘And always, there are problems closer to hand.’ That sentence, banal as it may seem out of context, is actually a call to action, and it’s what in the end made me love the book, though I still could have done without all the alcohol during pregnancy.


Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Hate Race

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race (Hachette Australia 2016)


I finished reading The Hate Race on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, celebrated in Australia as Harmony Day, and this year the day on which the Turnbull government put forward legislation intended to make it legal to insult, offend or humiliate someone on the basis of their race.

As a result, soon after finishing the book I read Adam Liaw’s Twitter thread being ‘a bit frank about race’ (well worth reading), and some of the painful contributions to the thread #FreedomofSpeech initiated by Benjamin Law. These read almost as continuations of the book, placing it as part of a vast, continuing, necessary conversation. The connection became explicit when Benjamin Law tweeted a recommendation to ‘read Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir of growing up black in Australia. Utter punch in the guts’. And it’s true that Clarke’s book gives devastating heft to the abstractions ‘insult’, ‘offend’ and ‘humiliate’.

But it would be a mistake to think of The Hate Race as an extended tweet about racism, whether micro-aggressive, casual, everyday, or viciously intentional. It’s a beautifully written memoir about growing up as a Caribbean–African-heritage girl in suburban Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s. Its focus on racism gives it power and coherence, but doesn’t stop it from being very funny in places and heartbreaking in others, from having a satisfying (and surprising) overall narrative arc, and any number of story-telling pleasures along the way. The narrator tells us again and again that she is making a story out of her experience. ‘This is how it happened,’ goes her refrain, ‘or what’s a story for.’

There’s a wonderful tale involving Cabbage Patch Kids, and Maxine’s time on the debating team in high school is a source of complex humour. There are stories of teenage love, of intellectual adventure, of defiance, smart-arsery and righteousness. I expect that anyone who has been to school in Australia will recognise the truth of the playground politics.

There’s one passage I’m tempted to quote as most vividly transcending the extended-tweet form and exemplifying the book’s complex honesty – for those who’ve read it, I’m thinking of the ‘incident with Baghita Singh’ from Chapter 19. But I’ll avoid spoilers. Here’s a taste, from Chapter 7, of the world as seen by little Maxine, one of many such tiny gems:

I have only one memory of entering a church with my mother. In it, I am about four years old. We are walking, my mother and I, along Wrights Road on the way home from preschool, when the heavens unexpectedly open. Sheets of freezing rain pour down on us. Umbrella-less, we huddle under the small awning of the nearby white-painted timber Anglican church. But the rain seems to be chasing us, curving in under the church awning in piercing darts, as if directing us into the arms of the Lord.
—–When my mother eases open the heavy wooden church door, rows of polished pews with plush red cushioning reveal themselves. Light streams through the pretty stained-glass windows.
—–‘What is this place?’ I am breathless with awe. ‘It looks like the inside of a Pizza Hut restaurant.’

At about the halfway point, I was filled with vicarious terror for the people whose names are named: Carlita Allen, Maxine’s vicious nemesis from the first day of preschool; Mrs Kingsley, the preschool teacher who smilingly refused to believe that a little black girl’s father could be a mathematician; Mrs Hird, who turned a deaf ear to racist taunts and objected furiously to the use of the word racism;  the vile bullies Derek Healey and Greg Adams; all the abusive children and adolescents, the obtuse or collusive teachers. It was a relief to read in the acknowledgements that all names apart from the author’s have been changed. But I do hope that Carlita and Greg and Derek and the rest read the book and are inspired to do some hard thinking. As a white man, I’ve been pushed to face at least bystander behaviour on my part. Perhaps even John Howard and Pauline Hanson, offstage characters whose names are not changed, might have their worlds expanded if they open these pages.


The Hate Race is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Southerly 76/2

David Brooks and guest editor Andy Jackson (editors), Southerly Vol 76 No 2 2016: Writing Disability

southerly762.jpgThe term ‘disability’ covers a vast range of experience: body shapes that differ from the norm, impaired bodily function, chronic pain, chronic disease, learning difficulties, the autism spectrum, conditions labelled ‘mental illness’, combinations of those and more. Though that’s an important point, it’s also an obvious one, and perhaps only in an academic context would you invoke a French theorist to make it, as in this passage from Andy Jackson and David Brooks’ essay ‘Ramps and the Stair’ in this Southerly:

Derrida tells us that we should not, when talking about animals, use the word animal. It is an umbrella term, an intellectual violence. We should say cat, we should say horse, we should say mouse. […] ‘Disability’, then, an umbrella term? an intellectual violence? There are as many forms of disability as there are things a non-disabled person might be able to do. The term effaces even as it tries to draw attention.*

But with or without Derrida, cats, mice and horses, this Southerly focuses on disability. The contents are listed according to kind of writing – essays, poetry, short fiction etc (you can see the online version here). They could as easily have been listed according to kind of disability. Here’s a partial list:

Degenerative disease:

  • An intensely personal obituary by Bruce Pascoe for Gillian Mears, best known as the author of Foal’s Bread who died of  multiple sclerosis last year
  • Koraly Dimitriadis, ‘The Recipe’, an exuberant short fiction in which a Greek family deals with a matriarch’s diagnosis of motor neuron disease

Cerebral palsy:

  • Kit Kavanagh-Ryan, ‘Permanent Problems’, a memoir, self described as ‘a story about identity and anxiety, about rude questions and boring answers … a story I can’t grow out of, even as I grow up’, followed by  ‘life prep (dear able bodied partner)’, a brief, caustic lyric on the same theme

Chronic illness:

  • Heather Taylor Johnson, ‘Trying to Talk about Ménières Disease’, a poem (a fourfold haibun?) that vividly captures devastating encounters with a medical practitioner

Blindness / visual impairment:

  • Ben Stubbs, ‘A Different View’, in which the author, a travel writer, is taken on a blindfold walk through the streets of Adelaide by a blind activist/educator, almost as good (or bad) as being there


  • Amanda Tink, ‘Deafness: a Key to Lawson’s Writing’ reminds us that Henry Lawson was deaf, and argues that his disability lay at the base of his commitment to social justice. (I do wonder if Ms Tink has thought much about the influence of Henry’s feminist mother and his class background)
  • Jessica White, ‘A Great Many Capital Foreign Things’, a memoir about her own experience as a deaf person, including her time researching colonial novelist Rosa Praed’s daughter Maud, who was deaf.

Autism spectrum:

  • Darcy Hill, ‘Disjointed Words’, a revelatory personal essay recounting a couple of hours in the life of an autistic university student
  • Jessica Clements: ‘Theories of Lght’, a fiction in which a boy on the autism spectrum (though it’s not named) begins school. It opens a gentle door for readers unfamiliar with the territory

Chronic pain:

  • Josephine Taylor, ‘Mark My Words’, the most scholarly piece in the journal with four pages of ‘works cited’, about vulvodynia, a condition of chronic unexplained vulval pain. I’m not drawn to writing that quotes the likes of Lacan or the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and parts of this essay are hard going, but as it’s rooted in, and animated by, the writer’s quest to come to terms with more than fifteen years of acute pain, it’s hard to turn away

Mobility impairment:

  • Michèle Saint-Yves, ‘The Inner Shepherd’, a spectacular story in which a character takes 12 pages to sit up in bed in the morning, bringing extraordinary self-discipline to the task.

‘Mental Illness’:

  • Liana Joy Christensen, ‘Before They fall’, a memoir that pays pained tribute to a friend who lived with mental chaos.: ‘He could not help being ill; I could not help writing.’

Intellectual disability:

  • The cover is by Fulli Andrinopoulos, represented by Arts Project Australia, whose website declares that it insists ‘that intellectually disabled artists’ work be presented in a professional manner and that artists are accorded the same dignity and respect as their non-disabled peers’.

Not easily categorised:

  • Elisabeth Holdsworth, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams, the friends of our youth and 83 seconds’ ranges widely over stillborn babies, misdiagnosed back injury, childhood epilepsy, survival of Dachau – friendship, grief, solidarity, courage …

I would have been satisfied with this richly diverse reading experience, and then the short reviews section sprung a pleasant surprise on me in Michael Sharkey’s review of David Musgrave’s Anatomy of Voice. This book is an elegy to Bill Maidment (1924–2005), who lectured at Sydney University and was a mentor and friend to Musgrave and Sharkey. Though I wouldn’t presume to claim him as a friend, he was one of the three most inspiring, and dare I say loveable, teachers I had at university (the others were Elisabeth Hervic, of the French Department, and David Malouf). The review sent me to Gleebooks to buy a copy of the book, but the real delight was in Sharkey’s departures from the business of reviewing to note down some of his own memories of Bill:

Bill Maidment received that sort of admiration and affection from several generations of students and fellow teachers. He represents a world now gone, when an Air Force radio operator, journalist, plein-air geographer and adventurer, forensic critic, collector of Australian folklore and arcane Renaissance knowledge, and brilliant lecturer could exist in one person, and hold a packed lecture theatre in such thrall that the listeners erupted in applause not only at the end of lectures but sometimes following a bravura exegesis.

  • Because my WordPress format doesn’t distinguish italicised text in quotes, I’ve used purple for words that are italicised in the original. I’ve also altered punctuation slightly to follow Australian conventions.

Tom Keneally’s Crimes of the Father

Tom Keneally, Crimes of the Father (Vintage 2016)

crimes.jpgPerhaps a novel is just what’s needed after the news cycle has rolled on, to keep our minds and hearts alive to painful issues such as child sexual abuse in religious institutions. That, it seems to me, is the need The Crimes of the Father aims to fill.

It’s a stranger-comes-to-town story. Father Frank Docherty was stripped of his priestly role by the Sydney Cardinal in the early 1970s because his politics were contrary to the prelate’s conservatism. As a member of a religious Order, he found a new life in Canada as a priest and academic psychologist, and came to specialise in cases of clerical child abuse. In 1996 he returns to Sydney to address a conference, and finds himself embroiled as adviser and advocate with not one but two people who were abused as children by a Monsignor of the diocese who also happens to be the brother of a woman he has loved, chastely, for more than 20 years.

There are lectures, legal arguments, and excursions into the history of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of Vatican Two. Tom Keneally has clearly done conscientious research, and in that sense is trustworthy. But at about the midpoint I was muttering, ‘Show, don’t tell,’ and three quarters of the way through, ‘Write what you know!’ I just didn’t believe in Frank Docherty’s inner life, or that of the accused abuser or the abuse survivors. The dialogue rarely sounds like conversation. The narrative feels like a survey of the literature, a tableau where you might reasonably expect a drama.

Though Keneally’s skill as a story teller is powerful enough that I kept reading, it’s the brief preface, in which he writes about his own relationship to the Catholic Church, that delivers the strongest emotional punch. The rest is too schematic, the characters too much at arm’s length, the action too often described rather than enacted. And as our hero flies off into the sunrise, the necessary final twist is a convenient deus ex machina.

Perhaps because I had just read Kim Mahood’s brilliant Position Doubtful, this unengaged quality struck me with particular force in the section where Sarah, a survivor of sexual abuse who has temporarily become Sister Constance, spends time on a remote Aboriginal community. She visits the outstation of a man called Douglas (‘that was his European name, anyhow’), with some of his relatives. Here are the first paragraphs of her visit:

Douglas was reserved but welcoming. His habitation, an elegantly constructed lean-to, lay at the foot of a ridge in which the entire range of umber and yellow rocks were exhibited. His wife was profoundly black and limpid-eyed, and there was just her and him there – the kids were learning white-fella stuff in Cairns, he told them. He had a kerosene refrigerator and a telephone that hung on a pole and ran off solar panels. He was a man of past, present and future.
—-The relatives sat about on a rug in front of the lean-to and spoke in their language – part guttural, with some sounds like bird calls – her ignorance about which  Constance had never felt more acutely than at this moment. The host, his wife and his relatives drank tea from enamel mugs. A stranger at the feast, she did too.

And that’s as vividly as we ever get to see Douglas and his unnamed wife and relatives. Of course, they’re incidental characters (and I should mention that ‘their language’ has been previously identified as Guugu Timithirr), but the writing is not completely untypical. It might work as a film script, because the actors would flesh it out, but there’s not much flesh in the written form.

Compare this from the Author’s Note:

At an immature age I chose to study for the priesthood. and I would like to put on record my thanks for the more generous and open-handed aspects of that training. It was not, however, an education designed to encourage a callow young man to achieve full maturity as a sentient and generous male adult. I was too innocent to understand that the education to make me a celibate strayed easily into stereotyping half of my species – women – as a perilous massed threat to priestly purity; or that the attendant emotional dwarfing could create, encourage or license the young men whose abusive tendencies are mourned in this novel.

I so wanted to read the novel that this seems to promise. But I was disappointed: those young men make no appearance except as manipulators lifted straight from Keneally’s evidently punctilious research. No light is shed on their motivations as individual, breathing human beings. And the same is only slightly less true of the survivors.

From my 70th birthday party

The party to celebrate my 70th birthday on Friday was, among other things, a kind of talent show: people sang, recited poetry, did classroom activities, sketched, knitted socks and conducted a blindfold taste test. (I make no bones about hating eggplant, baba ghanouj excepted, and one of my sons blindfolded me and offered me five variants of the loathsome stuff: I’m glad to report I hated them all, sight unseen.)

Most of the splendid creations were very much of the moment, but I have Tristan White’s permission to share this, which his mother read in his absence.

From Chifley to Turnbull – 70 Years of PMs

In seventy years you’ve seen many a prime minister,
the great and the average and the downright sinister.
You probably remember them but if you’re out of the loop,
let me flash back so that you can recoup.

You were born under pipe-toting Benedict Chifley,
who had his time up by far too swiftly.
The Bathurst train driver, the ‘Light on the Hill‘,
a ‘fine Aussie‘ that Labor cherish still.

Then began a Liberal fraternity,
twenty-three years was about an eternity.
For sixteen Robert Menzies took up the rein,
winning eight elections in his own name.
British to the bootstraps! English to the eye!’
And he’d love the Queen till the day he’d die.

Sir Bob finally stood down to give Harold Holt way,
to follow the lead of LBJ.
He added a new set of coins to the mix
on the fourteenth of February sixty-six.
But just as his second anniversary neared,
he went for a dip and then disappeared.
We looked for him all across the seas,
and theorised some conspiracies,
but we knew before long that his prospects were grim,
so we instead had a swimming pool named after him.

The Liberals then voted in Senator Gorton,
but just three years later they chose to deport him.

Billy McMahon had failed to impress
except for the crack in his wife Sonia’s dress.
It was definitely Time in ‘seventy-two,
the men and women of Aus needed something brand new.

Free healthcare and uni; conscription was off!
For all this and more, we can warmly thank Gough.
But things then began to go downhill from there:
the block of supply; the Loans Affair,
and on November eleventh, well may we say,
that Australia had its craziest day.
The Governor-General had Whitlam dismissed,
Kerr’s cur came in being booed, scoffed and hissed.

Yet he nonetheless won the coming election
giving Gough and his crowd a wholehearted rejection.
Despite being unloved, we kept Fraser empowered
for two more terms, with his Treasurer Howard.
Life is delightful, but not meant to be easy!
he said, making us all feel a little bit queasy.

But in eighty-three when Labor’s hope was but fadin’
they drafted in Hawke to replace Bill Hayden.
He carried the party up out of the fog
though it could have been won by a drover’s dog.
I take total responsibility,‘ wept Fraser,
as though his toughness had been cut with a razor.

Hawky, who was branded the Messiah by some,
claimed a ‘boss who sacks someone today is a bum!
The dollar was floated, we’d be reconciled,
And ‘a life in poverty would be had by no child!
He gave Labor four wins in rapid succession
but we then had to have, of course, the recession.

Bob had forged a great partnership with his Treasurer Keating,
though leadership tensions had now started heating.
After challenging once Keating said, ‘Let me be plain:
I had one shot in the locker. I won’t fire again!’

But just six months later, our leader was Paul,
whose ninety-three victory was the sweetest of all.
His ‘big picture’ vision went to the front of the screen:
Get a new flag! Get rid of the queen!’
He had a caustic tongue and declared, ‘Holy moley!
I’m going to do John Hewson slowly!
Mr. Mediocrity will never get us;
it’s like being flogged with a warm piece of lettuce!
He’s like a lizard on a rock – alive but looking dead.
Scumbags! Corporate crooks! Rust buckets!‘ he said.

But Redfern and the speech to the unknown soldier,
and Mabo and APEC and super were much bolder.
‘We excluded and murdered without asking,’ said he,
how would I feel were this done to me?’
He may have seemed arrogant but he wasn’t a coward,
though was hit out with baseball bats for Honest John Howard.

I won’t say sorry! No way will there be,
never ever!‘ he said, to a GST.
‘We’ve been welcoming to all who have travelled our way,
but we will decide who’s invited to stay.’
He followed George W. Bush into war
and acknowledged that some of his promises were non-core.

In twenty-oh-seven things eventually soured
with the WorkChoices bill, and it tore apart Howard.
We loudly responded when he did not retreat;
we threw out his party and he lost his own seat!

‘I’m Kevin,’ he said, ‘and I’m just here to help.’
‘I’m going to ensure an equal share of the wealth.’
He got us through the GFC but then
he was out of the picture by twenty-ten.

When Gillard took over we didn’t know what to say,
being told that a ‘Good government was losing its way,
but we’re going to move forward with all that we’ve got:
our seventy-two, Greens, Windsor, Oakeshott.’

She got through plenty that was a success,
BN, Gonski, the NDIS.
But there was one pledge that did not succeed:
There will be no carbon tax under my lead!
The press was hostile and tried to defame:
Ju-liar!’ ‘Ditch the witch!’ ‘Her dad died of shame!

But enough was enough and her attack unfurled
with a blistering speech that went ‘round the world.
‘Misogyny and sexism, I’m not a fan!
But I will not be lectured on it by this man!
If he wants to see it, he needs a mirror!’
For a long fifteen minutes Abbott seemed to fear her.
An easy three years and three days it was not,
but as the first lady up there she gave her best shot.

Rudd said through the chorus of faceless men,
I’m a man of my word! I won’t challenge again!
But he nonetheless managed a brief resurrection
before we kicked the mob out at the ‘thirteen election.

‘We’ll do what we say! These are the facts!
We’ll stop the boats! End the waste! Get rid of the tax!
No cuts to health or your uni degree!
No cuts to the SBS or ABC!
Polling day is soon! We need more supporters!
Remember, I’m the guy with the not-bad looking daughters!

But it wasn’t long before we saw his team drift,
because the ‘gospel truth’ statements were only those on a script.
I’ll shirtfront Vlad Putin! You bet you are!
But that infamous threat was little more than a spar.
Housewives do the ironing!’ The onion. The wink.
The suppository of wisdom!’ Did he even think?
Canadia!’ ‘Those visually awful wind farms!’
And the ‘nothing but bush‘ remark that had natives in arms.

But it wasn’t just Abbott who seemed way too cocky;
it ran through his cabinet to Treasurer Hockey,
the man being caught out chomping cigars.
Entitlement’s over! The poor don’t have cars!
Get a good job that pays you good money!’
If it weren’t so sad, it would just be plain funny.

We woke up on Aus Day to a terrible fright
to hear that Prince Philip had been made a knight
a ‘friendless decision‘, a captain’s call,
the beginning of Abbott’s dramatic downfall.
His ‘near death experience’ was survived, he would say,
On the pledge that ‘good government will now start today.’
But the Speaker, we then found out, chartered a chopper.
After three weeks of agony he was then forced to drop her.

A week short of the poll to be held in Canning
we found out what Mal and his allies were planning.
We’re not like Labor!’ Tone was heard griping,
‘But I’ll give Turnbull no undermining, wrecking or sniping!’
Mal swore that Bill Shorten would be easy to beat,
yet his Jobs and Growth mantra held him just by one seat.

It’s been hard to be PM for innovation
with scandals and Trump and a resurgent One Nation.
He claims to be strong, but it’s not the same story
as the failed plebiscite or the deflection of Cory.
Mr. Harbourside Mansion then went on a rant,
Calling Shorten a ‘parasite and sycophant‘.
How is renewable energy on a roll
when his treasurer comes in with a big lump of coal?

So now with a party divided and split
and Abbott looking for a big direct hit,
will Malcolm make it past twenty nineteen?
The jury’s still out and that’s yet to be seen.
But for now that’s the end of my little rhyme,
so let’s just enjoy this most exciting time.

Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful

Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful: Mapping landscapes and memories (Text 2016)

pd.jpgSome time in 1997, Kim Mahood was chatting with the mother of the young manager of the Tanami Downs cattle station in the Northern Territory. A fragment of that conversation made it into this book:

– I love this country, she said. People don’t understand. There aren’t words to describe it.

One way of reading Position Doubtful is as Mahood’s attempt to find ways of communicating her love of that country, not  in any easy sense, but as the complex engagement of one who ‘feels an almost cellular affinity to a place that has been constructed by a different cultural imagination’: she spent her late childhood and early teenage years in ‘a tract of country that extends across the Tanami Desert to the edge of the East Kimberley’ and has been returning to it now for twenty years.

Though Mahood writes beautifully, words aren’t her only means of communication. Among other things the book describes a number of art projects that grapple with her relationship to the country. As well as her own works, and more interesting than them in the telling, are her collaborations with artist Pam Lofts on surreal photographic works involving high heels and a rowboat in the desert; and with people – mostly women – from Aboriginal communities to create large maps annotated with Indigenous and non-Indigenous place names, the names of people, history and Dreaming stories. The book’s first paragraphs invite us to think of the book as just such a map – ‘position doubtful’ is an annotation from an old map of the desert, a term that satellite technology has rendered obsolete, though it retains its power here to describe ‘the way in which white Australians move through and occupy the country, especially the less accessible parts of it’.

To engage with the land is to engage with the people who live there, so the book includes riveting accounts of cross-cultural relationships, in which Mahood has a ‘position doubtful’ status as insider–outsider: she’s not Aboriginal, but people who know her acknowledge that she is from that place. Sometimes the old women expect her to know things and she has to consult her GPS device surreptitiously so as not to disappoint them. Her half-in-half-out status gives a vivid intimacy to her descriptions of life at the Balgo Art Centre and the tiny community of Mulan, her accounts of a number of mapping projects, the Canning Stock Route Art Project, an archaeological expedition with (among others) Mike Smith, author of The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts.

This is not a drop-in account of life in remote Australia. It’s in part a memoir about friendship, including a number of bereavements, in part a reflection on an artistic practice, in part a record of Aboriginal testimony. Some of the interactions with Aboriginal women are so intense – some funny, others tragic – that it’s a relief to read towards the end that Mahood read large parts of the book to people at Mulan:

I face the assembled group with my manuscript.
– I’ve been working with you for a long time, I say. I’ve written down your stories, I’ve mapped your country with you, I’ve made a radio program, I’ve helped to write books about you and for you. Now it’s my turn. I’m going to tell my side of the story.
I read everything I think might offend or upset people. Bessie is not sure about the moment on the Canning Stock Route trip when we all say we stink, but the others laugh and tell her that it’s really funny. Many of the people in the room are not literate, but the context, the animation I bring to the reading, the knowledge people have of the events and places, transcends the barrier of language….
When I stop reading they demand more. Seeing themselves through my eyes is a beguiling novelty. The ancient authority of storytelling maintains its power to captivate.

It maintains that power for me too. I think this book will engross anyone who grew up in rural Australia, and especially, I imagine, in desert regions knowing traditional Aboriginal people. It will grip anyone interested in Western Desert art, or the question of how to live awarely as a non-Indigenous Australian My one sorrow is that almost all of the reproductions of art works in the paperback edition are too small and muddy to be of much use. The book cries out for an edition with larger, full-colour illustrations.

aww2017.jpgPosition Doubtful is the third book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.