Monthly Archives: July 2019

Elie Wiesel’s Twilight (at a distance)

Elie Wiesel, Twilight (1987, translated from the French Le Crépuscule, au loin by Marion Wiesel 1988;)

I was given this book as a birthday gift some years ago. I was finally spurred to read it by a moment in Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam when he says that Holocaust survivor Frieda Menco became an international activist ‘after hearing fellow Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel discuss his experiences’.

Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The Nobel Committee described him as ‘one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression, and racism continue to characterise the world’, and his Wikipedia entry offers ample justification for that description. His writing of memoir and fiction about the Holocaust is just part of his extraordinary activism; it’s the part I’m interested in here..

His first book, published in 1956, was a memoir in Yiddish of his Holocaust experiences, And the World Remained Silent. Night (published in French in 1958, then in English translation in 1960) was a shorter version, focusing on his relationship with his father in the camps. According to Wikipedia, Night ‘now ranks as one of the bedrocks of Holocaust literature’. In the next years, he wrote the novels Dawn (published in French in 1960, and in English translation in 1961) and Day (1961/1962), making a trilogy that marked (again I’m quoting Wikipedia) ‘Wiesel’s transition during and after the Holocaust from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall’.

It’s reasonable to suppose that Twilight (especially in its original French title, which translates as ‘Twilight, at a distance’) is meant to be read as a footnote to that trilogy, an extra phase of the diurnal sequence. Not having read those earlier books, then, I’ve come to this one at a disadvantage: I suspect it picks up lines of argument from the trilogy, either amplifying them or refuting them. So bear in mind, if you read on, that I’m writing as someone who came in late. (Imagine reading only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and none of the first six HP novels.)

Raphael Lipkin was a young Jew in Poland during the Second World War. His entire family is wiped out, mostly by the Nazis but some by the Soviets, but he survived thanks to the intervention of a character known only as the madman with veiled eyes, and Pedro, a heroic member of Briha, the underground organisation that helped Holocaust survivors escape Europe. The novel tells the story of his traditional Jewish family as the reality of the Nazi threat becomes clearer and eventually overtakes them. Intertwined with this narrative is the story, some decades later, of Raphael’s time spent in a New York psychiatric hospital where all the patients believe they are characters from ancient history. He goes to the hospital on the pretext of learning from the patients in his academic field of Jewish mysticism, but he is actually trying to find out what happened to Pedro.

The Holocaust narratives they are mostly stories of richly diverse Jewish life – there are Judaic scholars, historians, young people in love, Communists, Zionists. The focus is on the rich culture and community life that was being destroyed rather than on the horror of the process (though there are moments of horror). In the modern story, Raphael speaks constantly to the absent Pedro, whose name he seeks to clear, but though Raphael’s main motivation is to do with Pedro, that story becomes secondary to his engagement with the hospital inmates. He has substantial conversations with Adam, Cain, a prophet, a dead man, the ‘Messiah of mad people’, and finally God himself. As I read it, in all these conversations, Wiesel is addressing the question of how the Judaic religious tradition can deal with the fact of the Holocaust – is it possible to still believe that God exists, that life has meaning. I suspect that as a confirmed atheist, and from a Christian tradition to boot, I missed a lot of the nuance, and if a conclusion is reached it passed me by (though there is a revelation in the final pages that may amount to Wiesel’s theological conclusion, and that revelation is foreshadowed in the epigraph from Maimonides, ‘The world couldn’t exist without madmen’).

The passion and intelligence of the writing held me captive the whole time. As a for-instance, here’s part of a monologue from the mad Adam, early in the book, which states an extreme despairing response to the horrors of the 20th century:

Listen, God. What I am about to tell you is for your own good. Stop! Yes, God: Stop this senseless project. Believe me, even you who are omnipotent cannot succeed n this. You thought man would be your glory, the jewel of your crown. You make me laugh. Man is your failure. Face it. Give up your illusions. Wake up. Be considerate. Close the book before you turn the first page. Does it shame you to admit that I’m right? The forget it’s my idea. Let it be my gift to you. Legally, philosophically, you will have fathered it. And you know what? Theologically too. All you have to say is: I tried, I was wrong. And, luckily for the world, I realised it in time. Thus, even if your dream will have lasted but one day, one lifetime, you will be applauded. By your angels and seraphim.By the countless souls who will escape the curse of being born inly to die. By the trees that will not be felled by man. By the animals that will not be slaughtered. By the earth that will not be despoiled. And all of Creation, pure and resplendent, will say: Look how great is God, how admirable His honesty. He does not shrink from admitting His error. And yes, He can manage perfectly well without man …

(page 28-29)

As you see, this isn’t a book that offers easy answers. It’s not a comfortable read. But (and remember, I’m a man who said last week that I need his novel to be fun) it’s kind of exhilarating.

Two weeks on Yunbenun

The Emerging Artist and I have fled the winter in Sydney (which some people are beginning to call Eora, but I’ll wait to see on whose say-so before doing that myself) to spend two weeks on Yunbenun (aka Magnetic Island) in the tropics.

In the taxi to the ferry, the EA asked our friendly driver if he’d live in Townsville long. ‘I’ve lived here all my life,’ he said. ‘It’s my land.’ He is a Wulgurukaba man. Let me start this blog post by acknowledging the Wulgurukaba and Bindal peoples, both with substantial claims to be traditional owners of the land where I have been holidaying, and made welcome.

We’ve been here a little over a week now, with a little less than a week to go. We’ve both been laid low with viral infections, the kind that come with grandparenting territory. We’re less sick now than when we arrived, but still coughing and spluttering quite a bit. Still, we’ve managed to go on some reasonably demanding walks – classified as moderate, but entailing fairly prolonged uphill climbs and including some spectacular views of the Coral Sea. We’ve been entertained by legion kookaburras, curlews, koels and currawongs, and admired the cuteness of rock wallabies. Koalas are yet to make themselves visible to us, but we’re confident that will happen. Our Air BnB host is friendly and very interesting – a marine scientist who is a rich source of information about the sea around us. He was able to reassure me that I needn’t have scrambled for the shore when a stingray came swimming straight for me when I ventured into the water.

Our usual experience is to arrive at a holiday destination and discover that a really interesting festival or event has just finished. This time is an exception. Quite without planning, our visit coincided with the North Australian Festival of Arts, and we spent the weekend on the mainland to participate. We were too crook on Saturday night to use our tickets to Tom Gleeson’s show in the May Wirth (a tent in the Queen’s Garden, named for one of Australia’s outstanding circus performers), but we walked the length of the Strand a number of times, taking in Strand Ephemera 2019, billed as North Queensland’s sculpture festival.

As in Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea, the sculptures are displayed in a stunning natural environment, and have tremendous appeal for whole families. Here are some photos taken by the Emerging Artist: a weaving and ceramics tableau by the students at St Patrick’s College for girls (a video of the making of it here); an archipelago of caged gnomes painted variously in Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander colours, LGBTQI symbols, etc; a car tyre pierced by the handles of hundreds of souvenir teaspoons; 200 coconuts, some of them sprouting, painted with Pacific designs; a string bag representative of the traditional people of Western Cape York, but huge and made from industrial materials; coral sculpted in sugar, beautiful and also emblematic of environmental disaster; bamboo pipes played gently by the wind; what one boy called a pillow fort and I thought of as a defended place to dream. And much more that we didn’t photograph.

And this afternoon, at the Mary Who? Bookshop, David Malouf read to an audience of abut 50 people. It’s hard to imagine that the Tom Gleeson show that we’d missed could have given as much joy as this. David is a brilliant reader of his own poetry, and framed his selection beautifully today. He spoke of three stages: the experience that a poem draws on; the writing of the poem, which often happens many years after the experience; and, if the poet lives long enough, reading the poems many years after it was written. He began with The Year of the Foxes, a poem about a childhood memory written in 1965, and ended with Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian, which has to be one of the most cheerful death-anticipating poems ever written (which made wet stuff run down my cheeks anyhow). When the Emerging Artist and I arrived, we commented that the age of the people gathered in the shop was generally well over 60: it was sweet, therefore, that David Malouf several times felt he had to explain a reference because most of his audience wouldn’t be old enough to recognise it. (He’s 85!)

Now for another week of health-restoring warmth, about which I may or may not blog.

Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam

Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A history of the world’s most liberal city (Doubleday 2013, Little Brown 2014)

Russell Shorto is a USer who lived in Amsterdam from 2006 to 2013. This book is something of a love letter to the city that was his adopted home for those years, and a salute to others who have lived there and contributed to the life of the city – Amsterdammers as a whole as well as a number of extraordinary individuals from Renaissance scholar Erasmus and early Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza, to Rembrandt and (briefly) Van Gogh, to Anne Frank (who needs no label) and Roel van Duijn (founder of the Provo movement in the 1960s).

It’s a history built around the central notion that because of its origins as a city built on land reclaimed from water by collective effort and owned individually by its citizens, Amsterdam has always had a strong ethos that values the individual while expecting a degree of cooperation. He contrasts this version of liberalism, both economic and social, with the stark individualism of the US version of liberalism.

Entwined with this concept is the theme of tolerance. Amsterdam’s tolerance, which has been a hallmark of the city for centuries, isn’t necessarily a principled moral stand, but has a stubborn pragmatism to it. When the Holy Roman Emperor issues a ruling that certain unorthodox religious practices were to be outlawed and punished, the Amsterdam authorities imposed punishments like compelling miscreants to process down the main street carrying candles. In our own time, marijuana is illegal in the Netherlands, but the uniquely Dutch concept of gedogen, illegal but tolerated, means that Amsterdam is studded with coffee shops (not to be mistaken for cafes) where you can smoke pot at leisure in a regulated, tax-paying environment.

Shorto doesn’t shy away from the terrible aspects of the Amsterdam story: it’s the city that loosed the notion of a share market on the world; the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was founded there, to create vast wealth for the city and nation at the expense of devastation at an unbelievable scale in the colonised lands.

The writing is lively and genuinely illuminating. I came away from it having learned a lot about things I already knew a little, and a lot more about things I was ignorant of. I loved reading Erasmus at university decades ago =, for instance, but knew nothing of his troubled childhood. All I have of Spinoza is a line from a Martin Johnston poem (‘Spinoza scratched the core of light’): I’ve got a lot more now. Rembrandt has become a rounded character. The standard history of feudal, mediaeval Europe, has become much more complex in my mind now that I know how differently the Low Countries were organised. I no longer think of the boy who put his finger in the dyke as a Dutch story: it’s an individualistic US story that makes no sense to the Dutch.

And so on.

One thing that stood out for me was the story of the Social Economic Council (Sociaal-Economische Raad, or SER). This was formed in 1950, as part of the Dutch recovery from World War Two and, Shorto writes, ‘has been a feature of the Dutch landscape ever since’:

There is no equivalent of it in the American, British, or most other systems. It is a panel comprising three groups: labour leaders, industry leaders, and experts appointed by the government. On a given topic, the panellists will consult with their constituencies, then convene as a group and hash out the issue until they reach unanimous agreement on how it should be handled. Then they lay their finding before the government. Alexander Rinnooy Kan was the head of the SER from 2006 to 2012. He told me that the government almost always adopts the SER’s position because “it’s not just the position of the members of the council, but of all of their constituencies, whether employers or trade union members. That equals 80 percent of the economy.’

(page 280)

Well, ain’t that a model that allows for a degree of serious deliberation that seems to be missing from our polarised and point-scoring politics in Australia just now (and not just Australia)! Imagine if we had something like that to address issues such as global warming, offshore detention of people seeking asylum, or even an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe (Fourth Estate 2018)

Just when I was beginning to think I’d become that typical older white man who doesn’t enjoy fiction, along comes Boy Swallows Universe and demonstrates that if anything my taste is reverting to that of a much younger demographic. It’s depressive fiction that I don’t enjoy. I want my novels to be fun, and this one is fun. (Come to think of it, it’s not so long since I read Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, and some bits in that keep coming back as unbidden memories that make me laugh, so Boy Swallows Universe isn’t an anomaly).

This is a novel full of odd characters, vivid villains, plenty of colour and movement, twists and turns, silliness and tears, something new and diverting on every page. Eli Bell, the narrator, is thirteen at the start of the novel. His brother August/Gus hasn’t spoken since their parents split up years before, but communicates by writing in the air. Their mother and de facto stepfather are recovered junkies, now dealing heroin, precariously involved in organised crime. The story that unfolds involves terrible violence, of the out-of-control domestic variety as well as the spine-chillingly calculated kind. It involves deep betrayal, and at least one moment of abject self-abasement more horrible than any of the violence.

But it’s also a love story. The boys’ babysitter, Slim, is a notorious criminal, who once served time for murder. Whether he did the crime is left an open question – as it must, because, we’re told in an author’s note, the character shares the name and the history of a real man was actually the author’s babysitter. Slim is Eli’s mentor: he helps him develop his remarkable powers of observation, and offers profound philosophical advice – usually with a half smoked durrie hanging from his lip: ‘The tricky part is learnin’ how to be good all the time and bad none of the time. Some of us get that right. Most of us don’t.’ There’s no doubt that he loves the boys. No doubt either that their mother, stepfather and even the father who turns up much later in the book, that they all love them in their wounded ways, and are loved in return. Eli knows that all these people have done bad things, and more, worse things are revealed as the novel progresses, and he wrestles with the question – not, How can you love a person who does bad things? but, What is a good person?

There’s a story early in the book that beautifully foreshadows some of this complexity. The school bully tells Eli to meet him in a secluded spot after school. When they meet, he and his thuggish offsider force Eli to splay his fingers on a flat surface while the bully, blindfolded brings a sharp knife dow=n, betting that he can land the blade between Eli’s fingers. They are interrupted in the nick of time by a school teacher, but Eli refuses to say anything untoward was happening. Later, asked by the bully’s mother – a powerful figure in the local drug trade – why he didn’t dob, Eli says, to the bully’s astonished pleasure, ‘Because he is my friend.’ And means it.

I was enjoying the book from the first page. The point where enjoyment turned to love is when Eli says:

I’ve never tasted the natural spring waters of Helidon, but I doubt they could match the sweet, restorative powers of an ice cold sarsaparilla.

(page 125)

You may need to be a Queenslander of a certain age to even understand what that sentence means, and I’m pretty certain that only a Queenslander could have written it. (Sarsaparilla, pronounced sarsprella in my childhood, is a soft drink that tastes like root beer, hard to find outside of Queensland, and not manufactured by the transnationals that otherwise dominate the softdrink market.)

Because, this is a Queensland novel through and through. Slim’s many escapes from prison earned him the nickname the Houdini of Boggo Road. The object of Eli’s infatuation works at the Courier-Mail. The beautiful names of Brisbane suburbs ring out through the story: Inala, Birrong, Sandgate, Toombul, Toowong, The Valley, The Gap. People feast on mud crabs, and no one trusts the police (it’s a just-post-Bjelke-Petersen novel).

There are fantasy elements – impossible conversations on a red phone, some romantic wish-fulfilment, maybe even the whole strand about Gus’s silence – that aren’t really integrated, and might irritate someone who wasn’t onside. For my part, I didn’t even have to forgive them: they work fine as decoration, they’re part of what make the book fun.

I feel a bit strange saying that a novel that includes scenes of terrible violence, a couple of teenage boys getting involved in drug trafficking, and some general degradation is fun. It’s not fun in the way, say, Breaking Bad, is, where sheer style carries the day. It’s fun because we encounter all those elements with an indomitably open-hearted narrator. Possibly spoiler alert: this is the kind of novel where the young hero, meeting the immensely powerful, chillingly evil villain, asks him on the record, ‘Are you a good man?’

Rebecca Huntley’s Advance Australia

Rebecca Huntley, Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation (Quarterly essay 73)

This Quarterly Essay confirms me in my decision to delay reading each QE until the following issue has appeared. That way I get to read the correspondence while the original essay is fresh in my mind. With this issue, it has an extra advantage. Rebecca wrote Australia Fair in the lead-up to the recent Federal election, challenging Bill Shorten and his team – who she expected to win – to be bold enough to revivify Australian social democracy. The ALP lost, emphatically, and no one expects a Scott Morrison government to be interested in social democracy. So I read the essay shorn of its immediate persuasive goal, and it turns out to be a very interesting argument about where the majority of Australians stand on a number of key issues

Rebecca Huntley is a social and market researcher, involved, as she says, ‘in the “dark arts” of focus groups, polling, surveys, and strangers who ring you in the middle of dinner’. Her husband, when asked what his wife does for a living, replies, ‘She’s an expert in the opinions of people who don’t know what they are talking about.’ She’s been at it for many years, and can speak with some authority about general community attitudes on a number of topics.

She argues in this essay that the mainstream Australian population is much more progressive than our politicians. After some pages discussing the term ‘social democracy’, and research from many sources into community understandings of the role of government in a democracy, she comes to the conclusion that fairness – both for individuals and the collective – matters more to Australians than freedom (the reverse of what we generally believe to be the case in, say, the USA):

The point of democratic government is to do things for people, not to prevent government from doing things to people

(page 17)

She goes onto some detail on housing and homelessness; the environment and climate change (‘the defining issue for voters judging a prime minister’s leadership skills and character’); immigration, refugees and asylum seekers. On each of these subjects she demonstrates – though less clearly on the last mentioned than the others – that the majority of us, as in the case of the postal survey on same-sex marriage, want change for the better in ways that our political leaders simply don’t represent. And politicians are held in very low regard, seen as in thrall to their donors and not committed to the public good.

She pleads with Bill Shorten to step up boldly and restore a robust social democracy, wining back our respect for the parliament i the process. Who knows if he would have done it? On the strength of Anthony Albanese’s recent caving in on the Morrison government’s tax legislation, it seems unlikely. What emerges from the essay, then, is an optimistic view about the Australian population in general, and a deep pessimism about the current state of our democracy.

The correspondence is all dated post election. None of the correspondents takes a pot shot at the pollsters for getting it so wrong, but they all grapple with the paradox of a generally progressive population having voted in a nakedly reactionary government. They are all interesting. I’ll just mention James Walker’s final point. He cites Walter Lippmann (‘one of the pioneers of opinion research’) who warned that we should be wary of ‘the phantom public’. There is no single public out there, but any number of emergent entities, ‘continually evolving in response to political action and representation’. Walker goes on to quote one of Tony Abbott’s most striking pieces of feral poetry

Thus Tony Abbott, always ready with simplifying binaries, articulates the crucial factor in how belief around climate change was mobilised in the 2019 campaign: ‘Where climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough. But where climate change is an economic issue the Liberals do well.’ The responses Huntley records might well be construed as answers to a normative question: ‘What should we do?’ But the actions of voters on the day can be thought of as an evaluation of economic interests. The Coalition, in successfully mobilising climate action as an economic issue, created a countervailing ‘public’ to that which Huntley and others thought representative of the zeitgeist.

(Page 80)

Rebecca Huntley’s response to corespondents is elegant, a little mea-culpa-ish but unbowed. ‘The conclusion to draw,’ she writes.

is not that Australia is no longer progressive or no longer cares about equality or is becoming like America, or that all social research lacks credibility. The conclusion is that the lack of trust the electorate has in politicians has undermined its belief that structural reform – whether that be economic, social or environmental – is something that can be delivered by the politicians running the show …
The challenge is to take what the majority of Australians want and connect that with a government they feel comfortable electing. The alternative is a race to the bottom.

‘I remain,’ she concludes, ‘a defiant optimist. Just one who now recognises the scale of the challenge ahead.’

Australia Fair is the 29th book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby Reads (14)

Who’d have thought there were such riches to be discovered when reading with someone less than two years old? (The question’s rhetorical, but of course, the answer is, ‘Anyone who knew anything about books created for children.’)

Alison Lester, Kissed by the Moon (Penguin Australia 2013)

A very beautiful little book featuring a baby and a tranquil night in the natural world, with a baby – ‘my baby’ – in the middle of it. Pragmatically speaking, I guess it’s a bedtime read, but Alison Lester knows how to put words together, and how to make images, that reach in and touch your heart.

Lynley Dodd, Scarface Claw (Puffin 2002)

Scarface Claw appears in others of the wonderful Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy books. He’s the toughest cat in town, and scares all the dogs in other books. This one celebrates his fearlessness in Lynley Dodd’s dependably lively rhymes, until the final reveal of the only thing in the world that Scarface Claw is scared of. I won’t spoil it for you.

Rosie Greening (words) & Stuart Lynch (pictures), There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (Make Believe Ideas 2018)

This was read to us at Rhyme Time. It is probably one of many children’s picture books built around the well-known cumulative song. I have always loved the Burl Ives version of the song, and the Pete Seeger one as well. I wouldn’t say that I love this version – the illustrations are cute, but not compelling. I’m very glad to report that the disastrous consequences of swallowing a horse are not minimised.

Mem Fox (words) & Helen Oxenbury (pictures), Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes (2008)

This would have been a slightly preachy book asserting our common humanity if it wasn’t so very well done. Mem Fox’s rhyming text feels effortlessly simple (and anyone who’s tried to do that sort of thing knows that the effortlessness is the reader’s, not the writers). It essentially lists a lot of babies and says they all have ten little fingers and ten little toes. The illustrations pick up the cultural diversity of the babies / toddlers, and the fingers and toes are gorgeous.

Karen Roosa (words) & Maggie Smith (pictures), Beach Day (MH Boos for Young Readers 2018)

Here’s a board book that made me rethink my whole approach to some children’s books. It’s a day at the beach involving a couple of families. I disliked it pretty intensely on first several readings, the rhyming text includes waves that soar (to rhyme with ‘roar’), and a ‘jewelled array’ of spray. But no one else cares about the rhymes: as you turn the pages, you can follow the doings of half a dozen different characters: the children, the dogs, the various adults, the two babies, the seagulls. I now wonder if its riches will ever be exhausted.

Kissed by the Moon and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes are the 27th and 28th books I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lisa Bellear, Aboriginal Country

Lisa Bellear, Aboriginal Country (UWA Publishing 2018)

Lisa Bellear was a Melbourne activist, photographer, broadcaster and poet who died aged just 45 in 2006. She had one book of poetry published in her lifetime (Dreaming In Urban Areas (UQP, 1996)). Aboriginal Country, a second book which a number of poems from the first, has been edited posthumously by Melbourne poet (among other things) Jen Jewel Brown, with an ‘About the Author’ by Susan K. Martin of La Trobe University. That and other introductory material sketches Bellear’s life story – her adoption as a baby by a white family after being virtually stolen by a hospital, her rediscovery of her true Aboriginal family in her twenties, and then her years as participant in Melbourne’s cultural life and Indigenous activism. So the book is framed as a kind of memorial to an inspiring individual.

I’m coming at the book from a different angle. I’ve read it in NAIDOC Week, as part of Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZLitLovers, so I want to talk a little about this year’s NAIDOC theme, and about recent Aboriginal poetry.

The theme is ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’ You probably already know that that’s shorthand for the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which for a fleeting moment this week the Morrison government seemed to be taking seriously. Just as a reminder, here are the relevant paragraphs from the Statement:

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
       Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
       We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

(You can read the full Statement here.)

As NAIDOC Week theme, ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’ invites reflection and action at many levels besides those that involve government action. Among other things, they imply an invitation to non-Indigenous Australians to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, to be open to their truths.

And we’re living in a time when a rich variety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices can be heard by anyone who cares to listen – in the mainstream print and broadcast media, on social media (have a look at @IndigenousX), in brilliant films and novels – and in poetry. Here’s a brief (well, as brief as I could make it) rundown of some of the excellent poets that I’ve come across (and mostly blogged about: click on the links for my blog posts).

  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal (who like Lisa Bellair came from Minjerribah / Stradbroke Island) carried the burden of being first – the first Aboriginal person to have a book of poetry published in English, and she produced two – We Are Going (1964) and The Dawn Is at Hand (1966).
  • Kevin Gilbert, like Oodgeroo, was many things besides being a poet. His first book of poetry, End of Dream-time (1971), which also carries some of the burden of being ‘first’, the felt obligation to speak on behalf of all Aboriginal people, is a striking lesson in what can go wrong when well-meaning non-Indigenous people overstep. His second collection, People Are Legends, partly corrected the damage done by the first. He also wrote a charming book of poetry for children, Child’s Dreaming (1992).
  • Lionel Fogarty is described on the Australian Poetry Library (APL) website as ‘a poet who has opened up the new space of black Australian post-surrealist writing and done much to reformulate our understanding of poetic discourse and its roles in both black and white communities’. His concern is definitely not to put white readers at ease. ‘White man will never really fully interpret what a black man is thinking when he is writing.’ If you can live with that, I recommend his work.
  • Ali Colby Eckermann once said in an interview, ‘I want to use my poetry to educate Australians, to overcome their innate fear of Aboriginal people.’ If you think that implies didacticism or talking down, I recommend her slim verse novel Ruby Moonlight, which is just wonderful.
  • Samuel Wagan Watson is another excellent poet from south-east Queensland. I didn’t blog about his prize-winning Smoke Encrypted Whispers, but I remember feeling that I was meeting a new generation: his Aboriginality is no less significant, but a lot of the poetry is about life and relationships among those who had come of age in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Brisbane. (I don’t think SWW mentions Joh, but it’s a way of naming that cultural moment.)
  • Evelyn Araluen, as far as I know, doesn’t have a book out yet, but I’ve read poems by her and heard her read a couple of times. She does weird, vengeful mash-ups of May Gibbs. At a recent Sydney Poetry Lounge evening she read, among other things, a terrific piece lampooning awkward and/or perfunctory Acknowledgements of Country and a long, philosophical reflection on the effects of colonisation, which I look forward to seeing in print.

I’ve also read terrific poems by Peter Minter, Steven Oliver, Lorna Munro, Ellen van Neerven, Maya Hodge, Anita Heiss and probably others. If you know of any that I’ve missed, please add them in the comments.

Aboriginal Country is part of that extraordinarily rich conversation. My main response in reading it is to wish I could have seen her read them live, each one in its moment – as for instance ‘Dear Mr Prime Minister (of Australia)’, written in June 1993, wishing Paul Keating luck with ‘Mabo’, and signing off:

If you need support, like to talk.
Yours sincerely,
A. Citizen
(Noonuccal)

Or the ten starkly confronting poems that were performed by Lisa Bellear as part of a multimedia event as part of Melbourne’s Centenary of Federation celebrations. Here’s the opening of ‘Federation Statement’:

In 1901 the new Federation of Australia deliberately excluded
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – why?

Always was, always will be Aboriginal country.

That’s necessary speech, words that needed to be said then, need to be repeated, and still need to be heard. A lot of the poetry here is of that sort – what Jen Jewel Brown’s Editor’s Note calls ‘straight-talking, sparse yet dramatically alive words’: poems dealing with domestic violence, colonising history, war in the former Yugoslavia, everyday racism, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, almost always in a way that feels public, even if not for actual performance. There are moments of humour, as in the brief ‘Home’ which celebrates, if that’s the word, the greyness of Melbourne; and of domesticity, as in ‘Writer’s Block’.

The poems that stand out for me are dramatic monologues in the mouths of historical figures, some based on photographs. As my regular readers know, I generally choose one poem to quote and discuss in some detail. So here’s ‘Construct Me’ (click to enlarge):

This makes me think of Vernon Ah Kee’s drawings of his ancestors. Beginning from photos taken with and for a coloniser’s gaze, he creates lovingly detailed, large-scale drawings of formidable people, no longer objects but challenging subjects. Here, the speaker in the first section is an Aboriginal woman being posed for a studio photograph. As Lisa Bellear was a photographer, I think it’s safe to assume these lines are underpinned by deep consideration of the relationship between photographer and subject. The woman addresses the photographer (who I’ll assume is male):

This is your language your culture
This is your naming your ideals
of who I am supposed to
be, represent.

She is aware that she is being objectified, cast in the photographer’s narrative without regard for who she actually is. But she doesn’t submit:

Am I allowed to
mourn.
I am still able to feel the
kangaroo and possum skin
Inside I will always run free.

The next ten lines deal directly with the details of the shoot. She expresses a completely rational failure to understand the studio. And then the photographer speaks, giving her instructions, warning her of the flash, and then reprimanding her for not following his instructions.

And in the last seven lines the woman speaks again, this time transcending the detail of her situation. Now she addresses not just the photographer but us, in the future. She now takes on a representative role, not as a specimen, but now as a spokesperson – a Voice. We may never come to know her individual name, but her ”lations’, who are ‘a big mob’ have made themselves more clearly known to the colonisers.

For our future and our
survival, we must be
remembered.

This lays out, so plainly and simply, the ambivalence in those photos: whatever the motive for taking them – as novelty, as anthropological record, perhaps as Victorian erotica – they can now function as a record of the people who were here at the time, they can be a means to ensuring that the people are remembered.

For this poem to have its full impact, it needs to be read aloud, in two voices, paying attention to the line breaks – over and again, there is a break just before a key word (‘to / be’, ‘to / mourn’, ‘the / kangaroo’, ‘the / trees’, all the way down to ‘we must be / remembered’.

Like many of the poems in this book, this one doesn’t invite the reader to enjoy it for clever rhymes or striking images. It’s in very plain language, ‘straight-talking’, as Jen Jewel Brown puts it. It challenges us to join the poet in doing the work of changing the way we look at those photos, and by extension the way we imagine the history of this country.

Aboriginal Country is the 26th book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve read it this week as part of Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZLitLovers.

Ruby Reads (13)

When I started writing about books I’ve met thanks to my granddaughter Ruby, I hesitated to include more than one book by a given author. But there are authors who turn up again and again, so here are a couple of books by repeat authors. But first, some read-alouds from Rhyme Time at the library.

Allie Busby, Feeding Time (Just Like Me!) (Childs Play Intl Ltd 2018)

This is a very simple book, with very simple illustrations, and flaps. It worked beautifully with under-twos at the library. The ‘just like me’ of the title evidently indicates a series it belongs to, and it’s also a refrain, as one lifted flap after another reveals the food an animal eats, and that food is also one that humans eat. The illustrations aren’t in the same class as Jim Arnosky’s Man Gave Names to All the Animals but the book’s sweet, unstrained assertion of human commonality with other animals is much more the kind of thing I’d want small children to hear.

Penny Dale, Ten in the bed (Walker Books 1990)

While Rhyme Time is primarily an event for small children, it’s also, something rare these days, a place where adults can enjoy singing together. One old thespian attends irregularly and behaves as I would like to – joining in the songs with unembarrassed pleasure and beaming appreciation of the librarian’s performance and of the children’s sometimes disruptive enthusiasm. This book lifted most of us to his level. The richly coloured illustrations are full of little jokes, and the text rings changes on the familiar song (each ‘one’ who rolls out is a different toy).

Doctor Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go (1990)

I blogged about The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham in pre-grandfatherdom days (the blog post is here). Both of them are still going strong as far as our family is concerned.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go is the last Dr Seuss book published in his lifetime. It’s weirdly abstract both in its geometric illustrations and its non-specific text, but it’s got the characteristic verbal energy and visual quirkiness that keep his books interesting (for me at least).

Doctor Seuss (text) and George Booth (illustrator), Wacky Wednesday (1974)

Originally written over the name Theo LeSieg, this has clearly been welcomed into the general Dr Seuss canon. It’s meant for readers older that 18 and a two-thirds months, but Ruby requests it regularly. It’s essentially a series of spreads in which the reader is invited to find out what’s wrong with the illustrations. The text provides a slender narrative thread and tells the reader how many wacky things they can find on each spread. It has no appeal for me at all, and I can’t tell what Ruby enjoys in it, given that her sense of what’s ‘normal’ is (I believe) still developing – why is it odd that one of the girls on the cover image has no legs but not odd that three identical girls, identically clothed, are walking and gesturing in unison? Such questions are purely academic.

Julia Donaldson (text) and Rebecca Cobb (illustrator), The Paper Dolls (Macmillan Children’s Books 2012)

I’m please to say that Ruby’s tastes and mine sometimes coincide. This book is an example, though I don’t know what Ruby finds interesting in it. A little girl has a chain of five paper dolls – Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie and Jim with two noses and Jo with the bow – who have a string of adventures. Happily, the adventures involve a gigantic crocodile, thereby meeting one of our current preoccupations. If only they’d met a kookaburra it would have been a perfect book.

There are more books, and there will be more blog posts about them.

Journal Blitz 2

I still have nearly a year’s worth of subscribed journals on my TBR shelf. Here some gleanings from a second catch-up binge.

Andrew Galan and David Stavanger (guest editors) plus Toby Fitch (Big Bent editor), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 8 Number 2: Spoken

This issue of APJ is in two parts: ‘Spoken’ comprises 42 poems intended primarily for performance – ‘Spoken Word’ creations; and ‘Big Bent Poetry’ is 19 poems commissioned to be read at a series of LGBTQIA+ events at literary festivals in 2018. Sound recordings of both sections are accessible at the Australian Poetry home page, australianpoetry.org.

The Big Bent poems may have been commissioned for performance, but they are mostly ‘page poems’, compressed, elegant, needing to be taken slowly; the Spoken poems are definitely ‘stage poems’, with declamatory rhythms and big gestures, one of them actually including stage directions.

I’m a long way from being a Spoken Word aficionado, but I love Bankstown Poetry Slam and was pleased to recognise a number of its stars here. Sara Saleh’s ‘InshAllah’ offers a multitude of meanings for that expression, of which my favourite is, ‘InshaAllah is the answer / when there are still questions but no answers to give.’ Ahmad Al Rady has a group of three short, tantalisingly oblique poems (on rain: ‘wet bullets crave the warmth of flesh’). In Omar Musa’s ‘Christchurch’, that earthquake-ravaged city is a setting for a break-up poem (‘I don’t believe in miracles any more, just bridges – some you walk across, some you jump from’).

There are strong Aboriginal voices, including Lorna Munro, whose ‘cop it sweet’ evokes the ravages of time on her inner city Aboriginal community, and Steven Oliver of Black Comedy fame, with a brilliant list poem, ‘Diversified Identity’.

Other poems that stand out for me are Emilie Zoey Baker’s ‘Hey, Mary Shelley’, in which the speaker imagines herself inhabiting Shelley’s body ‘like a flexible ghost’; Emily Crocker’s ‘the refrigerator technician’, a breakup, or near-breakup, poem full of sharp domestic metaphors; Tim Evans’s ‘Poem Interrupted by’, in which the speaker answers a phone call from the Abyss (this is the one with stage directions); and the anthem-like ‘Forget’ by the late and much-missed Candy Royale. The section ends with a photograph of a splendid graffiti mural at the Newtown hub featuring Candy Royale with a halo made up of the words, loving instead of hating, living instead of waiting.

Coming to this issue late means that I’ve actually read a couple of the Big Bent poems in books published in the meantime. It was a pleasure to re-encounter Tricia Dearborn’s ‘Petting’ and Kate Lilley’s ‘Pastoral’. Of the others, I particularly warmed to joanne burns’s shit-stirring in ‘a query or two’, which includes:

is there a point to getting grumpy
if you're addressed as 'sir' by
a sushi seller or a supermarketeer –
better than being addressed as nothing
or no one service is better for the sirs
of this world.

There’s also ‘(weevils)’ by Pam Brown (I don’t understand the title, but it’s a terrific poem); ‘my human’ by Quinn Eades (he’s the poet who appears in both sections – ‘my human’ is spoken by a dog); ‘A Song of Love’ by Omar Sakr; and ‘Bathers’ by Zenobia Frost (a longish prose poem that takes a Rupert Bunny painting as its starting point). There’s a lot of excellence to choose from.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 232 (Spring 2018)

First thing you notice about this Overland is the stunning collages by guest artist Bella Li, especially the front and back covers – a great waterfall among skyscrapers, and oceanside apartment blocks bursting into flower. Bella Li’s artist’s statement can be read on the journal’s website, here. (Most of the contents of this issue can be read on the website. The titles here link to them.)

As always there are excellent columns by Alison Croggon (‘On memory‘ – ‘The human capacity for delusion isn’t so much a bug as a feature’), Giovanni Tiso (‘On remembering to back-up grandpa‘ – a touch of dystopian technofuture) and Tony Birch (‘On Kes‘ – the role of books and an imagined falcon in his childhood, plus a sweet present-day harking back).

Overland always includes the results of at least one literary competition. This time it’s the VU Short Story Prize and the PEN Mildura Indigenous Writers Award. The winner and runners-up for the former are all terrific: in How to disappear into yourself (in 8 steps) by Katerina Gibson the narrator juggles an internship, a paid job, motherhood, a possible new relationship, and cultural complexity, and the story stays lucid; in Dear Ophelia by Erik Garkain a trans man who works in a morgue speaks to a trans woman whose corpse he tends – it’s a little teachy, but I just now many of us need teaching; Nothing in the night by Ashleigh Synnott is a short, gripping, surreal piece which Bella Li’s collage illo suggests is set in a dystopian future, though I’m agnostic about that. Her eyes by Maya Hodge, winner of the PEN Mildura prize, takes that moment when you look into a baby’s eyes and understand something profound.

I’m always grateful for Overland‘s poetry section, currently edited by Toby Fitch. This issue has nine poems, of which the two that speak most directly to me are Peripheral drift by Zenobia Frost (who also got a guernsey in Big Bent Poetry, above), which begins:

Turns out you can still pash in a graveyard
at 28, though by now my fear of spooks
has faded into a more realistic fear of people

and Patternicity by Shey Marque, a terrific evocation of a tiny sandstorm that includes the wonderful word ‘apoidean’.

Of the articles, the ones I have been talking about compulsively are The bird you are holding by Ashleigh Synnott (who also appears as one of the VU Prize runners-up) and Against apologies by Joanna Horton. Each of them makes a case for keeping in mind our common humanity, or at least our common struggles. Among other things, Synnott provides brief literature survey of the concept of ‘precarity’, and Horton, while agreeing that talk of ‘privilege’ is useful, argues that apologising for one’s privilege is actually buying into neoliberal individualism:

We desperately need a politics that frames a comfortable, stable life, one as free from oppression as possible, as a right to be fought for, not a privilege to be denounced.

‘Making the desert bloom’ by Barbara Bloch is a trenchant criticism of the Jewish National Fund’s activities in the Negev/Naqab desert. Like Chris Graham’s ‘So much like home‘ in the previous issue, she draws parallels between the treatment of the Palestinians and colonialism in Australia, which chimes with my sense that Israel is not a special rogue case, but part of a planet-wide pattern.

I’ll just mention finally that I was delighted to read ‘Everything that is courageous & beautiful‘ in which Nell Butler argues that Paul Gallico should be brought back from obscurity – ‘from the dead’, she says. The Snow Goose, the book and the record of Herbert Marshall’s reading, was one of the joys of my childhood.


David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Michelle Hamadache (guest editor), Southerly Vol 77 No 3 2017: Mixed Messages

Southerly is a literary journal. I expect culture warriors of the right would say it was infected by the Gay-Marxist-feminist agenda, but it’s a broad church, with no avowed political leanings like Overland (or for that matter Quadrant, which I rarely read). David Brooks, retiring co-editor, has come out as seriously vegan, as has John Kinsella, who has a poem and a story i this issue. Yet Debra Adelaide’s story, ‘Festive Cooking for the Whole Family’, makes a cheerful mockery of vegans, among others, as her Christmas hostess wrestles with the complex dietary and other demands of a large family gathering.

David Brooks’s article ‘Seven Gazes’ (for which I broke my rule not to read anything that mentions Derrida in the first sentence) wrestles with the challenge of moving outside the human bubble to understand what is happening in the Gaze (his capitalisation) of ‘non-human animals’, and if he is aware that there’s something potentially risible in leaving the door of his house open so the sheep can drop in, he gives no sign of it; John Kinsella’s ‘Roaming the Campsite’, a sharp short story told from the perspective of a neglected child, doesn’t push any belief system, and his poem ‘Graphology Soulaplexus 36: loss’, despite its hi-falutin title, is a straightforward and beautiful elegy.

One pleasant surprise is ‘Poetic Fire’, an article written by Thea Astley when she was a school student, reproduced here because Cheryl Taylor has an article about Astley’s novels that refers to it, and the editors have kindly made it immediately accessible. In these days when schoolchildren are playing a major role in fighting for action on climate change, it’s good to have another reminder not to patronise the young. (I broke another rule, not to read Eng Lit scholarly articles about books I haven’t read, and read Charyl Taylor’s article: her use of the school-student essay is deeply respectful.)

Among other excellent things are ‘Fresh Food People’ a short story by Nazrin Mahoutchi about a small, diverse group of migrants in a food preparation business. I broke another rule (not to read excerpts) and read Peter Boyle’s ‘Excerpts from Enfolded in the wings of a Great Darkness‘, a tantalising seven pages from a long poem in progress:

who picks among
the clothes left
by those stripped bare
for mourning

Who rinses their hands in
water that can no longer
cleanse

Who goes to hear
the hymns of forgiveness
but clutches in one hand
the prayer beads of vengeance

S K Kelen’s ‘More Words: Uses for a Father’, a joyous list poem that does what the title says, speaks to my condition as a new grandfather, though ‘cricket bat whack kick / box new fun’ isn’t on our agenda just yet.

And that’s all from me. Thanks for persisting to the end. I expect to do a ‘Journal Blitz 3’ post, but not for a little while.

Nadia Wheatley, Her Mother’s Daughter

Nadia Wheatley, Her Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir (Text 2018)

When Raimond Gaita wrote about his parents in Romulus My Father (1998), he brought his finely honed philosophical mind to the task. In Biff Ward’s long experience as a feminist activist permeates her exploration of her parents’ story, In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin 2014). The parts of Rozanna Lilley’s Do Oysters Get Bored? (UWA Publishing 2018) that deal with her famously tell-all parents can focus on her own experience, with their lives pretty much reduced to back story. Lee Whitmore, filmmaker, told the story of her grandmother in a sweeping visual drama, the comic Ada Louise: A life imagined (Susan Lane Studio 2016).

Nadia Wheatley is a historian: her The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (HarperCollins Australia 2002) has been described as ‘one of the greatest Australian biographies’. She is also a children’s writer: her collaboration with Donna Rawlins, My Place (Walker Books 1988) was an instant classic. Her Mother’s Daughter is a work of history, and some of its key moments are told from a child’s point of view.

Neen Wheatley, nee Watkin, died in October 1958, when her only daughter Nadia was nine years old. Nadia had clear memories of her as a loving mother who became unhappy and sick, caught for too long in a painful relationship with her husband John. Though Nadia loved her mother and feared her father, she grew up being told she was like her father, and was told once, when she took a political stand that her mother’s relatives disapproved of, that her mother would have hated her. The book, as its title suggests, is an act of reclaiming her allegiance to her mother, and her deep affinity with her.

It’s a work of history. At any given moment, the reader knows the source of the story that’s being told: Nadia’s own childhood memories of her parents; things that were said about them by their family members and the family Nadia lived with after her mother’s death; interviews with women who were Neen’s friends before she married (‘the Girls’); interviews with Neen’s family, including her much loved youngest brother, whom Nadia didn’t meet until he was 89; interviews with John’s surviving relatives; Neen’s wartime correspondence, and a detailed journal of her time working for the UNRRA after the war; official records of the displaced persons camps in Germany where John and Neen had positions of great responsibility, and where they met and fell in love; Neen’s medical records from her final years.

This historical discipline is at the service of a passionate quest to reclaim her mother from oblivion. When Wheatley discovers that Neen, whom she had been told was bitterly anti-Communist, used to go to shows at the left-wing New Theatre when young, her joy at the discovery is only partly that of a historian finding evidence of a counter-narrative; it’s also the joy of getting her mother back. Likewise, when she finds evidence that her father behaved unethically during his early years as a doctor in England, it comes as confirmation of what she knows of him from the domestic experience.

The book is in four sections with self-explanatory titles.: ‘Neen’, ‘Nina and John’, ‘Nina, John and Nadia’, and ‘Nadia’. Wheatley’s craft as a writer for children shines in the third part and in a brief prologue. In both of these the young Nadia has conversations with both her parents separately, and is used as a pawn in her father’s relentless undermining of her mother. The little girl’s passionate attachment to her mother, her helpless yielding to her father’s manipulations, her bewilderment at her mother’s death are all captured with great poignancy. The father’s repeated question when he is showing her hideous images of human suffering, ‘Do you understand, Nadia?’ is as horrific as any fairytale witch’s incantation.

I found this book deeply affecting. I learned a lot about the role Australians played in post-war Europe. I was reminded how resistant to evidence sexist assumptions can be – in this case in the medical profession. I remembered my own enjoyment of the Tintookies, a puppet show that I saw in North Queensland and Nadia in Sydney. I had my eyes opened to just how inexplicably vile adults can be to small children. I am in awe of the discipline that could wrangle such pain and loss and love into such an effective narrative.

Her Mother’s Daughter is the twenty-fifth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.