Monthly Archives: December 2020

End of year lists

The Emerging Artist and I have postponed and possibly cancelled our annual pilgrimage to the Great Ocean Road, but we’ve still put our heads together for our traditional end-of-year list-making.

Best Movies:

Because of One Thing and Another (as they’re calling it on Wittertainment), we didn’t get to the pictures very much this year, but we watched a lot of movies at home. We saw roughly 70, counting some total turkeys, but not counting the ones we watched for two minutes and then turned off, or the French comedy we walked out of at the cinema, even in our big-screen-deprived condition. There were many brilliant movies but we managed, painfully, to whittle the list down to four that we agreed on. Three of the four we saw in the theatre, sometimes even with other people. They are, in no particular order (and without links, because WordPress wouldn’t let me add them, sorry):

We each chose one more to make five each. I’ll leave you to guess who added which:

And then we agreed on a top five documentaries, two of them from the Sydney Film Festival:

Theatre:

We subscribed to Belvoir Street, but the Virus wrecked out theatre schedule. I think we got to three shows, and though it was wonderful to be there, masked and distanced, nothing blew me away.

Books:

The Emerging Artist read 46 books in hard copy and roughly 20 on her device. Of the hard copy books, a sizeable minority, but still a minority, of 22 were by women (she didn’t keep track of the device-books, but there were probably more women there, she says a little defensively). She has given me a list of her four best books in non-fiction and fiction categories. Here they are then, non-fiction first:

Non-fiction

Cassandra Pybus, Truganini: Journey through the Apocalypse (Allen & Unwin 2020)

What remains with me is the sheer doggedness of Truganini’s determination to live and care for her country. She emerges as a woman who maintained her sense of herself and her culture and was adaptable and strategic in her survival. Even though we largely see her through the journals of George Augustus Robinson, Pybus manages to convey the country, the hardships endured and a woman abused but not defeated. 

Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do (Black Inc 2019)

This was hard to read, especially the first few chapters that set out the reality of violence against women in Australia. But I persevered and my understanding of perpetrators grew as well as what might be done to stop the ongoing violence. 

John Blay, Wild Nature: Walking Australia’s South East Forests (NewSouth Publishing 2020)

I haven’t quite finished this, but I’m including it for what I’ve read so far.  It’s a book that incites passion about preserving the south east forests for their sacred sites, for the diversity of plants and living creatures that create the forests and for what they provide to the human spirit. The intense forest wars are detailed but also what it is like to simply follow animal tracts in exploring the diversity of forest life.

Celia Paul, Self-portrait (Vintage digital 2019)

Celia Paul is an English figurative painter whose work I love. This memoir gives snapshots into how she creates her work, including the dynamic between the artist and the sitter. (Few sitters would endure her requirements, so her mother and sisters do a lot of the heavy lifting.) It also includes her long and tortured relationship with Lucien Freud. 

Fiction

Sebastian Barry, The Temporary Gentleman (Viking 2014)

A sequel to  A Thousand Moons and set in reconstruction era USA, this is beautifully written tale of love and kindness in the face of the horrors of racism post the civil war. Barry makes these characters live off the page and is a joy to read.

Richard Russo, Everybody’s Fool (Knopf 2016)

Another book set in the USA, but in modern times. It’s set in an economically depressed small town but the overall effect is not bleak. It is funny and moving and a gripping read. 

Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton 2019)

My standout book this year. I love the voices of 12 different women, whose stories touch or interweave with each other as we get a view of being women of colour in England. I went onto read Mr Loverman, an unusual coming out tale. Both books tell their stories with humour and humanity. 

Emma Donoghue, The Pull of the Stars (Little Brown 2020)

I don’t think I’ve ever read descriptions of giving birth like this. Set in the maternity ward of a Dublin hospital in 1918, it gives a visceral account of dealing with an out-of-control pandemic, poverty and giving birth. It also has the backdrop of the aftermath of the war and the fight for Irish independence. 

Nino Haratischwili, The Eighth Life (Scribe 2019)

The author is Georgian and writes in German. This is the first translation of her works and I hope more will come. It’s a mammoth family saga that spans the 20th century in Georgia and its relationship to Russia and the west. I knew nothing about Georgian culture so it was a wonderful revelation.  Don’t be daunted by its size – I managed to prop it up to read in bed!

As for me, I read 72 books (counting journals), but don’t know how to pick best books from my year. My weirdest book was Rhoda Lerman’s The Book of the Night. Frankest but non-porny sex scenes were in Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Were Briefly Gorgeous. Most transformative of my sense of the place I live was Grace Karsken’s The Colony, of my childhood home was Diane Menghetti’s The Red North. Most transporting novel for adults was Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light; most exhilarating book for children Tohby Riddle’s The Astronaut’s Cat; most beautifully produced book of poetry that delivered brilliantly, Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics; most memorable comic was Jeff Lemire and others’ Black Hammer. Whew! I’ve done a quick gender etcetera breakdown in an earlier post (here).

We saw a lot of great TV, but these lists can’t go on forever. That’s it for 2020. Feel free to name your own Bests and make recommendations in the comments. Stay safe and active in the climate emergency; stay socially close but physically distant until the vaccine has saved us all. That is, Happy New Year!

#aww2020 Challenge Completed

This is my round-up post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

The challenge was established in 2012 to raise awareness of Australian women’s writing. I signed up in 2013, and it’s probably fair to say that my reading habits have been transformed and my mind enriched. This year, I read a total of 24 books by Australian women writers, well over the goal of ten that I’d set for myself. Here they are, with links to my blog posts:

4 books for children

6 books of poetry

5 novels for adults

8 memoir/biography/history/essay/creative non-fiction

2 manuals/self-help books

Five of the books were written by First Nations women. The list doesn’t include journals or anthologies.

Now I’ve signing up for another year, at the Franklin level, which means I aim to read and review 10 books by Australian women in 2021.

On a related topic, I’ve done a quick gender check on books I read this year. Counting comics, but not journals, anthologies or picture books (apart from Tohby Riddle’s sublime The Astronaut’s Cat), I read:

  • 31 by women
  • 32 by men

I read 7 books in translation (one each from Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, Korean, French, Swedish and German), and 3 in their original French. In addition to the five books by First Nations women I read one by a First Nations man.

I’ll do a separate post where teh Emerging Artist and I pick our favourite books and movies of the year.

Katharine Murphy’s end of certainty

Katharine Murphy, The End of Certainty: Resources, climate and Australia’s future (Quarterly Essay Nº 79, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 80

One of the chaps on the Book Group told us that he was a year behind Scott Morrison at school – I think it was Sydney Boys High. We all fell silent, expecting a revealing anecdote, but all he could come up with was a story about a football team to which both he and the current Prime Minister of Australia belonged being left to fend for themselves in the wilds of Bondi Junction, having illegally partaken of alcohol. The worst my friend could say about Scott Morrison was that he was there.

The derisory nickname Scotty from Marketing didn’t come from nowhere: almost everything we know about the Prime Minister has been generated by his personal publicity machine, including his self-bestowed nickname ScoMo and photos of him at prayer, building a cubby for his daughters or working from home in jacket, shorts and thongs. So even more than for other prominent politicians it was a good idea for Black Ink to commission a Quarterly Essay profile. And who better than Katharine Murphy, political editor of Guardian Australia and a member of the Canberra press gallery for more than 20 years?

Murphy does deliver. But intervening events meant that the account of Morrison’s personality and political modus operandi had to shrink to make room for a detailed narrative of the Covid-19 pandemic in Australia and federal and state governments’ responses to it. As a political journalist, Katharine understands in her bones that a week is a long time, and the essay feels as if it is catching the moment by the tail, getting an account down on paper (or screen) even as the moment becomes something else. It makes for fascinating reading, especially from the vantage of several months into the essay’s future, which is when I’ve read it. Even the correspondence in November’s QE 80 was out-of-date before it left the presses (as in a fair bit of conjecture about the findings of the inquiry into Victorian hotel quarantine – none of it, incidentally, to be proved way off course by the actual findings).

So, what does Murphy make of Morrison? She has more access than most of us, and he did grant her an interview even in the midst of the pandemic. She acknowledges that he’s a master of controlling the narrative, in particular the narrative that concerns himself (going on what she calls ‘yes mate’ outings on talkback radio rather than granting interviews), and so she has to dig hard for her own independent observations.

Sadly, my post-it-festooned copy of the essay has disappeared along with the backpack I was carrying it about in, so I can’t quote from the essay with any confidence. One of the telling anecdotes that I recall came from Nick Xenophon, who had worked with Morrison to get some piece of legislation through the parliament. Once the thing was done, Xenophon suggested that they meet to have a cup of coffee or similar social interaction. Morrison rejected the invitation, saying something like, ‘I’m purely transactional, mate.’ Murphy argues that since becoming prime minister he has been learning to be a little more relational – that his disastrous handling of the bushfire disasters a year ago may have been a learning experience for him. Tentatively, she holds out the possibility that the man who forced bushfire survivors to shake his hand may do better next time. He’s a manager, a fixer, rather than an ideologue, and that has been Australia’s good luck, as he was able to cooperate with his ideological enemies in responding to the pandemic. The question, back in August, and again in November when the correspondence was written, was how far could that pragmatic non-ideological approach work before everything snapped back to the old battle lines.

The correspondents in QE 80 include other journalists: David Marr and Philip Coorey basically applaud the essay as necessary and well done; David Kelly is much less optimistic about Morrison’s lack of ideology. There are scholars: Damien Freeman of the Australian Catholic University categorises Murphy as a progressive commentator and says she just doesn’t understand ‘the conservative approach to public life’. Social researcher Hugh Mackay engages elegantly rather than argumentatively, suggesting that Murphy’s passing references to her own sense of local community deepening in small ways during the pandemic might usefully have been given greater prominence, as his research indicates that this has been a more general phenomenon. Celeste Liddle, self-described as ‘an Arrente woman living in Melbourne’, ‘a union organiser, social commentator and activist’, is refreshingly blunt, and complex, in her discussion of the Victorian lockdown, and the relationship between Scott Morrison and Premier Dan Andrews.

In her Reply to Correspondents, Katharine Murphy says that it was her first Quarterly Essay, and she found it ‘desperately hard’, but, she says:

the times are important, and I reported honestly, and shared what I saw. I hope the record stands the test of time.

The essay is a reminder of the crucial role played by serious. responsible journalism. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do. If you found the backpack with my copy in it, feel free to read the essay before you bring it back to me.


The End of Certainty is the 22nd and last book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Guides through grief, torture and trauma

Edwina Shaw, A Guide Through Grief: First aid for your heart and soul (Red Backed Wren 2020)
Margaret Bennett & Jennifer Maiden, Workbook Questions: Writing of Torture, Trauma Experience (Quemar Press 2019)

I’m not the intended audience for either of these books, but they’re both written, or co-written, by writers whose work I love. One of the writers is my niece. Each of the books is related to its author’s other job: Edwina is a yoga teacher when she’s not writing, and Jennifer Maiden has been employed as Writer in Residence at STARTTS (NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors).


Edwina’s book has a further subtitle on the title page: ‘Practical tools, creative activities and yoga exercises to help you cope with the loss of someone you love’. It announces itself as a self-help book. OK, I’m deeply suspicious of self-help books so, as blood’s not thicker than prejudice, I approached A Guide through Grief with my defences up.

It turns out that, yes, there are plenty of practical tools etcetera. At the end of each chapter there are several suggested activities: journalling and other writing tasks, affirmations à la Louise Hay, rituals with a New Age feel, the promised yoga exercises, and some recipes. Some or all of these may hit just the right note for some readers, and I’ve got nothing against a good recipe for chicken soup, but if that’s all there was to the book my heart would have hardened against it. (Luckily, an introductory ‘How to use this book’ explicitly invites readers to turn up their noses at some exercises, depending on taste.)

But the book is also a memoir. Edwina’s reflections on grief and loss, the need to weep and to stay connected, the importance of facing the reality rather than taking refuge in work or destructive activity of one kind or another, the passage of time – all these are entwined with accounts of personal experience. The book is rooted in her own bereavements: her father died of cancer when she was 14, her younger brother killed himself not long after, her grandmother died a peaceful death in old age, and then, devastatingly, decades later, a baby son died soon after birth. The self-help advice and suggestions have been tested in the laboratory of the writer’s own life, and she shows at least some of her workings.

I had tears in my eyes in many places. Partly this is because three of its four main deaths affected me deeply at the time. (I was ridiculously pleased to read in the paragraph about the impersonal remoteness of her brother’s funeral on page 110: ‘Only my uncle’s speech reflected the true essence of Matty’s personality.’ At least I’d been part of bucking the trend.) It’s also because Edwina can write. I happen to have read this book as I’m making my way, three pages a day, through Proust’s account of bereavement in the sixth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. I’m not suggesting that Edwina Shaw and Marcel Proust are in any way similar writers, but Proust’s description of humans as ‘amphibious creatures who are immersed simultaneously in the past and in present-time reality’, which I read this morning, resonates through Edwina’s accounts of the role of memory in grieving.

The book does an elegant two-step: it evokes one person’s experience of loss and her grieving work, and gives practical suggestions on how the reader can do their own work. I skipped the yoga and I skim-read the affirmations; you might ignore the writing exercises – which I might actually try. I doubt if I’ll ever practise a ‘visualisation’ in which I sit naked on the lap of a mother goddess, but I’ll remember Edwina’s wise aunt who said that ‘for every death there is one hundred hours’ worth of crying’. I love her argument for wrenching funerals from the control of religious institutions and for-profit enterprises. Edwina says in her introduction that this is the book she wishes someone had given her when she was 14. I hope I’d have the moral fibre to give it to someone in that situation: it could save lives.


Workbook Questions is what it says on the lid: 47 pages of carefully-devised questions intended as prompts in writing exercises for ‘Torture and Related Trauma Survivors and for Survivors of Camps and Incarceration’. So the main intended audience is limited – though an opening section of ‘General Questions’ is designed to make the book useful to anyone addressing trauma of any sort, not just torture and incarceration, which is a much broader readership/user base. It turns out that the list of questions is preceded by a 30-page ‘Conversation’ between the authors: Margaret Bennett, former Executive Director of STARTTS with a background in group therapy and counselling, and Jennifer Maiden, poet.

A more conventional presentation might have spelled out a carefully referenced rationale for the questions, probably with each question numbered for easy cross-reference: ‘The reasons for starting out with neutral questions about parents are as follows,’ etcetera.

Although such explanations are covered in the ‘conversation’, it is much more interesting and readable than that. Two women who have worked with each other and know each other well discuss the circumstances that led to this set of questions, the insights they bring from their different experiences and expertise, what they found worked in the groups, the value of writing as opposed to speaking as a way of integrating traumatic experiences, and autobiographical anecdotes.

Maiden and Bennett take turns in speaking/writing, and each turn is printed as a single paragraph. As these paragraphs can run for several pages and cover a range of topics, the reader has to do work that would be done by an editor in a more conventionally presented work, but the work pays off. I imagine that this conversation will be very useful, not only to people working with survivors of torture, trauma and incarceration, but also to to scholars interested in Jennifer Maiden’s poetry, in which these themes appear frequently.


A Guide through Grief and Workbook Questions are the 20th and 21st books I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Rhoda Lerman’s Book of the Night

Rhoda Lerman, The Book of the Night (©1984, Women’s Press 1986)

This book is on a list of SF/F must-reads I stumbled on some years ago, a list that has since introduced me to some wonderful novels from the dark crannies of the genre, as well as its spotlit centre-stage (some of my blog posts about them are here, here, here and here). I took The Book of the Night down from my TBR SF/F bookshelf thinking it would be a bit of light reading before I move on to Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do or other demanding reads. Ha! A 1984 Kirkus Review may have been a tad negative, but it captured something of the feel of the book when it called it an ‘an over-riddling allegory, steamy as a cow shed with unprocessed invention and quasi-feminist murk.’

This is a book set on the Irish island of Iona in the 10th century CE, though elsewhere in the world it’s the late 20th century: coke-bottle caps turn up in the first chapter and a tourist group comes visiting at one stage. On the island is a monastery whose monks who are caught up in that great moment when the Irish church was resisting the call to be obedient to Rome. And there is traffic between the world of the living and that of the dead. The main character, Celeste, is brought to the island as a young girl by her father who becomes increasingly lost in incoherent quasi-mystical wordplay. He sends her, disguised as a boy, to join the monastery, and through a series of misadventures, including some spectacularly metaphorical sex, she becomes – as you do – a cow.

There’s a man who by flapping his arms and farting flies out a window. Celeste’s father has unmetaphorical sex with a woman who comes to the island as a cook, and Celeste, who at that stage is believed to be a (human) male, is cast out of the monastery as the putative father. There’s a bloody battle, a walk through the underworld, an underclass who deliberately split their noses to avoid paying a nose tax. There’s more than one scene where a human man and a cow have consensual sex – told from the cow’s point of view. At least, I think that’s what’s happening among all the fiery language. Above all, there’s elaborate punning wordplay, and the whole story seems to revolve around the philosophical concept that, according to an authorial note, under certain circumstances, ‘An organism is able to reorganise itself into a higher level of order, to transcend itself.’

Take this as a confession of my thickness, but none of it made much sense to me. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the ride. The Kirkus Reviewer was wrong to describe the book as an allegory. That’s like wanting the zombies in zombie movies to mean something: maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but if you don’t respond to them viscerally as zombies, there’s no point. Rhoda Lerman may be have been exploring serious ideas, but (did I mention the farting man who flew?) she’s not po-faced about it. I did go back and skim-read the first couple of chapters again, and it turns out that this is one of those books where that’s a fruitful thing to do: what felt like gobbledygook on first reading now casts light on the confusing and tumultuous final few pages. I’m not going to read it all again, at least not right away, but I’m prepared to believe that in the midst of the exuberant, self-contradictory, sometimes chaotic eventfulness and wordiness, which are a blast in their own right, there’s something coherent going on.

As far as I can tell, this was Rhoda Lerman’s only fantasy novel. I have no idea what impact if any she had on the genre. It’s a long way from The Lord of the Rings.

Proust Progress Report 16: She’s gone

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): the beginning of Book 6, Albertine disparue (pages 1919–1999)

Albertine disparue (English titles The Fugitive and The Sweet Cheat Gone) takes up immediately after the moment at the end of Book 5 when the servant Françoise tells Marcel that Mlle Albertine has packed her bags and left. The 80 pages I’ve read this month are single-mindedly devoted to his reactions. First he tries to get her back by his usual convoluted method of dissembling his true feelings, and he almost succeeds. Then (I’ll try to avoid spoilers) it becomes clear that Albertine will definitely never return, and the narration gives us the twists and turns of his mental processes: what happens to his obsessive jealousy now that she’s gone? does he find relief from the claustrophobia he suffered when she was living with him? does he love her and need her more than he realised?

If Proust is remembered most for his treatment of memory, these pages, in which his grief-stricken mind remembers Albertine in a hundred ways, must be key. He is made up of multiple mois, each learning of her departure at his own time. Albertine has split up into multiple tiny household deities, each animating an otherwise mundane object with an emotional charge. He catches himself in myriad ways thinking of her as somehow alive and – for example – being glad to see how much he does love her. Many, if not all, of the threads of the narrative so far, help shape these moments (and such is the treatment of time, you can’t tell whether the moments are spread over weeks, months or even perhaps years). All the earlier deaths and liaisons and desires we have been told about are summoned to shed light on his present state.

Though Marcel does take action, at first to persuade Albertine to return and then to seek evidence to support or refute his obsessive suspicion that she was secretly an active lesbian, my impression is that he barely leaves his apartment in these pages or talks to anyone apart from the people he sends to negotiate and investigate.

This is all fascinating, no irony intended. The intricate dissection of the character’s mental processes is stunning. I’m probably influenced by the knowledge that these last two books were published after Proust’s death, and weren’t subjected to the same thorough revision process as the previous ones, but it does feel somewhat repetitious (as opposed to obsessive, and I know there’s a big overlap), and I hope he soon manages to move on.

I may have mentioned that, unlike Miles Franklin whose copy of À la recherche du temps perdu has notes in the margins indicating that she frequently looked up words she didn’t know, and unlike Clive James who took 15 years to read it dictionary in hand, I’m willing to read on with just a rough sense of the meaning. Typically, I’ll look up two or three in every three-page reading session. And it’s one of the pleasures of reading this book that often when I look up a word, it’s as if the meaning of a sentence or an image solidifies before my eyes. An example from this morning:

On dit quelquefois qu’il peut subsister quelque chose d’un être après la mort si cet être était un artiste et mettait un peu de soi dans son oeuvre. C’est peut-être de la même manière qu’une sorte de bouture prélevé sur un être et greffée au coeur d’un autre, continue à y poursuivre sa vie, même quand l’être d’où elle avait été détachée a péri.

This is how I read that at first:

They say that something of a person may live on after death if that person was an artist and put a little of themselves into their work. Perhaps in the same way a sort of blah-blah removed from a person and blah-blahed to the heart of another continues to carry on its life, even when the person from whom it had been detached has perished.

I got the gist. But decided out of interest to look up bouture and greffée. Bouture is a gardening term meaning ‘cutting’, from bouturer, ‘to propagate by cuttings’. I hardly needed to look up greffer, whose meaning of ‘graft’ or ‘implant’ is now clear. And the image comes viscerally alive. Or cardiacally, if that’s a word.

I doubt if I’ll manage three pages every day over Christmas and New Year, as we’ll be taking advantage of the open state borders and doing a bit of driving. But I’ll try to keep to schedule and do another progress report on 14 January. Maybe poor Marcel will have cheered up and got a hobby.

Journal Blitz 6

I subscribe to a number of literary journals as a way of supporting Australian cultural workers – specifically writers. I generally read the journals I subscribe to, plus occasional others: the prospect of this reading tends to loom as an obligation as the pile of unread journals grows, but the reading itself dependably turns out to be a joyful and invigorating experience. Then I blog, in the hope of communicating some of that pleasure, and possibly encouraging some of my readers to back these crucial enterprises. So here goes, with three journals that were published, um, some time ago …


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 236 (Winter 2019)

I mistakenly wrote that Overland 235 was the last issue of the journal edited by Jacinda Woodhead. This one is actually her last, and the new editors have brought out their third issue as I’m writing.

Overland 236 kicks off with two excellent articles. (Links are to the full items on the Overland web site.) In ‘After hours‘ Leigh Hopkinson, herself a former stripper, writes about the death of a stripper in a Melbourne club (Overland tend to be Melbourne-centred), and uses the case as a springboard to describe the terrible, and worsening, conditions of women who work in the adult entertainment industry. In ‘The great acceleration‘ Jeff Sparrow traces the history by which cars came to be established as the dominant, ‘natural’ mode of transport in the USA. Did you know, for instance, that before the automobile industry made a concerted effort to introduce the concept of a jaywalker, the term jaydriver was in common use, meaning someone who drove a car in the city with cloddish disregard of the danger for pedestrians, especially children?

There are more articles later, of which two stand out for me. But then, face to face by Joanna Horton is a wonderful account of the joys – and difficulties – of door-knocking for the Greens. Tina Ngata’s Toppling Cook puts a strong case, from an Aotearoa/New Zealand perspective, against celebrating the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s voyages of exploration.

Guest artist Sam Wallman has three spreads of sequential art (what some might call comics) that are brilliantly accessible lessons in recent English history, specifically the Sun boycott in the Liverpool region, the Annual Durham Miners’ Gala and the Grenfell Tower fire.

There are 13 pages of interesting and challenging poetry. My North Queensland heart leads me to single out ‘Toad‘ by Damen O’Brien, which begins:

Toad in the garden, which is the same as
a snake in Eden or a crack in a mirror.

and includes the gorgeously evocative line:

Inexhaustible armies of malevolence

Of the especially rich batch of short stories, the ones that most struck me are Jack Vening’s ‘Don’t tell me‘, a runner-up in the Victoria University Short Story Prize, and Allanah Hunt’s ‘Running to home‘, winner of the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers. No spoilers from me on either of them.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Southerly Vol 78 No 3 2018: Violence (2019)

Southerly, after 80 years of publication Australia’s second-oldest literary journal*, is in trouble. In March this year the editors published a plea for help on Facebook, and in October the website went down with a promise of reappearing soon – we’re still waiting. The editors, who aren’t paid for their work, have set up a crowdfunding platform at https://gum.co/wYZRP in the hope of prolonging the journal’s life. As a reader I’m still back in 2019, and though the editors were already desperately chasing funds then, the journal itself came out, behind schedule but in rude good health. There has been at least one issue since.

Like the Overland, this Southerly starts very strongly, with three poems: jenni nixon’s ‘knock on the door at 6am’ is an impressionistic narrative that earns the right to its epigraph from Gandhi, ‘poverty is the worst form of violence’; Brenda Saunders’ ‘Boab tree, Derby’ comes at the famous ‘Prison Tree’ in a number of choral voices (click here if you want to know about the tree); Andy Jackson’s ‘To name what we feel’ enacts the ambivalence of working on a phone-in service for violent men.

And it goes on from there, compellingly. There’s memoir (including Brenda Downing’s writerly ‘Letter to the Editor’ in which she arrives at a huge ethical dilemma when she tracks down the man who sexual abused her when she was very young), essay (including David Brooks’ ‘A Roo Battue’, on the continuing mass slaughter of kangaroos, which raises the spectre of extinction for some species), short stories (including Winnie Dunn’s brilliant ‘Wanting to be White’, a drama set in a Western Sydney Starbucks). I usually skip the scholarly articles, but Fiona Morrison’s ‘The Antiphonal Time of Violence in Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife‘ was a way to revisit the pleasures of a great night in the theatre. Likewise I tend to skip or skim the reviews, but Rachael Versace’s review of David Malouf’s An Open Book, by quoting generously and incisively, opened the door to revisiting the pleasures of that book.

There is one moment of eerie prescience in this Southerly. Josephine Clarke’s ‘transnational’ laments the way technology, while enabling connection over great distances, still leaves us bodily unconnected. Covid–19 wasn’t even a blip on the horizon when it was published, yet there’s this:

what if I take ill? who will come back /
come home / come through 

and hold my hand      my real hand
where the creases run labyrinthine across my palm

– my palm where your newborn head once rested
and was safe   

*The oldest is a children’s literary journal, The School Magazine, published since 1915 by the NSW Department of Education.


Andy Jackson and Jennifer Harrison (editors), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 9, Number 2: DIS– (2019)

Andy Jackson and Jennifer Harrison, guest editors of this issue of Australian Poetry Journal, are both poets and advocates for writers with self-identified disability/ies. They have collected more than 60 poems related to disability, aiming, as Andy’s foreword puts it:

… for a diversity of voices, in many senses of that word – bodily experience, cultural background, age, gender, philosophy, aesthetic. We also strongly prioritised poems of lived experience, including the voices of carers, friends, lovers – poems of solidarity and care that recognise that distancing ourselves from disability is impossible.

By arranging the poems, mostly, in reverse alphabetical order of poem title, the editors have added an extra stroke of disorder: each poem stands on its own, spatially disconnected from others on the same subject or by the same author, defying easy categorisation. The effect is indeed a marvellous ‘diversity of voices’, all dealing one way or another with disability. As Jennifer Harrison says in her Foreword:

What poetry gives us is birdsong alongside activism, the outside word alongside the internal world of emotions, hope shadowing despair … Poetry has a unique ability to see behind doors previously closed …

In this journal, many poets opens doors to whole worlds of difference.

A number of them are poets whose work I already know. Fiona Wright, who has written a lot about her own struggles, speaks to someone who may be a version of her younger self in ‘poem for jessie’ (‘I want you to remember / how to want’). David Brooks makes translation look easy with a version of Baudelaire’s ‘The Albatross’, which in this context becomes a powerful metaphor for physical disability. Samuel Wagan Watson’s ‘DISlocation’ captures a raw moment of betrayal (‘I may have challenges but my sensory perception is still sharp’).

Mal McKimmie’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbirds’ is wonderful. It begins:

There are no 'blackbirds with disabilities' –
_____________all blackbirds can fly.
There are only 'blackbirds with disabilities' – 
_____________all blackbirds will one day fall from the sky.

E A Gleeson, whose bio tells us that she ‘cares for her sister who lives with significant physical and intellectual challenges’ gives us a graphic childhood vignette in ‘The First Seizure’. Oliver Mills, in ‘De-Coding’, speaks clearly and succinctly, and wittily, about the difficulty of being understood when you have cerebral palsy, as he does: :

When I'm out of breath
Or having a lazy laugh
I make the sound of a creaking door

I could go on quoting. There’s plenty here for anyone interested in poetry. There are drawings, as well as poems, by people with mental illness diagnoses and people with learning difficulties. Just reading the poets’ bios is a revelation of the myriad ways the body and mind can differ from the typical. Even if you’re (temporarily) non-disabled and not interested in poetry, these pages may expand your world immensely. They have mine.

As a bonus, up the back, half a dozen pages are given over to Rachael Mead, winner of the 2019 Australian Poetry/Nature, Art & Habitat Residency. She lived in a village in the Taleggio Valley in northern Italy in June 2019, and three of the poems she write during her stay there are reproduced here. What with one thing and another, it’s glorious to read her poem, ‘Pacing myself’, about waking in that beautiful place, so far beyond the reach of most of us just now.


Speaking of journals, there’s some good news on the horizon concerning Heat, which ceased publication in 2011, after 39 issues in two series over 15 years. According to the Giramondo web site, ‘The third series of Heat, in a new design and format, will be published from 2022.’

The Book Group and John Irving’s Prayer for Owen Meany

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (Bloomsbury 1989)

Before the meeting: This is an odd book. It tells the life story of Owen Meany, a young man who is tiny in stature and huge in voice like the hero of Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum (which I haven’t read, though I’ve seen the movie). From an early age Owen has a profound belief that he is an instrument of God, and he has a vision of his own death, including the exact date and some of the circumstances. His story is told by his best friend Johnny Wheelwright, who doesn’t have a lot to distinguish him from any other child of an old New England family, except that his mother never revealed the identity of his father and she herself was killed in a bizarre Little League accident when he was eleven.

I loved the first hundred pages or so, which introduce us to the characters who inhabit the small New Hampshire town of Gravesend, and tell the story of Owen and Johnny’s childhood friendship, their shared quest to find the identity of Johnny’s father, their adolescent adventures. I was happily back to my enjoyment of The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), both of which I read when they were newly published. John Irving has an eye for the detail that brings a scene to life, and manages to keep his story slightly off-kilter without every completely descending into quirkiness. His characters are vividly realised in a few strokes, with an almost Dickensian oddness. My love waned in a very long sequence involving the staging of two theatrical pieces concurrently, a Christmas pageant and a production of A Christmas Carol. In both of them Owen is improbably compelling, at least in rehearsals, as the Christ Child and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Both predictably descend into chaos. These chapters rattle along, full of amusing and touching incidents and character development, but I was straining at the bit, wanting the story to move forward.

Then at almost exactly the midpoint of the novel, in the narrator’s present time, I was rapped over the knuckles in a moment that’s close to being explicitly meta. John (as he is now known) laments that his girl students don’t read Hardy’s novels with an eye to foreshadowing. ‘I hope you realise,’ John Irving was saying at barely one remove, ‘that all that stuff about Owen as Christ, Owen as a ghost predicting the future, Owen and a number of armless figures, Owen practising a special basketball move, all that was giving you very specific hints about where this narrative is going.’ Well, I took the hint, and from that point on I read everything as foreshadowing.

When all that carefully constructed foreshadowing came together in the final pages of the book, it was most satisfactory – or just a bit too neatly tied together, depending on your point of view. I was left uneasily cold by the religiosity of the story, which to be fair was signalled on the very first page when John-the-narrator tells us that Owen was the reason he believes in God. Owen becomes a Christ figure, but without arms, and John lives out his day as a vaguely religious, celibate man whose only purpose, apart from teaching English literature to teenage Canadian girls, is to bear witness to Owen’s story. Religion is his analgesic. ‘Don’t underestimate the church’ – he says at one point – ‘its healing power, and the comforting way it can set you apart.’ (Page 415) It’s a religious faith that depends on miracles for its existence (the kind of miracles that exist only in the pages of carefully contrived novels), and leads to a lack of engagement with the world, or with anything but the memory of his Christ-like friend. It leaves a sour taste in this reader’s mouth.

But, speaking of foreshadowing, John’s present time coincides with the Contra scandal under Reagan, and though he has been living in Canada for decades he is addicted to the US news. So much of John’s (and presumably Irving’s) commentary on Reagan’s US feels eerily prophetic of Trump and Trumpism. I recognise John’s newspaper addiction as an old-media version of my (our?) Twitter addiction. It’s not that things were the same back then, but by contrasting the Kennedy era of Johnny and Owen’s adolescence with the Reagan era of John’s middle age, the passions that burned over the US invasion of Vietnam with the apathy that greeted the Contra scandal, the novel captures a change in the US’s political culture, a change that has since deepened to an extent that would have looked wildly fantastical in the 1980s.

After the meeting: Last night was our last meeting for 2020 and our second since we all started to relax a little about Covid–19. All but two of us made it – one of the absentees had to attend a family do, and the other had been tested for the Covids with his young daughter and was staying home as a good citizen (he WhatsApped us this morning to say the result was, as expected, negative). We had what we’ve been calling a Gentlemen’s Picnic: everyone brought food. We ate well, including salmon with anchovy butter pats, barbecued sausages, charcoal chicken, several salads and three different desserts. Covid deprived us of meatballs slow cooked with figs. Our host had Gospel music playing as we arrived, which he said was the nearest he could come to the religiosity of the book, and at the end of the evening he treated us to a couple of short films he had made – potentially setting a dangerous precedent as I’m sure may of us have substantial slide shows we’d love to share.

It’s not that we didn’t talk about other things: family news, good TV and movies (a Michael Jordan film is apparently excellent, and I’m not the only one who loved Corpus Christi), a bit of reminiscence about the 18 years of book group and rumination on how it has changed this year (because of Covid and zoom? because of the level of trust that has enabled discussion to become more robust? because the person who noticed the change has been a more frequent attender this year?), Trump deprivation syndrome, and show-biz anecdotes all got an airing. But the book generated a lot of discussion.

I wasn’t an outlier, as it turned out. Someone described the book, memorably, as a shaggy dog story. A man who said he hadn’t finished it was having trouble following comments about how all the threads came together in the last scene: it turned out he’d read all but the last 10 pages or so, which just goes to show how skilfully John Irving postpones his revelations until the last possible moment. Someone said – articulating my sentiments exactly – that in the first couple of pages he breathed a sigh of relief: after reading a number of books for the group that, whatever their other virtues, were pretty rockily written, with this he knew he was in the hands of an accomplished storyteller.

Someone felt that this was a book written by someone who had a big back catalogue, who now could relax and just spin a yarn without being too serious about it, venting about current politics as the spirit moved him. Not everyone agreed. Some, me included, felt we were expected to take the religious theme seriously but found it pretty hard to do so. One said most of the religious stuff was largely incomprehensible to him. I asked if the recurring image of armlessness was purely decorative or had some thematic significance. One of our architects took offence, demanding, ‘What’s wrong with decoration?’ and describing the way those recurring images created a patterning that was pleasing in itself and helped the reader track the story. Our Book Chooser, who first read the book 30+ years ago, loved it then and loved it again this time, thought the armlessness represented Owen’s helplessness in the light of fate. This led someone to comment that though Johnny keeps his arms, he is ineffectual, spiritually armless. None of us could remember what we were told about the armless image drawn by the 17th century sagamore Watahantowet when he signed away the land to the invaders, but felt that might offer some help. I just looked it up:

Some said it was how it made the Sagamore feel to give up all that land – to have his arms cut off – and others pointed it out the earlier ‘marks’ made by Watahantowet revealed that the figure, although armless, held a feather in his mouth; this was said to indicate the sagamore’s frustration at being unable to write. But in several other versions of the totem ascribed to Watahantowet, the figure has a tomahawk in his mouth …

There’s more. The upshot is that the armlessness could signify many contradictory things. It’s a good example of how so much of the early pages of the book are full of foreshadowing, and of how hard it is to pin down the book’s actual position. Is John Wheelwright a dependable narrator? Does Johnny have a feather between his teeth, while Owen had a tomahawk? The questions aren’t resolved, and we don’t even know if they are meant to be taken seriously. We admired the first sentence of the book as an example of foreshadowing; evidently John Irving himself admired it too.

A number of chaps had done some supplementary reading. One of them had read that John Irving starts with a clear image of how a book is going to end and then makes sure everything leads to that point. This rings very true.

In order to give the appearance of completeness, I’ll finish with a quote from the one chap who hadn’t read the book at all, except for the author’s introduction in his copy. He said he concluded on the basis of that introduction that John Irving was a wanker. Not everyone agreed.

SWF 2020, 11th and final post

I’ve been blogging about the online 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival (I almost forgot the apostrophe) most of the year. The Festival is still going on, and its website is listing events to mid-January next year. I’ll keep listening, but I won’t blog any more. Here are links to the Festival podcasts currently on my phone, in case you’d like to check them out.

Drawn from Life: Alice Oseman in Conversation 21 October: YA phenomenon and graphic novelist Alice Oseman chats with media phenomenon Jes Layton.

Secrets and Lies: Donor-Conceived Rights 21 October: Dani Shapiro, USA-based author talks to Australian author Bri Lee about issues raised in her memoir, Inheritance, including those related to children conceived by sperm donation.

Griffith Review 68: Getting On 28 October: Tony Birch, Andrew Stafford and Jane R. Goodall talk with Griffith Review editor, Ashley Hay, about getting older.

Trent Dalton: All Our Shimmering Skies 4 November: Trent Dalton in conversation with Annabel Crabb bout his second novel

Guardian Australia Book Club with Helen Garner 6 November: No elaboration needed from me. The interviewer is Michael Williams, now artistic director of the SWF.

Behrouz Boochani and Tara June Winch in Conversation 11 November: Again, no elaboration needed from me about either of the participants. I will mention that Tara June Winch acquitted herself admirably in Hard Quiz recently.

Tony Birch: The White Girl 18 November: Tony Birch is here again to talk with Evelyn Araluen about his novel The White Girl.

Julia Phillips: Disappearing Earth 3 December: The author of the excellent Disappearing Earth talks to Tam Zimet, until recently associate director of the SWF.

It’s nice to finish with one of the rare books that I’ve read that also features in this year’s Festival