Monthly Archives: April 2022

Rebecca Huntley’s Italian Girl

Rebecca Huntley, The Italian Girl (UQP 2012)

It was a comment by Lisa Hill on one of my earlier blog posts that led me to The Italian Girl. Lisa thought I might like it. She was right.

Rebecca Huntley is probably best known as a social researcher and broadcaster. Her 2019 Quarterly Essay, Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation (the link is to my blog post), demonstrated among other things that the predictions of social researchers can be wildly inaccurate. When she humbly acknowledged her wrongness with defiant optimism in the following issue, I became a bit of a fan.

As a young adult, Huntley pondered shedding her Anglo-Celtic family name and adopting her mother’s birth name, Ballini. Her mother, fearing that an Italian surname would invite discrimination in her daughter’s chosen field, emphatically discouraged the move. Rebecca abandoned the idea and picked ‘Huntley’ at random from the phone book. In The Italian Girl, written 20 years later, she reverses that emblematic abandonment. The book is the story of her investigating her Italian–Australian family’s history, mainly in Innisfail and surrounding sugarcane country, focusing mainly on her grandmother, her much-loved nonna, Teresa Ballini, and the internment of Italian-heritage men during the second world war.

On a visit to Innisfail after her nonna‘s death, Rebecca tells her uncle Frank that she’s sorry to have disappointed her nonna by not having married while she was still alive:

‘She never got to see me in a wedding dress,’ I tell him. Frank laughs in his gentle way and shakes his head ever so slightly.
‘You didn’t really know your nonna, did you? She was a feminist before we knew what feminism was. When the men were interned during the war, it was your nonna who ran the farms. She kept everything going until they came back. She wasn’t waiting for you to get married. The proudest day of her life was when you graduated university.’
… My nonna, a feminist trail-blazer? It didn’t fit with my image of her who had no greater ambition in life than to cook, clean and care for others.

(Page 23–24)

That was the spark that led to the publication of this book twelve years later. Who doesn’t resonate with that impulse to find out more about the people you saw so one-dimensionally in childhood?

The author makes several more trips to Innisfail – a north Queensland town where she has never lived, but where her great-grandfather Luigi settled when he came out from the Italian island of Elba; where he worked as a cane cutter before acquiring and running a number of sugar farms; where her nonna Teresa was born and married, lived most of her life and eventually died. On her research trips, she interviews elderly relatives, quizzing them about her great-grandparents, nonna and nonno, about the family fortunes, and (most interestingly to this reader) about the wartime internment of Italians in north Queensland as enemy aliens.

She supplements these conversations by enlisting the help of a research assistant, and reading extensively, including Jean Devanney’s novel Sugar Heaven and roughly 50 other works listed at the back of the book. She creates a vivid sense of Innisfail itself – its location, its tropical climate, its history, its difference from the stereotype of an Australian country town. Each time she visits, she gives some detail of the journey – the first time by train, a journey of several days from Canberra, and subsequently simpler plane trips from Sydney. She strolls the streets, visiting the Taoist Temple, the marble canecutter statue, the Good Counsel Church, the preserved art nouveau buildings, the local history museum. This is my childhood home, and I was fascinated to have places familiar from my childhood described by someone who has an emotional investment but who is all the same not a native. (I responded with a kind of benign tolerance rather than my usual copy-editing irritation to tiny errors, such as misnaming East Innisfail as South Innisfail, or referring to Goondi as a small town between Cairns and Innisfail, whereas it’s really an outlying part of Innisfail – or it was when I lived a couple of miles further west, at what is now Shaw’s Corner.)

The history the book uncovers is interesting and important in many ways. For a start, the story of Innisfail puts the lie to the version of Australia as drearily monocultural until the 1970s. The Italians in this story may have been largely intent on assimilating, but they were always distinctly Italian, and they were only one of many non-Anglo groups.

I’m writing this a couple of days after Anzac Day, so I can’t help but reflect on this book in that context. In public discussions of past wars at this time of year, there’s very little mention of the Australian citizens who were interned because of their Italian, German or Japanese origins. Yet these internments are part of this nation’s long history of incarceration. Huntley doesn’t tell the story of the internment of her grandfather and great-grandfather, so much as the story of trying to find out about it from conversations and documents. It does seem that there was an arbitrary quality to it: men (and some women) who had done nothing wrong were detained, in some cases, for more than three years. Sound familiar? Some, including Huntley’s father, Oreste, almost certainly belonged to Fascist organisations; others were detained despite plenty of evidence that they had turned their backs on their Italian heritage and identified as British subjects. It seems that the ethos of least said soonest mended prevailed once the war was over, and none of Huntley’s elderly informants remembered the returning internees carrying a grudge or saying very much about the experience. Unlike people seeking refuge who have been detained by current and recent Australian governments, they seem at least to have been fed well.

For me (of course) the book feels personal. I’m probably about the same age as Huntley’s mother. I was a 12-year-old spectator at the unveiling of the canecutter statue in 1959. The inscription on the statue reads, ‘To the pioneers of the sugar industry donated by the Italian community of Innisfail district on the first centenary of the State of Queensland 1859–1959.’ What it doesn’t say, and what I remember from the speeches of the day, was that the statue, created by an Italian sculptor in Italian marble, was a grand gesture of reconciliation from the Italian community, and an assertion of the role Italians’ back-breaking work of cutting cane had played in building the industry. The Latin motto, UBI BENI IBI PATRIA, translated for us on the day as WHERE YOUR GOODS ARE, THERE IS YOUR HOMELAND, surely refers indirectly to the internments that happened less than two decades earlier. Certainly, I got the impression that the statue was somehow rectifying a great wrong.

Rebecca Huntley writes about her unsettling discovery that she has Fascists in her family tree. The Italian Girl adds heft to a piece of my own family lore that is at least as unsettling. My mother’s father, Arthur Aitken, served as Police Magistrate in Innisfail in the 1920s. My poem about his role in an earlier episode in Australian–Italian relations is in my book Take Five. My mother told us that, because he had learned the language, he was recalled from Brisbane during the war to oversee the internment of Italians. He isn’t mentioned in The Italian Girl, and we haven’t been able to find any documents to verify Mum’s throwaway line, but I’ve got no reason to doubt her, and I’m grateful for the work Rebecca Huntley has done in unearthing so much of the experience on the other side of that coin.

Michael Farrell’s Family Trees

Michael Farrell, Family Trees (Giramondo 2020)

I kept wanting someone to take me by the hand and show me how to read the poems in this book. If you feel the same, don’t get your hopes up for this blog post.

In the Author’s note that Giramondo Publishing included with my complimentary copy, Michael Farrell does offer some help. I couldn’t find the note online anywhere, and think it’s a shame that the publishers didn’t include it at the back of the book. I’m tempted to reproduce it in full here, but that would probably violate something. It begins:

Family Trees is a queer vision for the people: the people who read, go to movies, listen to pop music, watch bird shenanigans. The people who care about history, who need love, but always lose it.

I think queer has a specific cultural meaning here that is about more than sexuality, and the reading, movie-going and pop-music-listening he has in mind is more extensive than mine and without a huge overlap. All the same, these two sentences do name key elements of much of the poetry. There’s a kind of radical playfulness that has familiar cultural figures caught up in weird scenarios, as in ‘Adjectival Or The English Canon’, which tells the history of English poetry in 45 three-line stanzas in which each new poet kills off the preceding one, taking to an extreme the notion that each generation of poets has to get rid of the one before it. For example:

Bloody William Shakespeare got the whole world into verse
Eventually had his throat cut by Bloody Benjamin Jonson
Jonson then proclaimed Shakespeare's spirit'd entered him

William Blake stumbles off a cliff at a picnic with William Wordsworth: ‘While William got the credit some say Dorothy did it’.

Similarly, but less interestingly, ‘Family Trees’ mimics the begats from Genesis, but if there’s anything beyond a list of names, some of people, some of trees, it went right past me.

In many poems I can recognise that the poetry is playful, but just don’t get it (not well enough read or well enough versed in contemporary poetics, probably).

Sometimes I get it, and am impressed but unmoved, as in ‘Tempestina’, which takes the traditional form of the sestina but instead of using the same six rhyme words in the prescribed order, has each line opening with the same six phrases in that order. Verry interesting, as they used to say in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

Sometimes, and this may be in most of the book, the poetry stays just a little out of reach of my understanding, but it’s enjoyable. I’m reminded of how much I enjoy my 18-month-old grandson’s jokes: I have no idea why he finds them so funny, but his enjoyment is infectious, and I don’t doubt that there’s a sharp and generous intelligence at work. This is most clearly true of the poems about the south coast of NSW, where the poet grew up. The Author’s note says they re-fabulate visits to the area. Here’s the start ‘Mysteries Of The South Coast’:

We all need a methodology to live by
To take just one example, Catholics are
rarely ashed on on the sports field, but
public life is another matter. Such
unfortunate exhibitions are not beyond
the conceptions of The Sorrowful
Cappuccino, known locally as the
Foamo and by the next town's residents
as the Sad Flat White), either. Their own
eateries are nothing to skite about.

This makes me laugh. I read it as a mash-up of memories and current impressions of the kind one has revisiting childhood places. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics of a certain era would appear with a smudge of ash on their foreheads. Maybe there’s a reference to a remembered time when Catholic students would be advised not play football with the ash still in place, as that would provoke hostility from their Protestant opponents. This memory slides over a couple of words with strong religious connotations – conception as in the Immaculate Conception, Sorrowful as in the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary (which of course echoes the poem’s title) – by way of the hinge word Cappuccino as in the Capuchin Order of monks, to arrive at a contemporary preoccupation with coffee, and the lovely term foamo. From there it’s no distance at all to the familiar trope of how terrible coffee and food is in country New South Wales (remember, Farrell is a Melburnian, and maybe that’s a methodolgy in itself).

From there the poem ranges over real and invented features of the locality: there’s a bull named Darth Vader, marsupial geese, houses that ‘have no reason to be there really / except that people live in them’, a Duchess who makes badminton rackets from leftover chicken coops, monks who live in wombat holes, a cushion that would rather be reading Ferrante … and I’m left in the dust, but enjoying the kaleidoscopic absurdity. There may be a serious point to all this play – there’s this at about the one-third point:

leaves. (So jammy!) What miracles we
live by and under on the south coast
made mundane by the poets, who must
beat it into our heads so our heads have
something to think with.

Although even the book’s most straightforward poems have an elusive quality to them, they’re not all surreal, intertextual game-playing. ‘Apple Tree’, for instance, which the Author’s note describes as a ‘homage to John Shaw Neilson’s iconic “The Orange Tree”‘, can be read without reference to that poem (though that poem is worth reading for its own sake – you can see it at this link). Let Michael Farrell have the last word here reading his poem:

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives at the Book Group

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Afterlives (Bloomsbury 2020)

Before the meeting: It was my turn to pick the book. I loved Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart when I read it last year, and I chose this one over three contenders because a) I like the idea of us reading work by Nobel Laureates, and it’s so good to have one whose writing is accessible, b) it’s time we read a book by a non-European writer – the last ones were Burruberongal woman Julie Janson’s Benevolence in October 2020, and two months before that In the Country of Men by US-born Libyan-parentage Hisham Matar.

Afterlives is a terrific book. It was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2021. That prize was won by Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. I have no quarrel with the judges, but my horizons were expanded much more by this book than by that one.

It’s set in the first half of the 20th century in what is now Tanzania and was then German East Africa / Deutsch-Ostafrika. It’s a family saga, a romance, a war story, a picaresque, a colonial tragedy. It tells the huge story of colonial brutality and East African engagement in two world wars, and also focuses closely on the intimate story of a handful of characters. It’s beautifully written, brilliantly visual, and paying attention to the intricacies of language in Africa under colonial occupation.

It takes risks: in the first third of the book a main, beloved character named Ilya disappears – he’s an African who was educated by German missionaries, and decides as an adult to join the askari, the native troops who serve under the Germans. His absence remains an unresolved ache for the other characters and the reader until the final pages, when a character from the next generation manages to unearth his story – and then the book abruptly ends.

In this colonial context, possibly the most painful story is that of the askari or schutztruppe, African soldiers who are brutally treated by their German officers and in turn perpetrate terrible atrocities on other Africans – not unlike the Native Police in the colony of Queensland where my great-grandfather grew sugar in the late 1800s. This passage is from the account of the First World War as experienced by the characters (my emphasis):

Even as the schutztruppe lost soldiers and carriers through battle, disease and desertion, their officers kept fighting on with manic obstinacy and persistence. The askari left the land devastated, its people starving and dying in the hundreds of thousands, while they struggled on in their blind and murderous embrace of a cause whose origins they did not know and whose ambitions were vain and ultimately intended for their domination. The carriers died in huge numbers from malaria and dysentery and exhaustion, and no one bothered to count them. They deserted in sheer terror, to perish in the ravaged countryside. Later these events would be turned into stories of absurd and nonchalant heroics, a sideshow to the great tragedies in Europe, but for those who lived through it, this was a time when their land was soaked in blood and littered with corpses.

(Page 91)

My love for the absurd and nonchalant heroics of The African Queen just became much more complex. After reading this book, it would be hard to think of African suffering, or for that matter African love or prayer (the mosque is significant for some characters), as a sideshow to anything.

After the meeting: There were only five of us, others being out of town with family for Easter/school holidays and otherwise detained – no one in Covid iso this time. We’re still a little bit thrilled to be meeting in person: this is the third time in more than two years. Our host departed from recent bring-a-dish tradition and provided all the food – tuna steaks and a fabulous broccoli salad resting o a bed of tahini. I had been dreading a conversation about the election campaign and had laid bets that someone would predict an LNP win: it didn’t happen until the very end of the evening when there was consensus that it was a toxic topic, press coverage was abysmal and the leaders of both major parties, for different reasons, were invitations to despair.

We talked about theatre – Girl from the North Country, The Picture of Dorian Gray and White Pearl – and other books and podcasts (the ABC’s The Ring In on the Fine Cotton Affair was strongly recommended). There were outrageous travellers’ tales, gossip about the very rich, and general catch-up. When we finally came to the book, we had a terrific conversation, all appreciative.

The book conversation began with a confession: ‘I read it weeks ago, in a single sitting. I loved it but I don’t remember anything of it.’ When asked to say what he loved about it, he who had confessed proceeded to give an account of the book that was much more specific than I would have been able to manage: the detailed descriptions of life in a small Tanzanian town, the sweetness of the characters, the way terrible violence is described but doesn’t dominate the narrative, the overall sense that one is learning history that has been a closed book, the sex scenes – and there was more.

One chap was interested enough in the history to do some research. He produced an atlas and showed us the part of Africa where the action takes place. He had printed out a number of pages on the history of what was German East Africa, and some illustrations of askari in uniform. He was happy to report that the novel’s public events – mainly rebellions and battles – were historically accurate.

One man had read the book twice. The first time, several months ago, he appreciated all the things others had named but was left feeling somehow distanced from the characters – so different from reading that other novelist of colonial pain, Amitav Ghosh. He cared enough to read it again. This time he was no more engaged, but felt it to be a feature rather than a problem. On reflection, he came to understand (I hope I’m representing his subtle comments accurately) that his sense of non-engagement was because we are being shown the deep effects of colonisation on the colonised: the characters are beset by cruelty and oppression on all sides, and they are intent on survival. This means they reach out with kindness to each other – there is an amazing amount of kindness in this book, often in unexpected places – and live very much for what joy and they can find in the present. There’s no room for them to reach out to us readers.

I loved this insight. It helped to see the book as a whole. For example, Hamza, the male romantic lead, responds to most situations with silence. We can tell that he is variously humiliated, elated, disappointed, puzzled, grateful, terrified, but he never communicates it. The narration shows us what happens to him and what he does in response (usually he tends to passivity), but we are not given his internal dialogue. He doesn’t talk to us, the readers.

It also makes sense of the ending. Someone said that the last few pages, in which the fate of Ilya is discovered, feels like a postscript, yet (I think it was me who said this) it resolves an issue that has been hanging from very early in the story. In such a beautifully constructed book, it’s unlikely that this is a rough and ready tying up of loose threads. It’s hard to say more about this without being spoilerish so I’ll just say, with apologies for being vague, that the book’s final sentence, which on first reading felt naggingly anticlimactic, picks up the deep theme the group member identified, and offers a sharp change of perspective on the way the rest of the narrative has been resolved.

Afterwards, I thought it would be interesting to hear a conversation between Abdulrazak Gurmah and Alice Walker, the final moments of whose very different novel Possessing the Secret of Joy make an interesting contrast.

When we arrived the sky was clear. As we left the rain was bucketing down and, just like after the last meeting, the streets were awash.

Books read on the road

I recently went on a ten-day road trip to the Mungo National Park by way of a number of country towns. Knowing there’d be plenty of time to read, I packed poetry. The slim volumes didn’t take up much space, but they were guaranteed to provide plenty of nourishment.

Here are the three books I read, in order of publication. As you’ll see, they don’t have a lot in common.


Oscar Schwartz, The Honeymoon Stage (Giramondo 2017)

In a talk in May 2015 at TEDxYouth@Sydney Oscar Schwartz asked, ‘Can a Computer write Poetry?’ It’s an interesting talk that makes me feel as if I belong to a past era.

I wonder if some of the poems in The Honeymoon Stage are computer generated, challenging readers to guess which are and which are not, as in the game Schwartz discusses in the talk, ‘Bot or Not’. Probably not: they mostly cohere, and have a discernible narrative or line of argument that doesn’t seem (yet) to be within the skill set of computer poem-generators.

Mostly the poems have a surrealist edge, as in ‘i sat on lungs’, in which the narrator realises that the chair he is sitting on is actually a pair of lungs, or ‘what side of the bed does your clone sleep on?’, whose title is almost enough. There are a couple of long poems. ‘how to write an ebook of poetry’ starts out as a deadpan account of the process, but takes a turn at about the two-thirds mark:

die

get buried

decompose

become diffuse among various organic materials
on earth

be there as a collection of diffuse organic materials
when humanity ends

The other long poem, ‘should i watch game of thrones?’ similarly starts with a list of reasonable pros and cons then goes off on fantasy tangents.

The poems are universally light, witty, even quirky, and largely – to my aged mind – inconsequential. The book was a pleasant travel read.


Gerald Murnane, Green Shadows and other poems (Giramondo 2019)

In 2018 the New York Times Magazine ran a headline about Gerald Murnane, ‘Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?‘ He’s a giant of Australian letters – a giant who has been largely unknown to me. I may have attempted one of his novels, The Plains, and given up on it. Recently I read his Collected Short Fiction, which I loved.

Though Murnane began his writing career as a poet, as far as I know none of his early poems have been collected. All of those in Green Shadows, his first book of poetry and possibly his last book ever, were written in his late 70s.

The poems are shot through with a curmudgeonly iconoclasm. ‘Crap-books’, for example, begins:

Here's a list of some of the crap-
books that I forced myself to read
when I was still a nervous young chap
who supposed that every overseas

writer knew more than I. I'll start
with Anna Karenina – utterly unreadable.

In ‘Political Philosophy’, he puts the case against progressive activism. In ‘Non-travelling’, he disparages knowledge acquired by travel as:

bes with my a___skin++__g the countless trashy
recollections of barely known people and places

Along with the curmudgeonliness, though, there’s an unapologetic and unsparing self-portrait of a man who, if he had belonged to a later generation, might be telling the world about his diagnosis of autism. There are awkward encounters with women, childhood recollections, odes to Victorian districts, reflections on his earlier writings, especially his early plans as a poet, some short poems in Hungarian with English translations. He pays homage to Marcel Proust, Henry Handel Richardson, William Carlos Williams, Lesbia Harford and John Clare among others.

I confess that on first reading I didn’t engage much. The book felt like a doodling PS to a long career, a collection of extras for fans of the novels. But the poems grew on me in subsequent readings.

What prompted me to go back for subsequent readings was ‘A Cistercian life’, which sadly is too long to quote in full here. It begins with the young Murnane reading Thomas Merton’s Elected Silence, and being attracted to the austere contemplative life that book describes. It tells of Murnane’s later discovery that Merton was ‘full of himself’, hardly ever observing the Cistercian rule; and his further disillusion when his son, after spending a week at a Cistercian monastery, reports that the monks, ‘once famed for their silence’, pumped their guest for information about TV shows, no longer did manual labour, and went on annual holidays. The poem’s last three stanzas describe the spartan conditions of Murnane’s current life: no radio, TV, telephone, or computer, the bare minimum of furniture. The poem ends:

I've made no vow of silence but I haven't
spoken since yesterday when I called at the store.

I last took a holiday back in the nineteen-seventies,
for my young sons' sake. Through my only window I see
mostly wall, but the view from each end of my street
is of countryside, level and seemingly empty.

How you read a poem depends on what you bring to it, and I brought a lot to this one. I too was enchanted by Thomas Merton as a teenager, and briefly tried to do the contemplative thing. My mother’s beloved youngest sister joined the Carmelites, an order of nuns with similar rules to the Cistercians, and I treasure letters she wrote to me. One of my old Catholic teachers, a lovely man, now lives in a yurt in the middle of a cow paddock and sees as few people as possible, spending most of his time in silence. I don’t aspire to such a life, but I respect it as a spiritual discipline. With these lines, I saw Murnane’s portrayal of himself in a different light, not so much a contrarian curmudgeon as a self-deprecating man of discipline. The force of those final words was amplified by the circumstances I read them in: I was staying in the Shearers’ Quarters at Lake Mungo, where the landscape could hardly be more level or more seemingly empty, yet so rich with profound meaning.


Eunice Andrada, TAKE CARE: New Poems (Giramondo 2021)

In my blog post about Eunice Andrada’s first book, Flood Damages (Giramondo 2018), I began, ‘There’s a lot of pain in these poems.’ I can say the same about the this book, which incidentally has been shortlisted for the 2022 Stella Prize and the Kenneth Slessor Prize in the 2022 Nsw Premier’s Literary Awards.

Central to the book is ‘Comfort Sequence’, in which there is little comfort. It begins with a prose poem that starts, ‘Another statue dedicated to ‘comfort women’ who were enslaved and raped in wartime has been removed in the Philippines.’ Much of the text on this page is obscured/replaced by white space in the shape of such a statue. The sequence sets out to counter that erasure, coming at it from many angles – dissection of pertinent language, conversations with a woman who was there, aphorisms, paraphrases of Filipino news sources – culminating in a horrific vision of rape culture:

A rapist teaches me how to drive.
A rapist decides what I do with my body
after rape. A rapist on trial doesn't believe
he's a rapist. A rapist doesn't like being called
a rapist. A rapist raping doesn't believe in rape,
its perversion of simpler ideas like cold seedless
grapes, eggs ripe for hatching, nape of beast
for slaughter. A rapist tells me to be careful
of what I say.

From one point of view, this sequence is balanced by ‘Vengeance Sequence’. Here’s one of its 15 short poems:

Filipino women stop working.
Empires shut down in a tantrum,
refusing to care for themselves.
We do not go back to work.

In Andrada’s poetry, rape is situated as intimately bound up with racism, militarism, nationalism, colonialism and other forms of exploitation. As this little poem exemplifies, resistance/vengeance can be cheerful, life-affirming and solidaristic.

The book’s title, TAKE CARE (the shouting capitals are part of it), refers to the Tagalog word ingat. In the poem, ‘Take Care’ (which doesn’t share the shouting capitals), the speaker wakes from night terrors in Jerusalem, and is befriended by some Filipina women the next day. They have dinner together, and the end of the evening sees ‘the night’s dispersal marked by chimes / of ingat’:

of machinery. They tell me to ingat
with the men, the checkpoints, the soldiers.

Take care, take care, take care.

In my temporary room, I let myself rest,
believing I could be safe.

Solidarity with other women, particularly Filipina women, is a place of possible safety. By implication, the book, calling out ingat / take care to its readers, is offering something of the kind in a world whose danger and injustice it does not shrink from.

Andrada is a fine performer of her own poetry. Giramondo has uploaded this video of her reading ‘Kundiman’, a very short poem that beautifully positions her writing in relation to the world of warfare and extraction:


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for complimentary copies of all three books.

Adam Aitken’s Revenants

Adam Aitken, Revenants (Giramondo 2022)

The poems in Revenants trace the geographic shifts in the poet’s life – there’s a narrative thread, not so much autobiographical as autobio-geographical. As Aitken says in a note on the Giramondo website, the book begins:

with my father’s description of his flat in Hong Kong in the 1950s. I then explore my own experiences in Hawai’i and Malaysia, where I worked in 2010. A few poems recall inner city Sydney in the eighties. By the end of the book the reader enters the world of a village in France where I have lived recently.

The places are encountered through a number of lenses: family history (drawing on some of the same letters as Aitken’s 2016 book about his parents’ youth, One Hundred Letters Home), military and political history (as in a brace of found poems based on a Malay phrasebook for British colonial administrators), art (ranging from Javanese artist Raden Saleh (1811–1880) and Claude Monet to Hawai’i Five-O), literature (Somerset Maugham, Stendhal, William Carlos Williams, John Berryman), and of course direct personal experience – childhood memories (including ‘Class Portrait’, on a school photo taken when Aitken was eight or nine), scenes from inner city life in the 1980s, traveller’s tales with some overlap to the 2011 chapbook Tonto’s Revenge, scenes from rural France in a similar vein to the poems in Archipelago, place-influenced dreams, and more. [The links in this paragraph are to my relevant blog posts.]

When I blog about a book of poetry, I try to talk about one poem in some detail. I’d love to walk you through the wonderful ‘Notes on the River’, a poem in 14 parts about the Tonlé Sap River in Cambodia that is rich with vivid snapshots of river life. But that is far too long for a blog post.

‘Martial Sarit Cleans Up Bangkok, 1959’ suits my purposes. It’s short, just 22 lines:

The poem can be enjoyed even if, like me, you know virtually nothing about Thai history. It’s in three parts. The first two stanzas offer images of westerners living comfortably and possibly corruptly in an Asian environment. The next four stanzas convey the event named in the poem’s title. The final two stanzas resolve the relationship between the first two parts: newspaper censorship means the people in the first two stanzas can remain unaware of what is happening around them. It’s a deft and unsettling evocation of the relationship between West and East, and more specifically between expats/tourists/farangs and locals. The poem is remarkable for its calm restraint: no adverbs, no emotive adjectives, no editorialising. It makes me think of Matthew Arnold’s notion that the aim of the writer is to see life steadily and see it whole.

Having responded to the poem from a position of ignorance, I read around it – as many of Aitken’s poems gently invite one to do.

Martial Sarit Cleans Up Bangkok, 1959

The title, as expected, refers to an actual episode in Thai history. Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat staged a coup in 1957 supported by the US military, became Prime Minister in 1959, and held that position until his death in 1963. Ironically, my main source of information about the ‘clean-up’ is the English-language newspaper named later in the poem, the Bangkok Post. Its website has a timeline, which features Sarit’s banning of opium in July 1959 as a key historical event, and quotes him: ‘The day marks a new era in Thailand’s social history. From this day, we can proudly claim that we are a civilised people.’ The timeline links to a photo of a huge pile of opium pipes being smashed by men in uniform, in preparation for being bonfired. (Incidentally, the title includes a quiet, almost invisible pun on Marshall/martial.)

At a corner table at the Hoi Tien Lao
my father dines
with a better class of ladies
who use spoon and fork

The opening stanza situates the poet in relation to the historical event. This isn’t a moment chosen at random, but part of Aitken’s ongoing poetic exploration of his family history. His father was a farang, we know from elsewhere that his mother is Thai, and that he was born in 1960, a year after the action of this poem. This scene may not be from his parents’ courtship, but it could be. The present tense (‘dines’ and ‘use’) signals that the poem’s point of view is right there in the midst of things, not in some remote future.

I found an article describing the life of the farangs in Bangkok in the mid 1950s that spells out the elements so deftly evoked in the poem’s opening lines. (The article’s nostalgic history makes an interesting contrast to the poem’s cool immediacy.) The Hoi Tien Lao was one of the restaurants they frequented in Chinatown, with a nightclub above it, and not all the Thai ladies they associated with were ‘a better class’, if you understand that as referring to morality. Anyhow, the fourth line of the stanza undermines that reading of ‘better’: the ladies are a better class because they have adopted western table manners – a white supremacist viewpoint is invoked with sly irony.

Club members hold court
and a French count is flogging US Army
surplus penicillin.

These lines sketch the privileged, opportunistic world of European and US (and Australian) expats, echoing any number of stories of black markets in antibiotics in postwar Europe and Asia – The Third Man comes to my mind.

From now to the end of the poem, there are no full sentences. The effect is of a series of stills or film clips, rather than a sustained narrative.

In Chinatown
the addicts rounded up,
led away enchained,
their pipes bonfired.

The scene shifts to the events referred to in the title. This crackdown on addicts was what gained the headlines. Not as extreme as Rodrigo Duterte’s more recent encouragement of Filipinos to kill addicts, this round-up could be seen as a benign act. The poem quietly begs to differ with its brutal verbs, ’rounded up’ and ‘enchained’.

Children running through the streets
naked no more.

Squatting to eat banned.
Calligraphy in Chinese
banned.
Bare breasts banned.

From what I can tell from my limited research, Sarit’s ‘cleaning-up’ project was intended to make Bangkok a more modern, ‘clean’ city. No one could object to children being clothed, and for a country that has been dubbed ‘the brothel of Asia’, surely the banning of bare breasts is a good thing? But the repetition of the word ‘banned’, and its standing on a line to itself, draw attention to the means of making these changes. Why ban squatting to eat, or calligraphy in Chinese? More in sorrow than in anger, the poem laments the imposition of order, perhaps by force as in the chaining of addicts, and with it the partial elimination of a local culture, an enforced turn towards the West, as the ‘better class of ladies’ have already done.

For weeks on end
more white space
in the Bangkok Post

The Bangkok Post was, and may still be, the main English-language newspaper in Thailand. One imagines westerners in their hotel rooms, flipping through the newspaper, noticing blank spots, and wondering more or less idly what has been censored. Perhaps Aitken’s father mentioned doing just that in his letters home.

as if none of this
had ever happened.

The final couplet can be read simply as tying a neat bow to finish off the poem. Rather than one more image, it presents a kind of summarising abstraction. And its syntax moves away from present tense to place the events, and their erasure, firmly in the past, implying that now, at least in principle, the full story can be told.

What makes the poem hit home for me is the personal resonance in the last lines. It’s not just that the ‘clean-up’ events were invisible the English-speakers in Bangkok back then. They have been invisible in the received version of the poet’s family story. The poem results from a probing of that story. The apparent neatness of the conclusion actually poses a question: what to do with the knowledge that one’s parent/forebear was on the wrong side of history, or at best an oblivious bystander?

My own paternal great-grandfather came to Australia from Yorkshire in the 1870s and set about farming sugar in south-east Queensland. I’ve found quite a lot about him on Trove. It’s very likely that indentured South Sea Islanders worked on his farm, but so far I’ve seen nothing but white space about that in the newspapers of the time. In ways I can’t articulate, this poem helps me to face what that says about my own place the world.


I am grateful to the Giramondo Publishing Company for my copy of this excellent book.

Ruby Reads 30: Billie B Brown

Sally Rippin (writer) and Aki Fukuoka (illustrator), Billie B Brown: The Bad Butterfly (Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing 2010) [Nº 1]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Perfect Present (2010) [Nº 7]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Birthday Mix-up (2011) [Nº 10]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Deep End (2012) [Nº 17]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Missing Tooth (2020) [Nº 19]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Honey Bees (2020) [Nº 23]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Baby Bird (2021) [Nº 24]

I used to be fairly knowledgeable about children’s literature, but that was a while ago. Until two months ago I hadn’t heard of Australia’s top-selling female author Sally Rippin or her Billie B Brown series, which Goodreads says has sold more than 4.5 million copies in 14 languages.

On advice from a salesperson at Gleebooks, Ruby’s local bricks and mortar bookshop, we bought four titles, then another three a couple of weeks later.

They’re chapter books, intended mainly for six-year-old readers but Ruby, who is still 4, loves them. It’s living evidence that children often enjoy books meant for readers who are older than themselves.

In each book, Billie B Brown – the middle B stands for something different every time – meets an age-appropriate challenge. In book Nº 1, The Bad Butterfly, she and her best friend, Jack from next door, go to ballet classes and discover that Jack excels at the dainty butterfly dance while Billie does better as a stomping troll – and (spoiler alert) they tell the teacher that Billie will dance a boy’s part (a troll) and Jack a girl’s (a butterfly). This is done quietly, without flag-waving or defiance, just two young people solving a problem, and only incidentally evoking a sigh of relief from the adult reader who was bristling at the dance school’s gender stereotyping.

And so it goes. In The Perfect Present, Billie (the B is for Bursting) is excited then disappointed about Christmas; in The Birthday Mix-up, she has a party and it looks as if no one is coming; she is painfully anxious about swimming in the deep end of the pool; she loses a tooth, but not completely according to plan; she learns about bee-sting allergy, and is distraught about an abandoned baby bird. The story generally goes how you would expect: the guests arrive; the tooth fairy delivers; the baby bird is OK; relationships with other children are realistically fraught, and reassuringly resolved. But there’s nothing stale about the tellings, and Aki Fukuoka’s manga-ish drawings add to the freshness. Here’s her full-page drawing that ends The Honey Bees (which she discusses on YouTube, here):

It’s uncanny how many of Ruby’s concerns are taken up explicitly in these books – birthdays, Christmas, the danger posed by bees, friendships, swimming, ballerinas, letters and numbers, little brothers, and more. I doubt if Billie would have been quite as much appeal to either of my sons. But Sally Rippin and Aki Fukuoka have another series, Hey Jack! Maybe that will still be there when my other grandchild is thirsty for chapter books.

PS: In his memoir Tell Me Why, Archie Roach calls his grandchildren grandies. I haven’t seen the word in a dictionary, but I love it, and I’m using it. As Ruby’s little brother is just beginning to enjoy being read to, I’m changing the name of this series of posts to Reading with the grandies.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist

The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were first presented in 1979 when Neville Wran was Premier, and his ten successors have kept them up. I’ve been following the awards since Bob Carr’s day – eight premiers ago – and even been to some award night dinners, and a couple of the recent more parsimonious events. This year’s shortlist has been announced, and can be read on the State Library website with some clicking back and forth. As a public service to my handfuls of readers, here’s the list on one screen (links take you direct to the judges’ comments on Library’s website, plus in a very few cases to my blog posts). It’s a huge reading list. Please give your pick in the comments.

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

Highly commended

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

Highly commended

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry

Highly commended

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature

  • Philip Bunting, Me, Microbes and I (Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing)
  • Peter Carnavas, My Brother Ben (University of Queensland Press)
  • Christopher Cheng, Stephen Michael King, Bear and Rat (Penguin Random House Australia)
  • Karen Foxlee, Dragon Skin (Allen & Unwin)
  • Morris Gleitzman, Always (Penguin Random House Australia)
  • Kirli Saunders, Bindi (Magabala Books)

Highly commended

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature

Highly commended

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting

  • Kodie Bedford, Cursed! (Belvoir Street Theatre) – my blogpost here
  • James Elazzi, Queen Fatima (National Theatre of Parramatta/Australian Plays Transform)
  • Eliaas Jamieson Brown, Green Park (Griffin Theatre Company)
  • Finegan Kruckemeyer, Hibernation (State Theatre Company of South Australia/Currency Press)
  • Kirsty Marillier, Orange Thrower (Griffin Theatre Company and National Theatre of Parramatta/Currency Press)
  • Ian Michael, Chris Isaacs, York (Black Swan State Theatre Company)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting

Multicultural NSW Award

Highly commended

Indigenous Writers’ Prize

Highly commended

Thee’s no shortlist for the People’s Choice Award, the Book of the Year, or the possible surprise of the evening, the Special Award