Monthly Archives: September 2022

Journal Catch-up 15

Here I am once again with two journals, each of which has produced another issue after the one I’m writing about.

Alexandra Christie (editor), Heat Series 3 Nº 3 (Giramondo 2022)

I’ve just read a tweet quoting Helen Garner about Heat series three:

So slender and elegant, nothing wasted, nothing grandiose – and beautiful work.

Beautifully said!

The third issue is true to Heat‘s original goal to publish culturally diverse voices. It has a bit of a theme going:

  • ‘Australian Capital Territory’, a short story by Madeleine Watts, in which a man and a woman search in and around Canberra for somewhere to have sex, and finally succeed in a manner that is most satisfactory to them, the watching kangaroos and the reader. So, sex.
  • Small Talk’ by Kenneth Chong, a very different short fiction, presented as a kind of abstract memoir, about a young man of faith dealing with troubling issues. So, sex and religion
  • ‘Cain’s Feast’, a short story by Mexican writer Aniela Rodríguez, translated by Elizabeth Bryer, in which a young woman is seduced by a priest and a young man takes revenge. So, sex, religion and violence
  • Tongue Broken‘ by Kate Crowcroft, not so much an essay as a collection of disparate thing connected with the author’s research on the tongue (she has completed a PhD and has a book coming out on the subject). It does one of my least favourite things, presents a word’s etymology as if it offers a kind of magical access to the word’s inner meaning. But the rest is variously lively, unexpected and informative. Also: religion and violence
  • Five terrific poems by each of Jarad Bruinstroop and Iman Mersal, the latter translated from Arabic by Robyn Creswell. Discreet sex, but no violence.

Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 245 (Summer 2021)
(Much of the content is online at, and I’ve included links)

Overland is always so full of interesting things that I can’t possibly name every item. Here are some things that stand out for me in this issue

Of the articles, one or two of which are too academic for my blood, the two that stand out for me are:

  • Perpetrators‘ by Rachael Hambleton, about her complex relationship with her father, who spent much of his life in prison. The essay expands into profound reflections on grief, punishment, the prison system and intergenerational trauma.
  • What lies beyond the vortex‘ by Mauricio Rivera Ramirez, which focuses on the novel La vorágine (1924) by José Eustasio Rivera. Though the subject may seems unpromisingly niche to a general reader, it includes fascinating insights into the colonial rubber trade in Latin America.

I’m often intimidated by the poetry section in Overland, edited by the marvellous Toby Fitch. I mostly enjoy the poetry but have no idea how to talk about it. In this issue, I was delighted to find a poem by Eileen Chong, ‘Dream kitchen’ (sadly not on the Overland website at the time of writing), which narrates a dream of the poet’s grandmother’s kitchen with wonderful surrealist gusto and ends in an echo of classic Chinese poetry:

_______________________-____I knew it was only a dream,
because I was in my bed, alone. I was far from her, and home.

There are three excellent short stories:

  • The first to lose‘ by Hop Dac, a story of Vietnamese-Australian family life
  • Machine works‘ by Jordon Conway, a brilliant sketch of work, class, relationships and integrity in the context of forklifts, lathes and vehicle repair.
  • Fontanelle‘ by Sarah Walker, an excellent companion piece to ‘Machine works’, a semi-futuristic piece about the work conditions of long-distance truck-drivers.

Then, tucked away up the back, there are the 2020 Emerging Older Poets Mentorship (one poem) and the five poems shortlisted for the 2020 Oodgeroo Noonuccal Indigenous Poetry Prize, including Claire G Coleman’s witty ‘Blame Ireland’ and the prize winner, ‘Choice cuts‘ by Mykaela Saunders, a long, fiercely anguished meditation on the commodification of Indigenous culture:

–how to hold onto my integrity
when cold neoliberal logic drills into me
and the colonial vacuum sucks the marrow from me as fodder

Next time: Heat 3, Overland 246, an issue of Australian Poetry, and – if I can overcome my reluctance to read journals online – Southerly 79:3.

The Iliad: Progress report 10

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 23 line 768 to Book 24 line 944 (the end)

It’s taken me nearly 10 months to read The Iliad, two pages most mornings, and it’s been a huge pleasure.

In the final pages, Hector’s body is reclaimed and given a proper funeral. The way it is reclaimed is incredibly moving. The Trojan king, Priam, goes into the Greek camp at night, alone except for one companion and the god Hermes to protect him. He pleads with Achilles to release his son’s body, begging him to think how his own father would feel in a similar situation. Achilles, the embodiment of unstoppable destructive force, begins to weep and soon the two of them are sobbing together, weeping for the parents who have lost sons including Achilles’ own father in the near future, and for the loss of beloved comrades. Then Achilles retells the story of Niobe weeping for her murdered children: in his version instead of turning immediately to stone and becoming a waterfall, she takes time off from weeping to eat a hearty meal, and that is what he and Priam now do. He tucks Priam in for the night, safe from being accidentally spotted by other Greeks.

That passage itself is enough to explain why the Iliad has such status. After all the violence of the previous thousands of lines, these two implacable enemies share a moment of common humanity. I could feel my mind – and heart – expanding as I read it.

Pretty soon after that, Hector’s funeral rites take place and the story is over. The story is over, but not the war. It’s very clear that in another day, the Greeks will resume hostilities. Troy will fall. The women will be captured. Babies will be thrown over the battlements. Achilles will be killed. It’s a standard thing that epic poems begin in medias res – in the middle of things. This one ends there too.

I’m having a breather before starting my next slow-read project. I’m thinking maybe Middlemarch.

Edwina Preston’s Bad Art Mother

Edwina Preston, Bad Art Mother (Wakefield Press 2022)

Owen’s mother is a poet, pretty much unrecognised in her lifetime. His father runs a restaurant, plus a charity that feeds the homeless, plus an art gallery. His guardians (it’s complicated!) are a successful, wealthy poet and his meek wife who has a knack for ikebana. The most reliable adult in his life is an aunt, a nurse who makes no claims to creativity. In most of his childhood O-yo, as he is affectionately known, rotates among the three households, each its own version of life on planet Melbourne in the 1960s.

The backbone of Bad Art Mother is Owen’s story of his childhood, culminating in the events surrounding the launch of his mother’s only book of poetry. He branches out into two other periods: the moment in the mid 1980s when his mother’s poetry is rediscovered by a feminist publisher, and his comfortable and uneventful life in the present, partnered up with the feminist publisher. Every now and then Owen’s narrative is supplemented by a batch of letters from his mother to her sister that make us privy to the mother’s inner life and to scenes that unfold in Owen’s absence.

So there are two unreliable narrators: one is a child who doesn’t understand the complexities of the adult world (though he does understand more than the adults realise), the other a woman who is increasingly unhappy, self-preoccupied and in denial about her alcohol abuse – though she can be scarifyingly honest about her own appalling behaviour. As readers we’re invited to keep our wits about us, to read between the lines.

I wanted to know what would happen to every one of the novel’s characters, and each of the women in young O-yo’s life offers a different perspective on how to succeed artistically or otherwise under patriarchy (there is a cheerful Lesbian couple), but it’s Veda Gray, poet and Bad Art Mother, whose story provides the narrative spring.

Even though you might expect that young O-yo is most at risk, Veda is really the only character who is in jeopardy. It’s the 60s. Society is getting ready for Germaine Greer and, separately, the beginnings of Women’s Liberation. Veda has read a book by an unnamed American feminist, whom we take to be Betty Friedan, but she is unable to take up the cudgels on her own behalf. She increasingly seems to spend her days at home, drinking, spending less time writing poetry than complaining about the difficulty of being a poet. Somehow she gets a contract with a small press to publish a collection of her poems, but publication, on which her survival seems to depend, is repeatedly postponed. We know it will happen, but we know from a flashforward on the opening page that something will go wrong. There is very real suspense, and the story moves along at a cracking pace to a dramatic climax.

But there are disturbing cross currents .


For example, there’s this moment early on. Veda is writing to her sister about her conversations with Mr Parish who, we have been told, dislikes abstract art and, presumably, modernist poetry:

We have had several lively debates, such as Ern Malley, that old chestnut, where I find him a harsh critic of MacAuley and Stuart.

(page 35)

Veda misspells both James McAuley’s and Harold Stewart’s surnames, even while claiming a bored familiarity with the Ern Malley affair. Not only that, but she seems to be under the impression that McAuley and Stewart were modernist poets of the sort Parish would abhor, whereas they are militantly on his side, and his harsh criticiism would surely have been for Max Harris, who published the poems.

At first I took these and a scattering of similar ‘mistakes’ for authorial errors that slipped past the copy editor and proofreader, but as I read on I began to think they were indications of Veda’s radical unreliability. We only ever see one of her poems, about which more in a moment. When she’s young, she does ‘second-rate readings in second-rate rooms with second-rate poets’ before giving up because she isn’t getting anywhere, and she receives many rejections from Meanjin. As time goes by though, there are no more attempts to find readers. She has no apparent contact with other poets, except the egregious Mr Parish. She quotes none of her poetry to her sister, the only correspondent we know about. She seems to be unaware that other Australian women poets exist. She does the extremely unrealistic thing of submitting a sheaf of poems to a publishing house and then resenting it when they say they need more to make a book-sized collection.

The real story being hinted at here is that Veda set out to be a poet, but gave up, partly because of sexism but probably because she wasn’t willing to work at it in a sustained way, and wasn’t much good. She settled to a life of posing as a poet (the word ‘posing’ occurs a lot), while sinking into alcoholic chaos, blaming everyone but herself for her lack of success. When, improbably, the book is about to be published, she decides to strike a blow against the establishment by [SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT] altering its opening sonnet so that the first letters of each line spell out a fourteen-letter obscenity. The world comes crashing down around her: the book is pulped, her career as a poet is finished, and her life is over.

An end note informs the reader of the famous occasion when Gwen Harwood slipped a similar sonnet past the editor of the Bulletin in 1961, and quotes from a letter Harwood wrote to a friend. There are two ways of reading this, depending whether you think Gwen Harwood’s exists in the world of the novel. If she doesn’t, then the incident has been transposed – unconvincingly to my mind – to a decade later. If she does, then Veda’s stunt is a mere imitation of a notorious scandal. I’m leaning to the latter reading, partly because the Ern Malley hoax exists so why not Gwen Harwood as well, and partly because Veda’s sonnet is clumsy and stodgy. If it’s typical of her poetry, her rediscovery in the mid 1980s starts to look like a bit of opportunistic pretend-feminist marketing rather than the equivalent of, say, the rediscovery of Lesbia Harford at about the same time.

So this is a book with a hidden narrative, like the cross-dressing story in Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life. The title of the book doesn’t signify an art-mother who is bad, but a mother who makes bad art. Veda’s story is even more tragic than it seems at first.

Reading with the Grandies 31: Roald Dahl, Grug and the Bus Book

In the months since I last posted about Ruby’s reading, she has discovered Roald Dahl, and her little brother has started asking to be read to from what he calls the ‘Bus Book’.

Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach (© 1961, illustrations © Quentin Blake 1995, Penguin Random House 2016)
—–, Fantastic Mr Fox (© 1970, illustrations © Quentin Blake 1996, Penguin Random House 2016)
—–. The BFG (© 1982, illustrations © Quentin Blake 1982, Puffin 1985)

Whatever else you might think about Roald Dahl (and I know there are people would keep him away from young children because of what they see as cruelty), his sentences are a joy to read aloud, and evidently a joy to hear, while his plots are full to bursting with vividly imagined incidents. We’ve read James and the Giant Peach more than once, a couple of pages at a time. We’ve reached page 54 or so of The BFG, in one sitting, but will probably take a while to return to it because something about it is too scary.

Fantastic Mr Fox has been an amazing success. Currently we see Ruby for a couple of hours in the afternoon two days a week. On half a dozen successive Nanna-and-Poppa afternoons, she has asked for Fantastic Mr Fox, and listened to the whole book in a single sitting. Once or twice she has agreed to have something else as an appetiser, but this is the book she wants, and she wants it all. At first, she would cover her ears to mute the bits she found scary, but by the most recent reading she stayed for everything. As the non-reading grandparent, it’s wonderful to watch her absorption in the story, and her intent study of Quentin Blake’s illustrations.

I hope we can keep Wes Andersen’s travesty of a film out of the picture until it’s too late for it to spoil anything. And I expect Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I loathe for its, well, cruelty as well as its racism and gooiness, can’t be too far away. But for now, we’re having a ball.

Ted Prior, Grug and the Big Red Apple (1979)
Daria Solak, Big Wide Words in the Neighbourhood (Hardie Grant 2022)
Claire Laties-Davis (text), Kazia Dudziuk (illustrations), Britannica’s First 150 Words (Britannica Books 2021)

As Charlie’s second birthday approaches, his interest in story isn’t as intense as his big sister’s. He loves spreads where we name an object and he finds it. The pages he comes back to again and again, and then is reluctant to leave, have pictures of buses, cars and especially TRUCKS. These two books, with illustrations by Daria Solak and Kazia Dudziuk respectively, stand out for their surprising choices of words, and unconventional illustrations.

Grug and the Big Red Apple, on the other hand, is a story that does the trick. The introductory bits where Grug, the mysteriously animate scrap of Australian flora, finds the apple, and the bit where Clara the carpet snake coils around the apple in order to move it – all that’s well and good, but we all love the last few spreads where the apple looms larger and larger in the foreground while Grug looks hungrier and hungrier beside it, and then, turn the page and all that’s left is a tiny core and a sated Grug. Yay for story!

Hugh White’s Sleepwalk to War

Hugh White, Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s unthinking alliance with America (Quarterly Essay 86, 2022)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 87

The title of this Quarterly Essay says it all: Australia’s foreign policy has had us in lockstep with the USA, and we’re heading for an inevitable war with China if the USA continues on its current trajectory and we stay blindly following. The people making key policy decisions, the title implies and indeed the essay states explicitly, are not living in the real world.

Specifically, our governments talk and act as if the USA is an unchallengeable world power both generally and in our region. In reality, China’s GDP is now greater than that of the USA (one of many assertions challenged by correspondents in Nº 87); it is a nuclear power intent on establishing a sphere of influence in the India Pacific; the USA has no compelling reason to challenge that intention, and there’s no way it will go to war, let alone risk a nuclear war, to do so. Australia and the USA should stop pretending they will defend Taiwan should China decide to retake it – which it inevitably will do. We should be working out how reconcile ourselves to living within a Chinese sphere of influence in a multipolar world where the USA and China are only two of several great powers.

Hugh White presents his argument cogently, and when he is dealing with the absurd sabre-rattling of Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison, his thesis looks like sweet reason. Nancy Pelosi’s weirdly provocative visit to Taiwan happened after the essay and its follow-up correspondence were published, making it very timely indeed in retrospect.

As usual, I delayed reading this Quarterly Essay until the next one came out so that I could read it along with whatever responses the series editor (still Chris Feik) chooses to publish. Unusually this time, politicians criticised in the essay have a say. Not Scott Morrison or Peter Dutton – it’s hard to image either of them meeting argument with argument rather than bluster. But Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd turn up to defend their records. They and other correspondents take issue with White’s thesis just about as vigorously as possible within the bounds of civil discourse.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull:

White has strayed into sweeping generalisations and, frankly, ‘alternative facts’ to embellish his argument. I was disappointed that a scholar of his standing would do so.
White’s description of Australian foreign policy is simply wrong

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd:

A skilled political operator, White adduces selective facts and little reason in reaching [his] conclusion, but happily smears as ‘unthinking’ anyone who challenges his word as self-appointed prophet of both the anti-American far left and the ‘never upset Beijing’ Rio Tinto far right.

Michael J. Green, formerly the senior Asia policy official on the National Security Council in the White House:

Kudos to Hugh for shaking things up as always. There is urgency, as he notes. There are also many big and hard decisions ahead. But the basic consensus behind current Australian and American grand strategy is founded on a more nuanced and realistic assessment of the international system and the relative balance of power than offered in the polemical pages of Sleepwalk to War.

Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University:

I’ve admired my ANU colleague Professor Hugh White for decades: his singular intellectual style, public profile (such that many mistakenly assume he speaks for Australia), unorthodox career, generous mentorship of next-generation thinkers, sharp good humour, even his zeal. He is a past master of the strategic analysis game. But he insists on playing it just one narrow way – his own, derived from his training in philosophy and winner-takes-all Oxford debating. And, sadly, his new Quarterly Essay maintains the cage.

Not all the correspondents take issue with the essay as sharply as those, but Rory Medcalf’s gibe about Oxford debating rings true when Hugh White emerges bloody but unbowed to reply to correspondents, barely acknowledging the many instances where he allegedly got the facts wrong.

In the end, the discussion hasn’t left me any wiser about Australia’s relationships with the USA and China. My evaluation of Dutton and Morrison’s provocations has been endorsed. My sense that things are complicated has been strengthened. My anxiety about the possibility of nuclear war in my lifetime remains on a low simmer. I’m glad there are people who can think about these issues and are taking about them. I hope cool and wise heads prevail on all sides.

The Book Group and George Haddad’s Losing Face

George Haddad, Losing Face (UQP 2022)

Before the meeting: This book is part of the wealth of interesting new writing to come from culturally complex Western Sydney over recent decades. I’ve blogged about some of it, including poetry by Maryam Hazam, Eunice Andrada and Sara M Saleh, and fiction by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Luke Carman, Felicity Castagna and Suneeta Peres da Costa. I have mentioned George Haddad at least once in this blog, for his short story ‘Broken Zippers‘ in Overland 237. This is his first novel.

Joey is in his late teenage years, part of a Christian Lebanese community in Western Sydney, working in a supermarket and pretty aimless. He’s friendly with Emma, who (I think) is an ‘Aussie’, which in this context means of British or Irish heritage. Joey’s Aussie father has been absent for most of his life. He gets on well with his mother, and their mostly amiable bickering is a key pleasure in the first chapters. Joey’s younger brother occasionally looks up from his phone to join the conversation. Tayta Elaine, Joey’s grandmother and the family matriarch, completes the portrait of a warm, supportive, noisy family.

Trouble starts for Joey elsewhere. He goes to a music festival with Emma, his best friend Kyri, and Boxer, who’s a bit of a bully from school days. The drug-infused euphoria of that event takes a dark turn when Boxer and Emma start to make out, but the real trouble comes a couple of weeks later when Joey and Kyri again go out with Boxer and an even worse bully: the four of them pick up a young woman, Lisa, on the train, drugs are involved, and they sexually assault her. What had been charming and engaging sketch of life in a particular community now coheres into a narrative charged with moral jeopardy.

The story is plainly told. In particular, the story of what happens with Lisa is given without evasive language. Joey is not a witness to the worst parts of what happens, and we are given all the mitigating circumstances, but we do see how he participated in precise detail, including the moment soon after the event when he apologises and she acknowledges his apology. But she goes to the police the next day, and Joey and the others are charged sexual offences. Joey’s friends’ and family’s disappointment and anger leave him isolated, and the approaching trial becomes the focus of the narrative. As readers we see a lot of nuance, but though we feel for Joey, the question of accountability hangs heavy over the story – so that the outcome of the trial becomes a secondary consideration. It’s beautifully done.

Meanwhile, Tayta Elaine’s story unrolls in alternate chapters. Apart from being a widowed matriarch, she is addicted to gambling, and much of her sections is taken up with her internal self-negotiations in which she justifies feeding far too much of her pension into poker machines and committing mild frauds to stay afloat. These sections are much less convincing. I feel they were there as necessary ballast to Joey’s story: his generation isn’t the only one to be morally compromised. But this narrative doesn’t grab with nearly the same force.

While thinking about this blog post, I read a short review of the book by Bri Lee in The Monthly. My impression that she is uncomfortable at being asked to empathise at all with a character involved in sexual violence, but she’s too polite to repudiate the project outright:

Joey believes his part in the crime wasn’t as bad as others. What’s often excruciating for a post-MeToo reader is to try to divine whether or not the author believes in outdated ideas or if it’s just the characters who do. Losing Face walks this very old tightrope: what is the difference between re-presenting the problem and actually critiquing the problem?

This is quite misleading. It’s not just Joey who sees his ‘part in the crime’ that way. Lisa doesn’t want him charged, and police charge him with a lesser crime. This is not to say he’s blameless or that he sees himself as blameless. He’s racked with guilt and doesn’t know what to do. There’s very little resource around for him. Bri Lee concludes her review, ‘Elaine is looking at herself in the mirror at the end of the book. Joey is not.’ We must have read different books. In my reading Elaine has gone even further down the path of addiction and bad stuff has happened to her, but she has little or no insight into her own responsibility for her misadventures (not that we blame her, given her tragic back story): she sees only that men are bastards. Joey, by contrast, has decided to change his life.

I hope it’s not a spoiler to give you part of the book’s final conversation between Joey and Tayta. If a mirror is involved, Tayta may be holding it up, but it’s Joey who is looking at himself:

‘I tell you something, Joey. Deep in the mind, any man from all time, no matter what they like to fuck – women, other men, goats – deep in the mind, they still believe woman is weaker than man.’

She stood up. Joey was empty.

She walked towards the garden and kicked with her slipper at a weed growing from a crack in the concrete until it dislodged. ‘And this is why that shit happen to the young girl in the car park with you and them kleb.’ She sounded like she was swallowing her tears. She bent over, picked up the weed and flung it into the garden. ‘And this is why, all around the world, men always doing shit to women in car parks.’

Joey’s anxiety had indeed lifted like magic earlier, and it turned like magic too.

(Page 256)

Just before the meeting I reread the book’s Prologue, which I had forgotten. It’s in the form of an Arab folktale about a terrorising djinn who agrees to leave the women of a camp alone if they gave her the manhood of all their boys. The women do so, and when the little boys grow up, they don’t grow beards, have no gusto for work and must be led, confused, through the desert.

I went into the meeting wondering what to make of that, and wondering what anyone else had made of Bri Lee’s review.

The meeting: This was the first time many of us had been together in person for a long time. We marvelled at the excellence of the bring-a-plate meal, and the luxury of sitting maskless around a table to eat it.

It took us a while to get to Losing Face. Our host was fresh from a battle with a government department in his local area, and there was much experience-based lamentation about bureaucracies. I was able to relay some wise words passed on to me by an employee of that department who had heard it from an old man when he was young: ‘Always remember that the department has no heart to break and no arse to kick.’

We all liked the book. In the process of discussing it, we came to appreciate the way our sympathies and expectations were managed. At first, the sexual assault scene feels like a nasty incident that may well turn out to be one of a sequence. Joey does his best to reassure himself that he’s a decent person, and as we go along with him, or not, we’re uneasy about the moral universe of the novel. When the police knock on Joey’s door it comes as a surprise, and we’re ambivalent: we’re apprehensive for Joey, who has our sympathy, but relieved that this is not going to be a novel in which the main character descends into callous depravity.

I’ll avoid spoilers, but will say that for such a short novel, Losing Face includes a lot of complexity about moral responsibility and the workings of the law. I’d forgotten some of the surprise twists of the legal proceedings.

Joey’s Aussie father – who turns up when Joey is in trouble – struck a chord with our gathering of mostly Aussie-fathers. A little paradoxically, the Western Sydney setting felt familiar and somehow comfortable to us inner-western Sydney types. There’s a queer dimension to the story, which someone felt was a bit tacked on, but someone with relevant experience said his gaydar went off very early in the book. Someone asked, ‘What will Joey do next?’ and we realised that the ending is wide open. I think we all felt that he’s in the process of changing his life, that he’s not going to just shrug off the whole episode, but we had a number of scenarios.

This month’s Chooser was one of the two who couldn’t make it to the meeting. Sadly he had to bask remotely in the glory of having chosen well.

Tony Butler’s Hermitage in the South

Tony Butler, A Hermitage in the South: A history of Marist Brothers Mittagong 1906–2006 (Marist Brothers 2006)

This is a chronicle of a place that has played an important part in the Australian story of the Marist Brothers, a Catholic religious order. It’s very much an in-house production, which I’d expect will be read from cover to cover by a pretty circumscribed group of people. I am one of that group.

From 1905 until the mid 1980s, the property at Mittagong in the southern highlands of New South Wales was the key training place for new members of the Marist Brothers in Australia. Since then, it has served a number of functions connected with the Brothers’ work in religious education. The buildings are still there, extended, redesigned and surrounded by vineyards, but still recognisable, with a strong Marist Brothers presence.

I spent half my teenage years there in the 1960s – the last two years of secondary school in what was called the Juniorate, and then eighteen months up the hill in the Novitiate. Though I went home to my family for a couple of weeks at the end of the first two years, it was a time spent almost entirely in the company of other young men about my own age. We cooked, cleaned and gardened. We chopped wood, cleaned grease traps, and shovelled sawdust for heating. We studied, sang and did religious ceremonies. Each day we rose early to pray and spent long periods in would-be contemplative silence. We got chilblains in the bitter Mittagong winters (especially bitter for those of us who came from tropical north Queensland). We played vigorous soccer, hockey, cricket and handball (though the unsporty ones like me tried to minimise those activities). We had no radio. Newspapers, Super 8 movies and TV were curated by our teachers, and in the novitiate were almost completely absent (once or twice a news item about Vietnam was read to us at meals, before the other pious readings). We went on long bush walks.

We prepared ourselves for lives in religious community. We were said to be in formation, and though many of us dropped out along the way, and most of us left the order, some within years, some after decades of our time in Mittagong (three years in my case), they were definitely – for good and bad – formative years.

Our relationships weren’t all sweetness and light, but there was an underlying sense that we were all there because we wanted to do good in the world – we wanted to be good. I don’t remember any violence or threats of violence, which I gather is pretty unusual among groups of adolescent boys. We saw ourselves as heading for lives of celibacy, and the only women we saw while at Mittagong were family who came on the sparse visiting days, so our sexual acculturation was a long way from typical.

The book doesn’t go deeply into such matters. But as well as drawing on dry documentation about things like building extensions and deliberations among the order’s leadership, it includes personal reminiscences from every stage of the history, and there are reflective passages like this:

Both juniorate and novitiate emphasised the community rather than the individual, for the cultivation of singularity was to be avoided. Everything was done in community, whether it was praying or working, studying or eating, playing or walking. Sometimes a junior could be carried along by the tide without having a sense of who he was as an individual, an issue to be faced in his later years.

So yes, there was that.

In my days at the juniorate there were two very old brothers. Brother Gerard was my Latin teacher, who would interrupt his intensely scholarly lessons to quote a couplet from Pope, compare something a scientist had said in the news to a line from Lucretius, or exclaim that he’d just seen a fox running up the hill opposite our classroom. Brother Eusebius had retired from teaching, and spent most of his days, as far as we could see, pottering about the flower gardens with his secateurs and drinking tea with Gerard. He had a favourite Brother/Dad joke. ‘I’m Brother Eusebius,’ he’d say, then take off his glasses and wave them in front of his face. ‘You see be us.’ One of the rewards of reading this whole book was to discover that when three Brothers walked from Sydney to Mittagong in 1905 to take possession of the property, Eusebius was one of them. I don’t think any of us had a sense that this sweet old codger had a story to tell.

Broader issues are either mentioned in passing or glossed over. There is no mention of the pre-invasion history of the land, though if it were written today it would probably include an acknowlegement of Gundungurra and Dharawal people as the traditional owners. The seismic changes in the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council are deeply embedded in the narrative, perhaps, with no need to spell them out. And you would search in vain for any light cast on the child sexual assault scandals that had already rocked the Marist Brothers for some time before the book’s publication, though at least two of the men named in its pages had been convicted and, I believe, done time in prison.

In my own time at Mittagong, there was a moment which indicates a path that might have been taken.

During our time in the novitiate, one of the older Brothers spent an evening telling us his life story. The way the book tells it, the novices were enthralled by the rich and varied life he led before joining the order. That’s probably accurate, but only thing I remember from that evening is his explanation for why he was at Mittagong rather than teaching in a school.

He told us he had found himself attracted to a young boy, and immediately told the head of his community, who organised for him to be transferred to another school. It happened again, and this time it was agreed that he should be completely removed from proximity to young boys. He spent the rest of his life in charge of the dairy at Mittagong, admired and loved by successive generations of adolescents.

The message was clear: first, as a Brother you can have unexpected desires/impulses/temptations; second, you can and should immediately take steps to get you the fuck away from where you might do harm. Secrecy, denial and concealment would lead to serious trouble.

I think I understand why that version of the evening didn’t get into this book. But I think of that man as a hero. I don’t know how many groups of young men he told his story to, facing possible humiliation each time. We certainly weren’t the only one. Nor do I know how many children were spared from predatory Brothers by his cautionary example – not enough, but I hope there were some.

So thanks, Tony Butler, for the labour of love in compiling this chronicle. It brought back vivid memories, and stirred a good bit of thinking.

Claudia Rankine’s Just Us

Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation (Penguin 2021)

This is a wonderful book.

Note to Australian (and possibly other non-US) readers: Don’t be put off by the book’s self-description as ‘an American conversation’. It is deeply, intimately USian, but Claudia Rankine’s mind is to be learned from and loved by anyone with a heartbeat. The book’s central question is how people can reach for each other in human ways given the horrors of racism that divide us – and racism isn’t a uniquely US phenomenon.

Note to white readers, especially white male readers: Though these essays are mostly about racism as enacted and mistaken for reality, don’t read them in the spirit of self-lacerating virtue or grudging worthiness. They are exhilarating, challenging, inviting, occasionally funny. Almost every essay is written as part of a conversation. People quoted in the essays (including white men and white women) are given right of reply, adding unexpected perspectives and enriching the conversation wonderfully.

The title is a pun. The first of the book’s two epigraphs is a line from Richard Prior’s stand-up comedy:

You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.

In its original context, which you can see on YouTube, the line could be paraphrased: you look for justice in the criminal justice system but all you find is the targeting of Black people. Rankine’s use implies an additional possible reading: If you want justice, you have to find a way to make us all part of one ‘us’.

The book’s 19 essays and two poems are mostly printed only on the right-hand page of each spread. The left-hand page is sometimes blank, but mostly carries ‘notes and sources’, or images, or fact-checks. When a piece of police brutality is discussed on the recto, the verso might show how it was captured on camera. A general assertion on the right is backed up by statistics on the left. And so on. It’s an inspired design concept.

The opening essay starts with the author preparing to teach a class on whiteness at Yale University. After discussing some of what she asks of her students, the essay takes an interesting turn:

I wondered what it would mean to ask random white men how they understood their privilege. I imagined myself – a middle-aged black woman – walking up to strangers to do so. Would they react as the police captain in Plainfield, Indiana, did when his female colleague told him during a diversity training session that he benefited from ‘white male privilege’? He became angry and accused her of using a racialised slur against him. (She was placed on paid administrative leave and a reprimand was placed in her file.) Would I, too, be accused? Would I hear myself asking about white male privilege and then watch white man after white man walk away as if I were mute? Would they think I worked for Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, or Chelsea Handler and just forgot my camera crew? The running comment in our current political climate is that we all need to converse with people we don’t normally speak to, and though my husband is white, I found myself falling into easy banter with all kinds of strangers except white men. They rarely sought me out to shoot the breeze, and I did not seek them out. Maybe it was time to engage.

(‘liminal spaces 1’, page 19)

So we follow her as she shies away from the challenge a number of times, before finally hitting paydirt. On the way, she slips in a quick introduction to Peggy McIntosh’s popularising of the term ‘white privilege’, noting in passing that she would have preferred ‘white living’ because ‘”privilege” suggested white dominance was tied to economics’. She seamlessly invokes other scholarly and non-scholarly writing (including some excruciating Twitter threads). We hardly notice that we’re being educated as the suspense builds, and as a white male reader I found I had a lot invested in the project as well.

That essay sets the tone. Rankine is after conversation, not confrontation. She aims not to provoke defensiveness or denial but to learn something.

The subject matter of the following essays include revelatory moments in ‘diversity training’ workshops, including the one referred to in the quote above; her marriage; a meditation on Woman with Arm Outstretched, an art photograph by Paul Graham; white supremacist assumptions in the education system, specifically at her daughter’s school; the way different white and black people remember a cross-burning incident in her college days; a dinner party where she gets to be the ‘angry Black woman’ for insisting on the primacy of racism as a factor in Trump’s election; how racism plays out against Latinx and Asian people; and a brilliant discussion prompted by the moment at an all-Black dinner party when a professor asks her what to tell her black female students who bleach their hair blond. The essay on hair has the distinction of being the only essay/conversation where the right-of-reply takes the wind out of Rankine’s sails, when one of the young women under discussion gets to speak.

This book is evidently the third in a trilogy of sorts. Where this book is mainly essays, the earlier two are a mix of poetry and videos, sharing the subtitle An American Lyric. I haven’t seen Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), but I was completely enthralled by Citizen (2014, my blog post here), so I came to Just Us with high expectations. I was not disappointed. The book opens the world up to great possibilities.

To give Rankine the last word, here’s part of the left-hand-page commentary on the final spread:

A friend finished reading the final pages of Just Us and said flatly, there’s no strategy here. No? I asked. Her impatience had to do with a desire for a certain type of action. How to tell her, response is my strategy. …
For some of us, and I include myself here, remaining in the quotidian of disturbance is our way of staying honest until another strategy offers a new pathway, an as-yet-unimagined pathway that allows existing structures to stop replicating. Until then, to forfeit the ability to attempt again, to converse again, to speak with, to question, and to listen to, is to be complicit with the violence of an unchanging structure contending with the aliveness and constant movement of all of us.

And here are the final lines on the right-hand page:

What I know is that an inchoate desire for a future other than the one that seems to be forming our days brings me to a seat around any table to lean forward, to hear, to respond, to await response from any other.

Tell me something, one thing, the thing, tell me that thing.

The Iliad: Progress report 9

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 21 line 486 to Book 23 line 768

As I make my way through The Iliad, roughly 70 lines first thing each morning, I regularly encounter references to it in the rest of my day.

In my last progress report I quoted from Simone Weill’s 1939 essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force. Serendipity struck a couple of days later when, visiting the Queensland Art Gallery to see the wonderful Chiharu Shiota exhibition, I spotted a screen print waiting to be hung in a coming exhibition:

To save you the trouble of opening the image separately, the spiralling text is a quote from that same essay:

Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Force is that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all, this is the Spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.

The image is ‘Poem of Force’, one of a series of silkscreens in the Simone Weill Project by artists Janet Burchill and Janet McCamley. You can see a clean image of it here.

There has been some ludicrous comedy among the gods this month. Hera boxes Athena’s ears, and the latter runs to curl up weeping in the lap of Zeus. I tell you, after seeing the arbitrary, petty, infantile behaviour of the gods in this book, I’ve completely changed my attitude towards them.

But the main action has been the death of Hector, speared in the throat by Achilles. Hector dies a true hero’s death. He realises that his own heroics earlier have led to the deaths of many Trojans, and decides that the honourable thing to do is engage Achilles in personal combat, knowing the likely outcome. As Achilles approaches, Hector’s nerve fails and he runs, and the two run around the walls of Troy ‘endlessly as in a dream’. Then he stands to face Achilles once again. He offers a bargain: ‘If I kill you, I’ll ensure that your body is treated with full respect, and I ask you to do the same for me.’ Achilles, the embodiment of Simone Weill’s Force, refuses, and promises to leave Hector’s corpse to be eaten by dogs. At one stage he says, ‘I’d eat you raw.’ The gods step in for one last bit of disgusting cheatery, and Hector is slain.

Huge grief is unleashed among the Trojans. While I find it hard to read some of the Iliad‘s action scenes without a Marvel Universe version playing in my head, the scene where Andromache is interrupted at her embroidery and gives way to full-bodied lamentation completely transcends any such association. In particular, she wails for the fate of her son, who we met as a baby in Book 6:

The day that orphans a youngster cuts him off from friends. 
And he hangs his head low, humiliated in every way ... 
his cheeks stained with tears, and pressed by hunger 
the boy goes up to his father's old companions, 
tugging at one man's cloak, another's tunic, 
and some will pity him, true, 
and one will give him a little cup to drink,
enough to wet his lips, not quench his thirst.
But then some bully with both his parents living
beats him from the banquet, fists and abuses flying:
'You, get out – you've got no father feasting with us here!'
And the boy, sobbing, trails home to his widowed mother ...

Book 22 ends with her lament, and Book 23 turns to the grandiose ceremonies for Patroclus down by the Greek ships. It’s good to be reminded how deeply loved Patroclus was, and not just by Achilles, but the chariot race (mercifully conducted without godly interference) and then the bickering over prizes is a bit of an anticlimax. Where I left off this morning, two men were preparing to box, their eyes on a donkey-prize. It’s hard to credit that this book is the work of one writer.