Category Archives: Books

Bitter Root One and Two

Chuck Brown, David F Walker & Sanford Greene (creators), Rico Renzi & Sanford Greene (color artists), Clayton Cowles (letterer), Sanford Green (cover artist), Heather Antos (editor), plus backmatter by John Jennings, Kinitra Brooks, Regina N Bradley, Qiana Whitted, Stacey Robinson, Ceeon D Quiett Smith and fan artists, Bitter Root Volume One: Family Business (Issues #1–5, Image Comics 2020)

Chuck Brown, David F Walker & Sanford Greene (creators), Sofie Dodgson & Sanford Greene (color artists), Clayton Cowles (letterer), John Jennings (backmatter), Shelly Bond (editor), Joe Hughes (editor), plus Daniela Miwa, Lisa K Weber, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Daniel Lish, Chris Brunner, Rico Renzo, Khary Randolph, Matt Herms, Dietrich Smith and Anthony George as artists and color artists for individual stories, Bitter Root Volume Two: Rage & Redemption (Issues 6–10, plus Red Summer Special, Image Comics 2020)

You probably have to be a horror fan to enjoy this Eisner Award winning comic series. I’m not one. I find the award-winning art by Sanford Greene repulsive, as I’m meant to, but I’m also meant to enjoy it, which I don’t. I’m not the target audience.

But there’s a lot to appreciate. The storytelling is richly complex.The opening spread shows a nightclub in Harlem, 1924, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, where a crowd of African Americans are dancing exuberantly to jazz. A young couple head home across a park. In the final frame of the spread they are terrified by a pair of nasty claws looming over them. And we’re away.

If you plan to read these comics and prefer to let them unfold the story for you in their own intriguing way, stop reading now.

In this world, when people are infected by greed and hate, especially race-based hate, they become monsters called Jinoos. The central characters, the Sangeryes fight them, try to subdue them and where possible use compounds prepared by Ma Etta to cure them. There are other monsters, perhaps even more dangerous, created by pain and misery, and demons that come outside this world. We have no doubt of the goodness of the Sangeryes, but they too are vulnerable to infection, and one of them, a huge man with a penchant for big words, is flicking back and forth between being a monster and a decent human by the end of this book.

So there’s complex play of good and evil, characters you can feel for, plenty of violent action and horror gore, and underlying it all a non-too-subtle perspective on racism. Then there’s the ‘backmatter’. John Jennings, a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Riverside, kicks it off with a learned article on Afrofuturism and the EthnoGothic, placing this comic in a context that includes Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. There are articles on African American history, folk traditions and popular culture, and on key figures from the Harlem Renaissance, Alain LeRoy Locke and Zora Neal Hurston. Some might find this serious discussion to be awkwardly inappropriate for a comic – you know, ‘Can’t we just enjoy a bit of gore without being told how worthy it is?’ Tastes will differ. For me the backmatter made the gore almost enjoyable. John Jennings’s first piece ends:

The Bitter Root team should be very proud. Not just because they’ve created this ‘cool’ cultural artefact but because they’ve created a new thread in the ever growing and evolving tapestry of the American story, as told through the veiled and weary eyes of the black American citizen.

I find it reassuring that among the fan art that proliferates on the back pages is a powerful image of the matriarch Ma Etta by the scholarly John Jennings. He’s not writing from arm’s length.


I persevered with Book Two mainly because I’d been given these books as a birthday present and felt a kind of obligation to the giver.

I’m still not enamoured of the story, and I still find the artwork and colouring almost unreadably horrible. (The awards that these things have won indicate that my distaste says more about me than it does about the books.)The back cover informs us that there’s a movie in development with Ryan Coogler and Zinzi Evans, who have Black Panther in their show reel. Maybe the movie can transcend the horror genre just as Black Panther pretty much transcended the superhero genre. Maybe I’ll even go to see it.

Again, this volume has copious backmatter, thanks to which I know that the fantastical world of this comic has its basis in historical events: the Red Summer of 1921 and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. These events included not just lynching, arson and general violence against African Americans, but the destruction of 35 city blocks in Tulsa when incendiary devices were dropped from planes. The unleashing of hideous demonic forces makes a lot of sense as a metaphor for those events, and the struggles of the Sangerye family to deal with the consequences. (In this volume, Chinatown in New York City has a similar demonic invasion.)

I can imagine a horror devotee picking up these books and being launched on a journey of discovery by the historical and literary information packed into the back pages. They might explore rootwork and conjure; Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Hamilton and W E B DuBois; the Harlem Renaissance and the Tulsa Race Massacre. That can’t be a bad thing.

Proust Progress Report 20: Getting to the point

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2217–2272

I was away for a couple of weeks over Easter and didn’t take my whopping great copy of À la recherche with me. On top of that, I’ve been reading fewer pages at a sitting because, well, eyes. So I’m slowing down as I approach the end. All the better to savour it (le goûter), I suppose.

At the end of last month’s report I wrote:

According to the IMDB, a movie has been made of this book – either it’s a monumentally tedious movie in which people buttonhole each other on street corners or something is about to change in the next pages.

Well, something changes. Once M De Charlus goes on his way, the narrator is left to wander the dark wartime Parisian streets alone and with a fierce thirst. He enters a seedy hotel, the only building that shows signs of life, and there he overhears a group of young men speak of beating a chained captive. So of course, suspecting that a crime is in progress, he joins them for a chat. His suspicions confirmed, he goes snooping and fairly improbably gets to witness some consensual S&M that, if I grasped the tone accurately, has a broadly comic shock effect. Assuming that I don’t need to worry about spoilers nearly a hundred years after the book was published, I’ll just say that we get to see the dark side of M De Charlus at a ludicrous extreme, and at the same time feel compassion for his misery.

Then, after a time slip, the narrator has what I’m guessing is his final encounter with M De Charlus, who is at an even further and more pathetic extreme, having had a stroke.

At the point I’ve reached this month, three more things have happened: avoiding a carriage in the street, the narrator has stepped on two paving stones of unequal height; he has pressed a starched cloth to his lips; and he has heard a spoon tapped against a plate. Each of these events has triggered a spontaneous, vivid recall of a moment from the past, and has flooded him with intense, joyful emotion. He has been experiencing an overwhelming sense of failure and gloom at his impending death; these three tiny events completely change his mood and restore his confidence. On his way to a social engagement, he pauses to reflect on this transformation, and I guess these pages contain the heart of his thinking about memory and creativity. These triggered memories, quite different in kind from those that are like flicking through the pages of a picture book (feuilleter un livre d’images), allow one to transcend time and make contact with eternity, if only, paradoxically, for a brief moment. It speaks volumes that I’m no longer impatient with Proust’s longwinded and repetitive expositions: I’m now following their twists and turns with avid concentration.

Such unbidden flashes of complete recall, he muses, are like the things one finds in ‘the internal book of unknown signs’ (livre intériieur de signes inconnus), and it is the work of a writer to decipher these signs. This is where today’s reading ended:

Seule l’impression, si chétive qu’en semble la matière, si insaisissable la trace, est un critérium de vérité, et à cause de cela mérite seule d’être appréhendée par l’esprit, car elle est seule capable, s’il sait en dégager cette vérité, de l’amener à une plus grande perfection et de lui donner une pure joie. L’impression est pour l’écrivain ce qu’est l’expérimentation pour le savant, avec cette différence que chez le savant le travail de l’intelligence précède et chez l’écrivain vient après. Ce que nous n’avons pas eu à déchiffrer, à éclaircir par notre effort personnel, ce qui était clair avant nous, n’est pas à nous. Ne vient de nous-même que ce que nous tirons de l’obscurité qui est en nous et que ne connaissent pas les autres.

Here’s my translation, leaning heavily on Stephen Hudson’s first translation:

Intuition alone, however insubstantial it seems, however hard to grasp, is a criterion of truth and so it alone deserves to be seized by the mind because it alone is capable, if the mind can extract its truth, of bringing it to greater perfection and of giving it unalloyed pleasure. Intuition is for the writer what experiment is for the learned, with the difference that in the case of the learned the work of the intelligence precedes and in the case of the writer it follows. That which we have not had to decipher, to clarify by our own personal effort, that which was made clear before our arrival, is not ours. We ourselves produce only what we extract from the darkness within us which is unknown to others.

Things like the Dreyfus affair or a world war are just excuses for writers to avoid this hard work of figuring out what is actually going on in their own minds.

I imagine whole PhDs have been written about that contention. I’m just going to note it as an interesting and provocative author statement about this massive novel. Or I should say, the beginning of a complex, labyrinthine author statement which I will be reading over the next couple of days.

Kristen Lang’s Earth Dwellers

Kristen Lang, Earth Dwellers (Giramondo 2021)

I started reading Earth Dwellers when coming up for air during the horror stories of Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do. and then again during those in Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. Each of those books included its own relief from the horrors – one by cool-headed analytic journalism, the other by an intriguing structure and a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for digression – but I can’t begin to tell you what a relief Kristen Lang’s poetry was, what balm for the soul, right from the dedication:

For the wombats and the slime moulds ...

And for all who work to protect the entanglement, the networks of lives, billions of years in the making, by which the earth is more than stone.

These poems take us away from the troubled world of humans harming humans to intense, specific, tactile engagement with the non-human world. They take us to the tops of mountains, in Kristen Lang’s home state Tasmania and in the Himalayas; they take us on bush walks and visits to the ocean; to caves and the stars. They deal with the sublime and the intimate, sometimes in the same brief poem. They grieve and rage for the damage being inflicted on the planet by human activity, but always with a deep love and respect for this world. In these poems, the non-human world isn’t there as a metaphor or a mood indicator: there’s a consistently humble attempt to be present, to be aware of being part of it all: ‘We were never alone’ is how she puts it in ‘Wading with horseshoe crabs’.

As usual, I want to talk about just one poem. I’m picking ‘A small child finds a ladybird’:

(page 62)

This poem must surely strike a chord with anyone who has spent attentive time with a small child. Certainly I’ve been privy to many moments like this one, and felt a similar appreciative, possibly envious, awe at the intensity of a child’s gaze.

‘A small child finds a ladybird’ may be the only poem in this collection that focuses on a human character. Other poems have people in them, but they are companions to the speaker, neither addressed nor looked at directly, experiencing, observing, and being part of the natural world along with her. Here, it’s as if the poem’s speaker takes a step back, to observe the person experiencing, observing and being part of something.

The title of the poem sets up a strong mental image. A web image search on “small child ladybug” (‘-bug’ rather than ‘-bird’ in deference to US cultural dominance) gets you a cartload of cuteness, much of it cloying. That might be attractive to some readers but, for me and probably you, it establishes a central challenge for the poem: how to put words to that image that don’t regurgitate the pre-digested cutesyness. You might say that that’s a version of the central challenge for any poem, something to do with T S Eliot’s ‘tradition and the individual talent’, and I wouldn’t argue. This one meets the challenge like this in its opening lines:

Her squat-bodied
walk
crumbles under her –

Three things snag my attention: the words ‘squat-bodied’ and ‘crumbles’, and the way ‘walk’ has a line to itself. each of these things is sightly jarring, but if you hover over them you discover how well they communicate: the shape of a toddler, the kind of attention a toddler brings to the act of walking, and what happens when that attention goes elsewhere. It’s the walk that crumbles, not the child herself. This poem observes the child with the same precision that other poems in the book observe a platypus or floating filaments of gum blossom. If the reader wants to go down the cuteness path, the poem won’t stop them, but nor does it require them to go there.

In the next nine lines, the child is absorbed in the ladybird. She doesn’t simply have it on her fingertip. She is ‘all’ there with it. She hasn’t just stumbled when she sees the insect, she has taken on its qualities: the fall is red/ and black-spotted’. The way ‘fall’ has a line to itself, and gets extra emphasis from its rhyme with ‘all’ in line 4, prepares us for that interesting word ‘crux’ – as in crucial. This crumbled walk, this fall, hasn’t been an accident: it’s as if the rest of the day has been moving towards this crucial moment, and will emanate from it. ‘Bug-eyed’ takes on a richer meaning in this context: not just wide-eyed, but with eyes filled with the fascinating bug.

And then there’s ‘We’ – the poem’s speaker and us, the readers. We’re behind her, at a distance from the ladybird. And the last three lines are the second reason I wanted to write about this poem: it’s a kind of ars poetica. The wish expressed here, to have

________ even
half
of her gaze

is what Kristen Lang’s poems in general strive for. I know that as a reader I sometimes (often?) miss the metaphorical dimensions of poetry. So when someone writes that the world is grey in the moonlight, I take them at their word and have to be told if they’re talking about a terrible betrayal. But I don’t think I’m missing that kind of thing in these poems. In these poems, a mountain is a mountain, an iceberg an iceberg, a ladybird a ladybird. And there’s something profound in that


Earth Dwellers is the fifth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021. I’m grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Jeff Lemire’s Ascender Vol Three

Jeff Lemire & Dustin Nguyen (storytellers), Steve Wands (lettering and design), Will Dennis (editor), and Tyler Jennes (assistant editor on issues 13 and 14), Ascender Volume Three: The Digital Mage (Image Comics 2020, from issues 11–14 of the comic)

A quick Duck Duck Go reveals that Volume 3 was published in December, so it may well arrive in Sydney in time to be a March birthday gift.

That was my January wish. In March it was granted.

I don’t have a lot to say about Volume Three of this space saga that wouldn’t be simply repeating what I said about the first two volumes (here, if you’re interested).

Suffice it to say the forces of evil become more formidable, and close in our fugitive bands; more of the original group of bickering good guys are reunited; new good guys turn up and spill a lot of vampire blood; the quest that has animated these three volumes is completed; and at the heart of it all is a vulnerable little girl. What’s not to like?

Among many good things, Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen have a great gift for final moments. At the end of this volume, the little girl and her companions arrive in a new place, and one they have recognised the people they find there, this dialogue happens in the last three panels:

You're just in time?

Time? Time for what?

Time to save the universe

It will probably be at least six months until Volume 4 appears. Maybe I can wait until Christmas.

Colum McCann’s Apeirogon

Colum McCann, Apeirogon (2020)

Apeirogon is not a meal but a table littered with ingredients: a paw of garlic, a frozen lamb shank, two potatoes, a big knob of celeriac, three peas. (Dwight Garner in the New York Times)

It’s a masterpiece, a novel that will change the world, and you don’t hear that very often. (Alex Preston in The Guardian)

I tend to agree with both critics. On the one hand, by design, Apeirogon is made up of numbered fragments, ranging from just a few words to several pages, but most a single paragraph. It takes a while to get one’s bearings, and once you’ve got them you might still be irritated by fragments like the one that explains why the sugar dextrose got its name, or the many that describe bird life. On the other hand, the central story is a compelling account of two men, an Israeli and a Palestinian, whose young daughters were killed, one by a suicide bomber and the other by a callous exercise of state-sanctioned violence, who now travel the world telling their stories and arguing for peace between Israel and Palestine. They are real men, members of real organisations (Combatants for Peace and Parents Circle – Families Forum) that promote this form of activism.

The irritation almost got the upper hand for me in the early pages. It’s always a bad sign when I slip into proofreader mode, and that happened here when some birds are ‘held by their feet over a vat of pure Armagnac, dipped head first and drowned alive’. My mental blue pencil scribbled in the margin: ‘Delete “alive”. If something is drowned, by definition it’s alive before dipping.’ Happily, apart from one section that simply lists without comment 36 species of birds that are seen over the West Bank (a list that’s repeated in the final sections), irritation soon gave way to full engagement.

A structure emerges. First, there are 500 fragments numbered in ascending order, in which the Israeli man, Rami Elhanan, rides a motorbike to a gathering in an ancient monastery in the Left Bank, culminating in a version of his ‘talk’: his life story, the murder of his daughter, his peace advocacy. At the centre is a fragment numbered 1001, a single, beautifully Proustian sentence that describes the location, purpose and participants of the gathering, with an implicit descriptionj of the nature of the book we are reading. The audience in the monastery, ‘you and me’,

sit for hours, eager, hopeless, buoyed confused, cynical, complicit, silent, our memories imploding, our synapses skipping, in the gathering dark, remembering, while listening, all of those stories that are yet to be told.

(Page 229)

A second fragment 500 follows, in which the Palestinian man, Bassam Aramin, gives his talk, and we count down back to 1, as Bassam drives home to where his wife is waiting for him.

That’s the underlying structure. But a reader opening the book at random would mostly be hard pressed to tell where they were along that arc if not for the identifying numbers. The stories of the deaths of both girls and their aftermaths are told in fragments throughout both parts. The stories of their parents lives and post-tragedy activism likewise. The frustrating and often humiliating experience of passing through an Israeli checkpoint. The history of Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle, as well as both men’s tentative first joining them. And in what I now take to be an enactment of a listener’s mind – synapses skipping, remembering ‘all of those stories’ – there are shiny fragments: François Mitterand’s last meal, observations of bird life, mathematical curiosities, a performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the Nazi camp in Theresienstadt, facts about birdlife, Christopher Costigan’s ill-fated exploration of the Dead Sea, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philippe Petit’s highwire walk over Jerusalem in 1987, Peter Brook’s performances of The Conference of Birds in Saharan villages … the list could go on, and on. There are two Australian connections: an Australian tourist set fire to the Al-Aqsa mosque in 1969, and an Australian artist, Janet Venn-Brown, was effectively widowed by Mossad agents’ assassination in 1972 of Palestinian poet and translator Wael Zuaiter.

An apeirogon is a polygon with a countably infinite number of sides. I don’t even know what that means. I suppose as a title for this book it suggests the futility of trying to understand the situation in Israel and Palestine as simply two-sided, though the book isn’t so much an infinite sided shape as a piling up of fragments along a barely discernible straight line. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Why not just tell the story straight? It’s a question I asked, especially when I got irritated – as by the short explanation of how the sugar dextrose got its name. I do think it works, this piling up of detail, ranging from incidents immediately relevant to the main story, to things the writer has retrieved from his personal rabbit-holes. At least, I was completely absorbed. I’d heard of Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, now I feel that I know about them, have a better grasp of what they’re up against and what they are doing, and am invested in it. So when the author’s acknowledgements end with contact details of organisations one can send contributions to, it feels as if it’s anticipating the reader’s desire rather than tacking on a plea for funds.

Also, apart from those birds who are drowned alive, it’s beautifully written.

2021 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist

The shortlist for the 2021 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards has been announced. The State Library of NSW has the full list on its website, but you have to do a lot of clicking back back and forth to read it.

Here’s an attempt tp make the list accessible in one place, and in the order that the awards are generally announced on the big night. If you click on a title you will be taken to the judges’ comments. I’ve also added links to the very few titles that I’ve read and blogged about. In memory of my youthful enjoyment of betting on roulette, I’ve bolded the titles I’m tipping to win.

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize

If I remember correctly, in the past this award was given to translators without being tied to a particular book. This year it’s for ‘a translation in book form’.

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

Multicultural NSW Award

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

Awards that don’t have shortlists

  • Residents of New South Wales can vote for any of the titles on the Christina Stead Prize shortlist for the People’s Choice Award (click here to vote)
  • The judges get to choose from among the winners of the other categories for the Book of the Year award
  • The judges can make a Special Award for a) an Australian literary work that is not readily covered by the existing categories; b) a lifetime achievement award for an Australian writer (this is also known as the Kiss of Death Award, though several people have lived on after receiving it); or c) a significant contribution to the literary life of Australia.

The winners will be announced online on Monday 26 April at 7.30 pm (AEST), and on Tuesday 27 April at 11.30 am at the State Library of NSW and online, the winners will do readings, as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

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Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do

Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse (Black Inc 2019)

As I’m writing this blog post, allegations of men in the Australian Parliament abusing women currently and historically are dominating the news cycle, and the frighteningly inadequate responses of the powerful are on display. It’s a very difficult time for women who have survived abuse, and probably not a good time for them to read this book, which isn’t about the kind of abuse that’s in the news, but, well, I imagine it’s close enough to make the unbearable climate even worse. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, in happier times and without a personal history of abuse, but when I reached the acknowledgements at the end and read Jess Hill’s appreciation for her male soulmate who had backed her in the arduous four years of writing, and her delight in her witty and charismatic two-year-old daughter, I almost wept. It was like emerging from a vision of hell to be reminded that fresh air and sunshine exist, that there are decent men and happy little girls in the world.

But let me say right up front that although it gives many detailed accounts of hideous violence and abusive behaviour, this is not a book that wallows in the horrible. Hard as it is to read – and, I imagine, immeasurably harder to research and write – it’s a serious, level-headed attempt to anatomise the phenomenon of domestic abuse, to understand the perpetrators and the victims, to give an account of the way police, the courts and lawmakers have dealt with the issue, and to cast about for examples of more effective measures. In a prefatory note, Hill explains that she did her best to ‘flip’ the usual journalist–source power imbalance: where she told a survivor’s story (and there are many) as far as possible the subject/source of the story had a chance to read a draft, and suggest changes and, especially, deletions. One chapter begins with a couple of paragraphs acknowledging an extraordinary woman whose story was central to that chapter, but had to be withdrawn at the last minute because of major safety concerns.

The first chapter. ‘The Perpetrator’s Handbook’, describes the remarkable similarity of the techniques used by domestic abusers, across all locations, cultures and social status. ‘It’s like you go to abuse school,’ one reformed abuser told Hill. ‘They all do it.’ Stunningly, the suite of techniques was identified by a scholar seeking to understand how US prisoners of North Korea during the Korean War had their spirits broken. In the 1950s there was talk of ‘brainwashing’, a semi-mystical process. Now it is understood to have been coercive control, a term that is explored at length in this book. The Korean War researcher, Albert Biderman,

established that three primary elements were at the heart of coercive control: dependency, debility and dread. To achieve this effect, the captors used eight techniques: isolation, monopolisation of perception, induced debility or exhaustion, cultivation of anxiety and despair, alternation of punishment and reward, demonstrations of omnipotence, degradation and the enforcement of trivial demands. Biderman’s ‘Chart of Coercion’ showed that acts of cruelty that appeared at first to be isolated were actually intricately connected. It was only when these acts were seen together that the full picture of coercive control became clear.

Physical violence isn’t a necessary part of the system. Hill’s prefatory note says that as she came to understand her subject, she had to go back and change most references to ‘domestic violence’ in her text to ‘domestic abuse’. It’s not uncommon, she says, for an abuser’s first act of physical violence to result in the victim’s death.

The techniques are virtually universal, but perpetrators do exist on a spectrum. ‘It can be hard to pinpoint where garden-variety fighting ends and domestic abuse begins,’ Hill writes, but actual abusers fall into two types: insecure reactors, ‘who don’t completely subordinate their partners, but use emotional or physical violence to gain power in the relationship’; and coercive controllers, who ‘micromanage the lives of their victims, prevent them from seeing friends and family, track their movements and force them to obey a unique set of rules’.

Chapter 2, ‘The Underground’, discusses the dark and extensive world of women who are abused, behind closed doors and hidden in plain sight. It addresses the question, ‘Why do women stay in abusive relationships?’, or rather gives a brief history of victim-blaming answers that have been given given until alarmingly recently, then discusses structural and psychological difficulties in the way of leaving, and many modes of resistance.

Chapter 3 to 5 address the key question: not ‘Why does she choose to stay?’ but ‘Why does he choose to abuse her again?’ In these chapters, Jess Hill never falls into all-men-are-bastards rhetoric. Some men do monstrous things, but it’s important not to simply dismiss them as monsters. To understand everything may not mean to forgive everything. It certainly doesn’t mean anything is to be minimised. But to understand is an important step on the way to putting things right. Hill describes research that categorises coercive controllers as either cold, calculating ‘cobras’ or morbidly jealous, paranoid ‘pit bulls’, with a third type of violent man, the ‘family-only batterer’, who can be just as dangerous but needs different responses. It’s not always easy to tell which category a particular man belongs to, and there’s plenty of slippage between the categories, but the distinctions are useful – there can be no one-size-fits-all response to domestic abuse. Two superb chapters deal respectively with shame, which when linked to a sense of entitlement lies at the base of much male violence, and patriarchy, the overarching system that permeates cultures, and inhabits the minds of perpetrators, victims, responders and bystanders alike.

I’ve lived in a number of all-male environments – boarding schools and religious communities. I’ve participated in many men’s groups and workshops where we grapple with masculinity, sexism and male domination. I love my all-male book group. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a woman writing with such force and clarity, and also compassion, about male conditioning and its potential for disaster. If you’re interested but the prospect of reading all 371 pages of this book is too daunting, I recommend these three chapters.

The bone-chilling chapter 6, ‘Children’, includes a discussion of complex PTSD (which Rick Morton has just written a book about) and the ever-present tragic possibility that a son will follow in his abusive father’s footsteps. Chapter 7, on women who use violence, points to the key difference that without the backing of patriarchy and male conditioning, they are unlikely to have their partners living in fear for their lives. Chapter 8, ‘State of Emergency’, discusses the resources available to a woman trying to escape a dangerously abusive situation:

Women don’t just leave domestic abuse – they journey away from it, step by step. There is no straight path out – it’s a game of snakes and letters, and women can slip back underground just when they’re about to escape. This means that any potential escape route needs attention and support.

Speaking of these resources – police, refuges, the law, the health system – Hill says, ‘Often, the stories with the worst endings are not blockbuster horror stories, but catalogues of negligence, laziness and procedural error.’

Possibly the most distressing chapter of all is Chapter 9, which deals with the Family Court of Australia. Its title, ‘Through the Looking Glass’, tells you a lot about it. Contrary to the much lobbied argument that fathers are badly done by in the family law system, Hill argues that it is the other way around. The use of untrained ‘single experts’ to make judgements about custody, the invocation of the discredited Parental Alienation Syndrome by which a mother is held to be responsible if children are frightened of their father, and a general discounting of women’s and children’s voices make for a hideous mess. If anything the stories here of women and children being betrayed by the law are even more horrifying than the stories of actual abuse.

Since the book was published the Family Court of Australia has been abolished as a freestanding institution, and merged with the Federal Circuit Court. Sadly, it seems likely that this will only make things worse, because it will continue the erosion of resources from family law that has been steadily happening since John Howard’s prime ministership.

The penultimate chapter, ‘Dadirri’, deals with the way intergenerational trauma and grief from colonisation and genocidal policies – including the widespread disruption of families by child removals – put a rocket under issues of domestic abuse for First Nations people. The notion that violence against women is ‘cultural’ is given short and convincing shrift. Hill argues, with evidence, that domestic abuse was more prevalent and tolerated to a greater extent in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England than in pre-invasion Australia. There are stories of powerful initiatives taken. For example, Indigenous women in the remote community of Yungngora in the central Kimberley made it happen that disruptive behaviour would result in expulsion from the community for three months after three warnings: ‘In twelve months, domestic violence went from six per week to none‘ (page 334).

The final chapter, ‘Fixing It’, manages to be convincingly, if guardedly, upbeat. ‘Social problems often seem insurmountable,’ Hill writes, ‘until they’re not.’ She makes the obvious point that more funding is needed by emergency services, and is scathing about the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children: it has no clear targets, and tackles domestic violence as an attitude problem’:

The mission to transform attitudes to gender inequality and violence is laudable, and will no doubt produce important cultural changes. But as a primary strategy for reducing domestic abuse, it is horribly inadequate. Why do we accept that it will take decades – possibly generations – to reduce domestic abuse? Why isn’t long-term prevention work paired with a relentless focus on doing everything possible to reduce violence today? Why do successive governments insist that reducing domestic abuse is a matter of changing attitudes – or, at best, parking the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff? How on earth did public officials decide that surveying community attitudes was the best way to measure whether their strategy to reduce violence was working?

There are places where initiatives have had substantial success in reducing domestic abuse. The High Point Initiative in North Carolina, which you can read about here, has been amazingly effective. It has clear goals, and has police cooperating with service providers to call out perpetrators publicly and make public the severe consequences of future offences. And promising things are happening in Bourke in New South Wales, where a community led program brings services together, with daily check-ins, and cooperates with the police, whose commitment to deal with domestic violence has been organised as Operation Solidarity. Without a big government spend, stunning results have been achieved:

Across the Darling River Local Area Command, domestic homicides dropped from seven in 2015–2016 … to zero for the following 18 months. By 2018, the repeat victimisation rate – which was twice the state average – was also down by a third. Victims have greater trust in police: the number who cooperated with police to pursue legal action is up, from an average of 68 per cent in 2016 to 85 per cent in 2018. And even with this increased legal action, at 75 per cent – something which [the Police Superintendent in charge of Bourke police] puts down to the fact that their prosecutor has been trained to properly understand domestic abuse.

See What You Made Me Do won the 2020 Stella Prize and has received a lot of publicity, but my sense is that it hasn’t been widely read. If I’m right, that’s a shame. It’s journalism at its best, bringing people’s stories into the light, making important research available, and demonstrating that it’s possible to think, and to hope, about a seemingly intractable subject.

A TV series his scheduled to be shown on SBS later this year, and there’s a video of Jess Hill talking at an event run by the NSW Agency for Clinical Innovation at this link.


See What You Made Me Do is the fourth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Ruby Reads 24: Visiting the library

All but the first of these books were read during two visits to the wonderful Marrickville Library. The first was a gift from a friend.


Margaret Mahy, The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate (Puffin 1996)

This is one of the great picture books. A drab little man who works in a soul-destroyingly dull job has a large, exuberant mother who used to be a pirate. He has never even seen the sea until, at her request, he wheels her over a long distance down to the coast. On the way, in spite of the discouraging comments from a philosopher and others they encounter, he becomes increasingly enraptured by the idea of the sea. When they arrive, the reality is overwhelmingly more impressive than his imaginings. (The opposite of Proust, you could say.) In Margaret Chamberlain’s illustrations, the little man’s transformation is wonderful to behold, as iss the mother’s exuberance and the stunning beauty of the sea.

A Catholic priest once told me he used this book as the basis for sermons. Ruby quite likes it, asked for it more than once, but it’s not a great favourite (yet, he added hopefully).


Margaret Mahy (words) and Jonathan Allen (pictures), The Great White Man Eating Shark (Puffin 1989)

This is another of my favourite picture books. Norvin is an unprepossessing boy and failed actor. He loves to swim, ‘to cut through the water like a silver arrow’, but other people at the beach always get in the way. He decides to capitalise on his appearance and his acting skills and disguises himself as a shark. When the other bathers panic, he has the beach all to himself … until a lady shark comes along and is beguiled by his gorgeous sharkiness. Jonathan Allen’s illustrations strike a perfect note that combines silliness and threat.

In spite of Ruby’s love of ‘Baby Shark‘ (if you don’t know about that song, click on the link), her current love of swimming, and her enduring love of pretend games, this book sadly failed to hit the spot (yet, I say again).


Atinuke (words) and Angela Brooksbank (images) B Is for Baby (Walker Books 2019)

This is not an alphabet book. It’s entirely about the letter B. And somehow that’s perfect for Ruby just now. She can recognise all the letters of the alphabet, and having one of them have a whole book to itself appeals to her. Especially when it’s identified with a brilliant little baby.

Evidently Atinuke, originally from Nigeria and currently living in Wales, has written a number of books featuring this baby. I don’t know if Angela Brooksbank has illustrated them all. I hope so, because the warmth and sheer life of these images is a tonic for the heart.


Bec Barnes, My Rhino Is Better Than Yours (David Fickling 2020)

The recurrent phrase, ‘The rhino that I know is better than yours,’ works like a charm. Two children, a boy and a girl, compete for the title of best rhino owner, their claims for their respective toys becoming more and more hyperbolical, and incidentally transgressing all sorts of gender-specific boundaries. Not just the rhyme, but the concept and the final resolution, in which a real rhino turns up and threatens to eat both children, work a treat. I approached this book with dread, but came very quickly to share Ruby’s love of it.


Lizi Boyd, I Wrote You a Note (Chronicle Books 2017)

As with the rhino book, the rhyme of this title, which I would barely have noticed, appeal hugely to this three-and-a-quarter-year-old. She chanted it over and over in the car on the way home from the library.

A young person’s note is found by a series of creatures who miraculously don’t chew it, or rip it, or soak it, and in the end it finds it way to its intended reader. Ruby loves to draw pictures for (and of) absent loved ones. This book is right up her alley.

The cover gives a good idea of the subtle style of illustration.


Andrew Joyner, The Pink Hat (Schwartz and Wade 2017)

Like I Wrote You a Note, this picture book follows the vicissitudes of an inanimate object – in this case a pink knitted hat – as it is claimed by one creature or person after another and then escapes them. This time, the the hat doesn’t just end up with the young person it is intended for, but with her it joins a sea of pink knitted hats at the great Women’s March of 2017. It’s a brilliant example of a book that is deeply satisfying on a number of levels. Andrew Joyner, an Australian who has illustrated for my beloved School Magazine, says on his website:

Inspired by the 5 million people (many of them children) in 82 countries who participated in the 2017 Women’s March, this is a book that celebrates girls and women and equal rights for all! 

I’ll keep an eye out for his Stand Up! Speak Up!, a story inspired by the Climate Change Revolution, which may be a little old for Ruby for another year or so.

Proust Progress Report 19: Mentioning the War

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2151–2215

This month’s whole reading has been preoccupied with the War: how it has affected Parisian fashion and the salons, especially Mme Verdurin’s little band of fidèles; how different kinds of masculinity respond to the ardures of combat (the French equivalent of stiff upper lips as opposed to the transmutation of homosexual desire into praise for gallantry; the ridiculousness of people having strong opinions of things they know nothing about; the persistence of Napoleonic strategies in a world that has changed; the hypocrisy of ‘experts’ …). Robert is becoming more like a version of M. De Charlus, and M. De Charlus himself buttonholes the narrator to express his disdain for unthinking patriotism and his sympathy for the Kaiser (whom he confesses he hasn’t written to since the War started, except perhaps once). In the last couple of pages, we are given a flashforward to a shocking revelation about M. De Charlus and Morel, and hopefully an indication that the story is to progress.

I photographed two passages on my way. In the first, the narrator notes that Gilberte’s butler believed what he reads in the newspapers when he must have known from experience that reality was otherwise:

Mais on lit les journaux comme on aime, un bandeau sur les yeux. On ne cherche pas à comprendre les faits. On écoute les
douces paroles du rédacteur en chef comme on écoute les paroles de sa maîtresse. On est battu et content parce qu’on
ne se croit pas battu mais vainqueur.

(page 2173)

My translation:

But we read the newspapers as we love, with a blindfold over our eyes. We don’t try to understand the facts. We listen to the sweet words of the editor as to the words of our mistress. We are beaten and happy because we believe ourselves not to be beaten but victorious.

So the information bubble was already there in Proust’s time.

In the other passage, M. De Charlus reflecting on the way Parisians ignore the war raging a short distance for them, but he could be prophesying about the pandemic and the climate emergency almost exactly a century later:

Les gens vont d’habitude à leurs plaisirs sans penser jamais que, si les influences étiolantes et modératrices venaient à cesser, la prolifération des infusoires atteignant son maximum, c’est-à-dire faisant en quelques jours un bond de plusieurs millions de lieues, passerait d’un millimètre cube à une masse un million de fois plus grande que le soleil, ayant en même temps détruit tout l’oxygène, toutes les substances dont nous vivons ; et qu’il n’y aurait plus ni humanité, ni animaux, ni terre, ou sans songer qu’une irrémédiable et fort vraisemblable catastrophe pourra être déterminée dans l’éther par l’activité incessante et frénétique que cache l’apparente immutabilité du soleil : ils s’occupent de leurs affaires sans penser à ces deux mondes, l’un trop petit, l’autre trop grand pour qu’ils aperçoivent les menaces cosmiques qu’ils font planer autour de nous.

(p 2189)

My translation (taking quite a few liberties):

People go about their habitual pleasures without ever thinking that, if etiolating and moderating influences were to cease, microscopic organisms would proliferate to their maximum, that is to say, make a leap of many millions of leagues in a few days, and so expand from cubic millimetres to a mass a million times larger than the sun, in the process destroying all the oxygen, all the substances that we need in order to live; without ever thinking that if that were to happen there would no longer be any humanity, or animals, or earth. They don’t dream that an irremediable and quite realistic catastrophe could be set off in the ether by the incessant and frantic energy that lies behind the apparent immutability of the sun. They go about their business without a thought for these two worlds, one too small and the other too large for them to perceive the cosmic threats that hover around us. 

Both Proust and his main translator Charles Scott Moncrieff died before this book could be published. (It was translated by Scott Moncrieff’s friend Sydney Schiff, under the pseudonym Stephen Hudson.) I’m still hopeful that Proust managed to get things resolved to his satisfaction, leaving just some polishing undone. According to the IMDB a movie has been made of this book – either it’s a monumentally tedious movie in which people stand on street corners haranguing each other or something is about to change in the next pages.

Jennifer Maiden’s Biological Necessity

Jennifer Maiden, Biological Necessity (Quemar Press 2021)

For some time now, Jennifer Maiden has produced new poetry collections almost as regularly as the earth revolves around the sun. Giramondo published five books between 2010 and 2017, handsomely designed by Harry Williamson. Since then Quemar Press, the publishing company created and run by Maiden’s daughter Katharine Margot Toohey, has published a collection of her poetry at the beginning of each year (as well as Selected Poems 2017–2018, a number of novels and two other slim non-poetry books authored or co-authored by Maiden). Biological Necessity is the fourth new collection.

I look forward to each new book in much the way I’ve looked forward to each new season of, say, Call My Agent.

I want to know what happens next in a number of continuing narratives. Maiden’s fictional characters George Jeffreys and Clare Collins continue to turn up in international hotspots – in Biological Necessity, they spend time in Covid quarantine at Darling Harbour, and they talk to Donald Trump by Skype on 2020 election night (in a poem published before the votes were counted). Her versions of real people living and dead continue to chat with each other, at least one person in each chat having just woken up as if a switch has turned them on in the poet’s inner mind – here Eleanor Roosevelt’s ambivalence about Hillary Clinton reaches a kind of peak in her 17th poem; and Gore Vidal continues to hover around Julian Assange. Maiden’s incarnation of the Carina Galaxy as a sixties bombshell, last seen several books ago, makes a repeat appearance.

Surrounding the narratives, a sprawling, multi-faceted conversation has continued over the years, a conversation largely about politics and abuses of power. There are Diary Poems, which usually include ‘Uses of … ‘ in the title: in this book, poems meditate on the uses of biological necessity (Aneurin Bevan said that socialism was a biological necessity), indigo (the colour), Sacha Baron Cohen (for his performance in The Trial of the Chicago 7) and Finnegans Wake. In them, and in Maiden’s poems generally, there’s a quality of heightened chattiness: a subject is announced in the opening lines, and is reflected on; then, sometimes as if distracted by a random association, the poem veers off, and perhaps veers off again, always to interesting places, sometimes to recondite ones such as, in this book, Bolivian elections or Andean mountain cats; those different veerings crisscross one another, and – to mix my metaphors – weave something new. I love this process; it’s like listening to someone’s mind doing the basic work of thinking, meditatively and associatively.

The poems/conversation/meditations generally deal with topics more usually found in op-ed journalism: Julian Assange, Ghislaine Maxwell, Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg, Syria, Covid–19, the CIA, right-wing cultural machinations. But it wouldn’t do them justice to read them as op-eds cut up to look like verse, with an occasional rhyme for good measure. We don’t read them so much to find out what Jennifer Maiden thinks, or to learn about the world (though they often send me searching the web), or to debate a position, but rather to enjoy the carefully-crafted illusion that we are listening to the poet in the act of thinking.

Usually when I write about a book of poetry I focus on a single poem. So hard to choose! ‘After the Volcano’, which revolves around a poem by Martin Johnston that Jennifer Maiden read at a zoom event, which I attended, marking the 30th anniversary of Martin’s death? One of the excellent Covid poems? ‘The Watchchain’, on a family story of a watchchain made from a dead woman’s hair? I ended up choosing ‘A somewhat consistent rule’, because it’s one of the shortest in the book, and can be captured in a single scan. (If you can’t read it easily here, you can find it on page 39 of the pdf sampler from this book on the Quemar website.)

Text can be seen at page 39 of https://quemarpress.weebly.com/uploads/8/6/1/4/86149566/biological_necessity_jennifer_maiden_sampler_28_2_21.pdf

We know from the prose introduction – unusually long and informative for a Jennifer Maiden poem – that this is one of her poems inspired by the travails of Julian Assange, of which the short lyric ‘My Heart Has an Embassy‘ is perhaps the best known. The quote is from Clive Stafford Smith’s official witness statement at the Assange hearing in September 2020, which is available as a PDF at this link (see paragraph 86). It not only announces the poem’s context, but also identifies the ‘rule’ of the title: it could almost stand alone as a found poem. In reading this poem, it’s important to note that the statement was read aloud in court.

I don’t know how this poem would work for a reader unfamiliar with Jennifer Maiden’s work. I read it as part of a web of poems that relate to each other in form and content. The first line places it in a long series of Maiden’s poems that open with someone waking up, all the way back to when it was always George Jeffreys waking up to see George W Bush on television obsessing about Iraq. Specifically, it’s at least the fifth poem, and not the last, in which Gore Vidal wakes up. He is Maiden’s main conduit for engaging with Assange (along with Diana Spencer and Emma Goldman in previous poems). He’s not a completely arbitrary choice: Assange was clutching a book by Vidal when he was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in April 2019, which led to Vidal feeling ‘quite possessive of his reader’ (‘Resistance’, The Espionage Act, page 6).

The next two lines mark a departure in the ‘woke up’ poems. Vidal doesn’t simply snap awake as in these poems previously, but the waking process continues for the whole poem: ‘the world returned to him in bits’, and the lines that follow show us the bits. (As my regular readers know, I’m currently reading À la recherche du temps perdu, and am reminded that Proust’s narrator takes several pages to describe such a bit-by-bit waking up.) Not yet fully awake, Vidal finds a focus in the words of Stafford Smith about the boy

who was no doubt concerned, civic-souled and mild:
not dangerous enough to live, poor child.

It’s worth noticing the deliberate use of rhyme. In ‘mild’ / ‘child’, and later in ‘scorn’ / ‘porn’, ‘joy’ / ‘boy’, and ‘awkwardly, he’ / ‘mystery’, there’s a whiff of, say, Alexander Pope’s classic rhyming couplets:

Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
All but the page prescrib'd, their present state

Maiden’s couplets don’t aspire to that magisterial authority. They don’t scan beautifully like Pope’s, but the rhyme does suggest a connection to that tradition, in which the poet casts a withering eye on hypocrisy and pretension.

The next three lines, in a characteristic Maiden move, invoke insider gossip about public events. I assume that Jennifer Maiden, who lives in Western Sydney, doesn’t have much access to US intelligence agents, so what Vidal remembers hearing is probably as much an invention as the awakening Vidal himself. But it’s plausible, and here the ‘TV’ / ‘conveniently’ rhyme adds a hint of dark comedy.

Vidal’s focus on ‘the words of Stafford Smith’ ends with the chilling general implication that being seen as harmless, far from meaning one will be ignored, might actually be a threat.

Then the poem veers. In nine or ten lines, Vidal pictures, one of the postage-stamp images that he wakes to, the magistrate hearing Assange’s case.

a magistrate showing her luxuries of scorn
at the defence, like something out of porn
he would still quite like to write.

In real life this is Vanessa Baraitser. I found this description by John Pilger:

Her face was a progression of sneers and imperious indifference; she addressed Julian with an arrogance that reminded me of a magistrate presiding over apartheid South Africa’s Race Classification Board …

When [Julian Assange] spoke truth and when his barrister spoke, Baraitser contrived boredom; when the prosecuting barrister spoke, she was attentive. She had nothing to do; it was demonstrably preordained. In the table in front of us were a handful of American officials, whose directions to the prosecutor were carried by his junior; back and forth this young woman went, delivering instructions.

The judge watched this outrage without a comment.

(At https://wikispooks.com/wiki/Vanessa_Baraitser)

‘Luxuries of scorn’ isn’t too bad a summing-up. ‘Porn’ in the next line isn’t an arbitrary rhyme: it’s Gore Vidal who is seeing these things, and though I don’t know if he write any porn, he was interested in sexuality as much as in politics.

I found the photo of Baraitser poised at an exhibition with a champagne glass as described in the next lines. It’s here if you’re interested, but it doesn’t add a lot. The word image is strong enough. The next lines do a lot of work:

________________________ virginal with joy:
a living dual passport, with the innocence of a boy
trusting that power is too dangerous to die

‘Virginal with joy’ contrasts with Vidal’s associating the magistrate’s manner with porn. The use of passport as a metaphor for two-facedness reminds even those of us who haven’t followed Assange’s trials closely that passports and citizenship have been an issue. The phrase ‘too dangerous to die’ echoes ‘not dangerous enough to live’ from earlier in the poem. The magistrate has dual identities, on the one hand an innocent viewer of art ‘poised at an exhibition’ and on the other an agent of oppression (hinting at one of Maiden’s themes that reactionary forces manipulate art and literature for political ends); innocence and trust are attributed to her, but rendered nastily ironic by the phrase ‘of a boy’, recalling the boy who was killed by forces that the magistrate is at least indirectly abetting.

The next lines – ‘She had rescinded permission …’ – refer to her action that’s on the public record, but the poem is doing more than simply stating the facts. The scare quotes around ‘control’, taken together with ‘remote, are a nod and a wink towards the deadly drones that are the background to the hearing and to the poem. without any big display, the found language of the court is being harnessed to remind us that the courtroom procedures are intimately connected to murder by drone in Afghanistan.

I had trouble parsing the final five lines:

____________________________________ But
as Stafford Smith said, 'somewhat consistent rule', 
from nowhere the slowly-integrating Vidal
had arrived in the public gallery, unreal
as justice, and innocently, awkwardly, he
returned her gaze: a somewhat final mystery.

Once I realised that ‘as Stafford Smith said’ means not, ‘in agreement with Stafford Smith,’ but, ‘at the moment when Stafford Smith was saying,’ the penny dropped. Stafford Smith’s witness statement isn’t a document being recalled here, but the spoken background to the poem’s action. At the beginning, when Gore Vidal ‘was focused by the words of Stafford Smith’, he was waking up, bit by bit, to the sound of Stafford Smith’ evidence, and hearing the story of the boy killed by drones is what makes him fully present ‘from nowhere’. The poem’s action is the imaginary Gore Vidal’s coming to full wakefulness.

‘Unreal as justice’: yes, the poem is saying, this Gore Vidal is imaginary, coming ‘from nowhere’, but so is any justice that Assange will receive in this court. Innocence and awkwardness aren’t words that have often been applied to Gore Vidal, one of last century’s most wickedly sophisticated writers, but even he must experience that first moment of wakefulness as an awkward freshness. His sharp intelligence meets the gaze of the morally compromised magistrate. Vidal becomes fully present, the poem’s perspective on this judge in this trial solidifies, becomes ‘somewhat final’. As for ‘mystery’, it’s a satisfying rhyme for ‘awkwardly, he’, and reminds us that Gore Vidal, like the other people who wake up in Maiden’s poems, isn’t simply a mouthpiece for the poet’s views: there’s a mysterious process by which these imagined figures come from somewhere (‘from nowhere’, perhaps) to help her, and us, think. Not What Would Jesus Do? but what Would Gore Vidal Think?


Biological Necessity is the third book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.