In what seems another lifetime, I was professionally immersed for something like 15 years in literature for children of primary school age – the brilliant range of writing arrayed between little children’s picture books and beginners’ chapter books at one end and YA fiction at the other. I haven’t read a lot of it since. The Girl in the Mirror reminds me of what I’m missing.
It’s a time-slip/ghost story: Maddy moves to a new home with her family. As a new girl she has to deal with school-yard politics, and find a way of making herself at home in the new house with its unruly back yard. Her parents, like so many parents in books for this age group – perhaps like so many parents in real life – are oblivious to her struggles, they can’t hear the clattering footsteps of the little-boy ghost on the stairs, and she knows it would be pointless to tell them about Charlotte, the girl from a century earlier, whom she sees in the old-fashioned mirror in her bedroom.
It turns out that Charlotte has problems with a nasty aunt, and that nastiness somehow spills over into the present, threatening the very survival of Maddy’s baby brother. The two girls help each other with their problems, and the ghost of Charlotte’s little brother, already a ghost in her time having died of whooping cough, intervenes cheerfully in Maddy’s life.
With a wonderful lightness of touch, Maddy and Charlotte show each other things about their respective ages: whalebone corsets and skits that end above the knee; the symptoms of whooping cough and the wonders of the Internet.
All that, plus a garden full of poisonous plants, and ominous redback spiders. Which leads me to Fiona McDonald’s illustrations: apart from two full-page ink drawings, most pages have a single tiny redback spider next to the page number. Then at two points in the narrative the illustrations mirror the action, and those spiders multiply and spread up the margins in a delightfully creepy way..
The Girl in the Mirror is the 18th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy of the book is a gift from the author, Full disclosure, in 2009, soon after my tenure as editor came to an end, The School Magazine published a short story, ‘Bertie’, which Jenny Blackford has expanded to become this novel.
Note: This blog post is nota review of Chatelaine, a book of poems by Bonny Cassidy, a well-regarded poet who leads the Creative Writing Program at RMIT. I’ve written it because of a self-imposed requirement to blog about every book I read. I don’t mean my ruminations to disparage the poetry, and certainly don’t want to discourage anyone else from reading it and enjoying it.
I once did a short course in signed English. Soon after I graduated, a visitor to my workplace showed us a hand-written note, ‘I’m deaf. May I use your photocopier.’ I greeted her confidently with the sign for hello – and was then at a complete loss as she started to chat with great animation while photocopying. I appreciated the eloquence of her signing and her facial expressiveness, and tried to look intelligent, even laughing at an anecdote about – possibly – a mouse. But my pulse raced, I broke out in a sweat, and I failed to understand anything she said, apart from hello and thank you.
My experience reading the poems in Chatelaine was something like that. The analogy isn’t quite accurate, though. If my Auslan had been up to it the deaf woman and I could have had a conversation, whereas I’m pretty sure that these poems are doing something other than invite the reader to a conversation. Here’s a for-instance:
to our gully
where the emus ram
walls of uncoupled think.
Under the easy homes and dread
stem, drag the noisy secret
the marble halls.
This reminds me of Noam Chomsky’s famous example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but semantically nonsense, ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’, except that it doesn’t cohere grammatically either.
I needed help. The author’s note that came with my complimentary copy shed some light on what the poems are not doing:
The deceptive narrative of lyric poetry, for me, is reminiscent of mythic narratives of Australian settlement and also myths of femininity. I think this meeting point has something to say about what we believe to be credible, the blur between myth and events
That’s enticing. I like the idea of poetry that does away with deceptive and oppressive narratives. Or at least I thought I did.
The back cover blurb says of the book:
Its voices stalk across time and space inhabiting the genres of riddle, fragment, confession, lyric and ekphrasis, and returning to images of metamorphosis and position.
Again, that sounds exciting, but it didn’t help me read a single poem. Even a couple of poems that the Acknowledgements identify as ekphrastic (that is, responses to other works of art) remain stubbornly enigmatic – and perhaps would have even if the artworks they refer to had been identified.
I found a review by Anne Buchanan-Stewart in Plumwood Mountain (link here). It begins:
Bonny Cassidy’s Chatelaine is visceral, layered and driven by word constructs in an innovative lexicon of erotic topoi, ready to be open to contemporary interpretative potential – previously unworked.
I found myself echoing Prufrock: ‘I have heard the academic poets singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.’ But I did try to read the whole article. It included this:
– We usually want to understand, interpret, ascribe meaning to a poem and we usually want the words to tell us something, but perhaps it could be different.
– There is another way to get to the ‘it’ of the poem – through an encounter. An encounter with the language ‘it’ self and its materiality. We can consciously put aside our search for meaning.
But if language doesn’t have meaning, I almost wept, is it still language? I went back to the book and read on, not trying to ‘understand, interpret, ascribe meaning’ but to ‘encounter’ the poems.
To cut a very long story short, I failed. I really did spend time with these poems. I had glimmerings of something, but I failed to encounter anything in them.
Not every book is meant for every reader. This one, beautifully designed by Harry Williamson for Giramondo, isn’t for me. There’s a sweet quote from ‘Ask’ by the Smiths as an epigraph, which I take as a reproach:
Before the Meeting: Generally, if I read a book about a marginalised group I try to read one by someone from that group soon after. Even though both Truganini (the Book Group’s last title) and The Colony (which I read just before Truganini) are committed to telling colonial history with First Nations perspectives to the fore, they are both written by white/settler women. So I was happy when this book by Julie Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Aboriginal Nation, was chosen for the Book Group.
Julie Janson has described the novel as ‘a First Nations response to The Secret River by Kate Grenville’:
[The Secret River] is a wonderful book, but I was challenged by the ending where all the Burruberongal Darug people died in a massacre except for one old man. I asked myself the question: if all the Darug died, who were we?
I had researched my (Aboriginal) family history along the Hawkesbury River, and the Darug interpretation of those early days of colonial invasion is entirely different.
Benevolence (the title is deeply ironic) tells the story of Muraging, a Burruberongal woman whose parents give her up to a missionary-run school in 1816 when she is very young, in the hope that she will gain resources there to survive in the colonised world. Renamed Mary, she learns to read, write and play the violin, and resists attempts to make her give up on her culture, language and people. She runs away with a handsome young Aboriginal man, and what follows is a picaresque account of her travels, moving back and forth between the two cultures – now living with a group of women who have lost their men to the frontier wars, now a servant to a clergyman with whom she has a consensual sexual relationship that eventually goes very sour, now wandering with her small daughter, a servant again, a disregarded listener to callous conversations about massacre and rape, a speaker of truth to power. She finds occasional kindness and mostly avoids threats of violence and sexual assault. She spends time in prison, is often hungry, loses her daughter, has a second child after having sex with a French man in return for a bag of flour. She never gives up the search for her family and a place where she can live among her people.
It’s a story of navigating the harsh conditions of colonisation. The Aboriginal people and communities that Mary encounters are not pathetic victims, and aren’t romanticised as automatically safe and nurturing, but at the end of the novel, she finds a home in a community of survivors – precarious, under threat, but solid.
Each chapter has a year in its heading title, and most begin with a brief note on what is happening in the colony: in 1826 Darling becomes Governor of the colony; in 1832 Kings School opens in Parramatta; in 1835 Governor Bourke proclaims terra nullius; also in 1835 King William IV recognises the continued rights to land for Aboriginal people in South Australia. These landmarks serve to anchor the narrative in settler history, but most bear little direct relation to Mary’s struggles.
There are many painful scenes with settlers: the unashamedly white supremacist Reverend Masters, the weak Reverend Smythe (her first child’s father), Smythe’s insufferably prim and nasty wife Susan, a military man who forces her to guide him on a punitive expedition that culminates in massacre, and others. These characters are pretty much universally portrayed as weirdly irrational, inconsistent, bullying or pusillanimous, so that their scenes – dinner parties, domestic rows, meetings with Aboriginal warriors – read like hellish phantasmagoria. I haven’t seen any of Julie Janson’s plays, but many of the scenes involving settler characters read like scripts for rough-theatre, agitprop pieces.
To give you a taste, here’s part of the scene where Susan Smythe has caught her husband Henry having sex with Mary, after Susan has set fire to their cornfield and blamed Mary, after Mary has saved Susan’s life, after Henry has told Mary many times that she must leave. Mary is listening from behind a screen:
‘Get rid of her!’ Susan is speaking with a clear high voice. Henry twitches and ruffles his black hair with nervous fingers. He sits by his writing desk and taps his quill. He laughs like men do when confronted by a wronged woman.
‘Must we discuss this now? I am penning a sonnet and working on my native language book,’ says Henry. He dips the quill in ink and examines the tip.
“Sonnet? Are you insane? I shall call the doctor to bleed and purge these dark humours,’ rages Susan.
‘We must buy more quills – make a list … She is just a black servant. Don’t be silly, Susan dearest,’ says Henry.
‘You must choose between rich cream cake and soda bread,’ says Susan.
Mary leans forward to hear his answer. She holds her breath.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, dearest. It was a mistake such as many better man than me have also on occasion made. You must forgive me. I command you to find forgiveness. I am only human,’ says Henry.
‘I have heard about such servants! The other colonial wives have spoken of these creatures!’ says Susan. ‘You are shaming me and have no respect for the sacred promise of our marriage. You are a colonial joke. Everyone is laughing at you – behind your back – at your lack of Christian fidelity or conscience as you preach your pious sermons on the Sabbath. Look at you now, damaged by a violent savage and yet you dare to defy me and you let her stay.’
Clearly both these people are unhinged. Yet they have life-and-death power over Mary and her daughter.
It’s exhilarating to have stories of early settlement told from a strong, unapologetic Aboriginal point of view that makes no attempt to humanise the invaders.
This is an unsettling book, not only because of its content. Very unsettling for me as a white, middle-class man who has worked for decades as a copy-editor, is a kind of knockabout quality to the text, something that I took at first to be poor proofreading but which is so pervasive that it has become a feature rather than a bug. In these sad times when publishing companies don’t generally have in-house copy-editors, it’s a rare book that has no typos, but this is at a whole other level.
There are moments, like this from page 110, that are impossible to visualise:
Mary sips the tea and smiles with her hands pressed between her thighs.
There are malapropisms – some Aboriginal people are to be punished for their ‘trepidations against settler families’. A tribe in the north-east of Sydney is called the ‘Awakabal’, twice, which is surely a misspelling of ‘Awabakal’. A character is described as Bungaree’s grand-daughter and on the same page as the sister of Bungaree’s son.
I don’t think these errors are deliberate, but whether they survive to the published text through lack of resource or failure of editorial attention they amount to a kind of nose-thumbing. I think of that Audre Lorde quote: ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Benevolence uses the colonisers’ tool, the novel, to respond to a ‘wonderful book’ that has erased a people’s survival. There’s a kind of rough justice in that tool being treated with disrespect.
After the meeting: We met in person for the first time in months. At least seven of us were there in person – even making a little physical contact. An eighth had been about to leave his home when a friend and recent contact called to say she was feeling sick, so he did the ‘abundance of caution’ thing and joined us on a screen for as much as he could stand.
It was good to eat together. It was so good to be in a room with other bodies, where cross-currents of conversation were allowed to flow (though that was hard on the virtual participant). Somehow, I think, being physically together made it easier to talk about this book – about the roughness of much of the writing, and the shameful sense most of us shared of having light shone on our ignorance about the realities of colonisation.
Others were – of course – less disturbed than I had been by the typos etcetera. I had hoped someone might have seen Julie Janson’s plays at Belvoir Street, but no one had. Someone mentioned Kim Scott’s books, That Deadman Dance and Taboo (links to my blog posts) as covering similar territory, brilliantly. More than one of us had gone in search of historical information, and reminded us that Samuel Marsden, presumably the inspiration of the novel’s Reverend Masters, was on record as perpetrating some hideous atrocities. We generally acknowledged the heartbreaking difficulty of the task Julie Janson had taken on: to draw on scholarly historical works and stories passed down by generations of survivors, to imagine herself into the life of one person in those terrible times. The general sense was that, for all its flaws, we were glad to have read the book. The Chooser, who was absent because of a non-Covid infection, was thanked in his absence.
And of course, we shared our responses to whatever the President of the United States had done (it was last night and he’s said so much since then!), to the Premier of New South Wales’s self-inflicted damage, to some recondite celebrity gossip (did you know about Bug Beats, a children’s show on Netflix, that has permission to use a whole slew of Beatles songs), to the adventures of some of our offspring, etc. We took a moment to honour the achievement of Victorians in bringing the infection numbers down. The potatoes that our host had out in the oven some time before we all arrived were ready to eat soon after we all left. He sent us a photo on WhatsApp.
George Jeffreys and Clare Collins first met in the 1980s when he was a probation officer in Western Sydney and she was a young woman nearing the end of her prison sentence for murdering three smaller children when she was nine years old. They have since featured in four novels before this one, and in more than 30 poems, going on to become lovers, work together for an NGO called Prisoners of Conscience, and most recently have a baby together.*
In this book they set off to Russia to bring home the daughter of a friend who is in thrall to a murderous international operative. The young woman is an arms dealer in her own right, and it’s not at all clear that she wants to be rescued, although she knows her life is in danger.
The book has all the ingredients of a thriller: exotic locations, hacking, deep-state conspiracy, silicon-impregnated diamonds, helicopter rides, glamorous women, worldweary men, and an urgent sense of jeopardy both for the characters and for the whole world of the novel, which is recognisably ours, as conflict rages in Syria, Julian Assange is not yet extracted from the Ecuadorian embassy, and there are wars and the prospect of war from Russia, the Ukraine, the USA, China … There’s quite a bit of sexual tension and actual sex, lots of violence, and a satisfying twist at the end, with bonus explosion.
But if you picked the novel up expecting a straightforward political thriller, you’d be disconcerted. For a start, every second chapter is in verse – verse whose long lines and conversational rhythms may at first be mistaken for prose with unexpected turns of phrase and odd line breaks, but whose precision and visual qualities are anything but prosaic.
Then there are the characters. In their previous adventures, George and Clare have accumulated relationships. We rarely see them without their months-old baby Corbyn, and many of their scenes, even the most violent, are shared with some or all of their entourage: eight-year-old Florence whom they rescued from death in Paris, Florence’s mother Sophie, George’s hacker grandson Idris, a young Russian cop named Kirill and a Saudi agent, Samir. They frequently converse with Clare’s and Quentin’s mothers back in Mt Druitt, as well as a Darug woman, Ruth, behind whom lurks the shady but benign Lithgow Coven. A dog and a cat that were rescued from far-flung places in earlier books still need to be catered for. The memory of the children Clare killed is never far from her mind. Unsurprisingly, every now and then there is a roll call: ‘Present were Clare, Corbyn and I, Idris, Sophie, Florence and Ninel’ (page 30), ‘In a cafe near 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street, I was sitting with Idris, Sophie, Florence, Ninel, Kirill and a Saudi agent called Samir’ (page 106). This is not a tale of a solitary individual hero; none of the characters needs to be told that humans are social animals.
Nor is the book populated by strong, silent types. There’s constant chatter – political gossip, poetry recitals, reminiscences about adventures in previous books, snippets of interesting history, commentary on world affairs, cultural analysis, meditation on moral and ethical issues. Thrillers are often impregnated with right-wing ideology. Not the George and Clare books. I confess that reading the book three years after publication, I’m mystified by many of its contemporary references – but maybe I would have been at the time. George and Clare are extraordinarily well informed, and have inside knowledge of many points of global conflict, thanks in part to their membership of Prisoners of Conscience, and in part to their creator’s extraordinary insight into international politics.
I often feel the impulse to read the start of a novel when I’ve reached the last page. Here’s the start of George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds:
Clare was standing at the window in the saffron orchid, orange orchard light of the Mt Druitt December. She was in a smock-like translucent azure kaftan, and still a bit rounded by her recent pregnancy. She looked as innocent and preoccupied as a Vermeer wife, and was holding a letter to Silkie Roberts from Silkie’s daughter Quentin. This included a new photo of Schmidt and Quentin. Clare showed it to me. Schmidt was thinner since the recent stabbing-attack on him and was grasping Quentin’s shoulder with sharp, skinny, greedy fingers.
Does that make you want to read on? It did me. And it was a fun read.
* You can read my summary of George and Clare’s appearances up to 2016 here.
Proust is everywhere. I stumbled across him twice this month – as well as in the three pages I read each morning.
Early in the month, the Emerging Artist and I went to an actual movie theatre to see the delightfully silly multilingual whodunnit The Translators / Les traducteurs. A slim hardback with À la recherche du temps perdu blazoned on its cover plays a key role and (spoiler alert) doesn’t emerge unscathed.
More recently, I attended a zoom event commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of poet Martin Johnston’s untimely death, the launch of a new edition of his poetry, Beautiful Objects. Lex Marinos spoke movingly about his friendship with Martin, and many poets read from Martin’s poetry. A recording has been uploaded (here’s a link). Proust popped up when Kate Lilley read ‘Room 23’, which includes these lines:
Proust, I suppose, once and for all defined
the intermittencies of heart and mind
whereby the gone becomes the never wanted.
It’s a view that the poem goes on to reject, but clearly Martin, whom I revere, felt he had to argue with Proust to write decent poetry about missing his beloved. (Maybe his summary of what Proust defined is correct. I know ‘gone’ is different from ‘absent’, but so far Marcel the narrator broods obsessively about his beloved when she is absent: sometimes it seems, he only wants her when she is gone. But intermittencies is a great word for the way Marcel the narrator’s intense, sustained focus switches constantly and without warning.)
Here’s a tiny bit I loved in this month’s reading:
Celui qui veut entretenir en soi le désir de continuer à vivre et la croyance en quelque chose de plus délicieux que les choses habituelles doit se promener.
Anyone who wants to sustain in themselves the desire to go on living and a belief in something more delightful than habitual things, must go for a walk.
Given that Marcel the narrator devotes much time and attention to convoluted overthinking, this dollop of wisdom shines from the page. But, as so often in Proust, that sentence takes an unexpected turn. It goes on: car les rues, les avenues, sont pleines de Déesses / ‘for the streets, the avenues are full of goddesses.’ So perhaps, one thinks, his recommendation wasn’t exercise, fresh air and attention to the environment as a counter to morbid introspection, so much as surveying the field as a counter to morbid jealousy.
So, this month’s action: Marcel is still keeping Albertine his beloved under surveillance. He gets her to agree not to go to a performance at Mme Verdurin’s because he suspects that her Lesbian friends will be there and who knows what she’ll get up to with them? He goes to the performance himself and we are immersed in the complexities of the evening: sexual politics, class politics (the aristocracy are extraordinarily rude to their bourgeois hostess), the music itself (described brilliantly, at great length), the paradox that such sublime music is brought into being by people generally judged to be morally repugnant, and so on.
After the performance, a terrible thing happens. It hasn’t quite played out at the moment where I stopped reading this morning, so I’m living in suspense. M de Charlus, who invited his prestigious but rude friends to Mme Verdurin’s for the recital, spends some time chatting with her about how successful the evening had been, completely unaware that she has taken serious offence. From her point of view he has claimed for himself the prestige that by rights belongs to her as the hostess, and treated her as a lowly functionary. As soon as he moves away, she instructs Brichot, one of her ‘little clan’, to take de Charlus outside so her husband can have a word to the baron’s beautiful young violinist protégé Charlie Morel, to warn him of ‘the abyss that he is heading for’: that is, to unleash the full force of bourgeois anti-homosexual righteousness on the relationship.
Characteristically, the narrator accompanies de Charlus and Brichot and the next few pages are taken up with their conversation, about the rooms they enter, about Marcel’s preoccupation with the notorious Lesbians, about de Charlus’ huge enthusiasm for Charlie’s performance on the violin – and the reader is filled with dread about the vicious devastation being wrought on him back in the main room. I may be slow on the uptake, but it’s only now that I realise just how much Charlie is the emotional centre of the baron’s world, and what a devastating blow in store. Having up to this point seen de Charlus as creepy, conceited, arrogant, manipulative, and even grotesque, I now do a complete about turn. I’m putty in Proust’s hands.
Johka Alharthi, Celestial Bodies, translated by Marilyn Booth (published in Arabic as Sayyidat al qamar 2010, translation Allen and Unwin 2019)
This book is quite a ride. The first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English, it’s Jokha Alharti’s second novel. According to the Translator’s Introduction, it’s one of ‘ a wave of historical novels that constitutes a major subgenre of fiction in the Arab world’, and ‘has been praised by critics across the Arab world for its fineness of portraiture, its historical depth and subtlety, and its innovative literary structure’.
It tells the story of a couple of intertwined Omani families in the village of al-Awafi over four generations, but its ‘innovative literary structure’, which is at first bamboozling and never becomes straightforward, means that the story isn’t told in anything remotely like a straight chronology. With some exceptions, alternate chapters are narrated by Abdallah, son of the merchant Sulayman: he drifts in and out of sleep and entertains trance-like memories while travelling on a plane, he ruminates on his complex, pain-filled relationship with his late father, on the state of his marriage and on his children’s life paths. Each of the other chapters focus on a different character: Abdallah’s wife, his daughter, his sisters-in-law, his father-in-law, the slave woman who raised him. With each of these characters, the novel moves off into different directions and to different times. Time collapses and the overwhelming sense is that everything is happening in an imagined present.
Yet the period covered by the narration sees huge social and political change. A recurring image of flimsy buildings being replaced by cement ones becomes emblematic of the changes. Slavery was legal in Oman until 1970, but one of the main characters is irritated or worse when her husband and then her son insist that she and they are no longer slaves – that’s how she thinks of herself and she has made it work for her, including establishing a sexual partnership with her ‘owner’. The situation of women in general is in a state of flux: three sisters negotiate different outcomes in relation to the outgoing custom of arranged marriages; each of them faces down the patriarchy in her own way, though patriarchy stays intact.
The modernity of lab coats, plane trips and celebrity culture jostles with elaborate cursing rituals, offerings to placate djinns, and (no spoiler really) what turns out to be a covert honour killing. Classic Arabic literature has a strong presence – my impression is it wouldn’t be realistic if the characters didn’t recite poetry every now and then, and indeed they do. There’s more than one unsolved murder, although – after some teasing – the reader is left in little doubt about the perpetrators. There are some deeply satisfying twists for better and worse in the many complex marriages and relationships. Especially towards the end, tragedies that have been passed over or heard about at third hand are seen in close-up.
Marilyn Booth’s English is elegant and accessible, and leaves enough Arabic words in place that the reader is always aware that this is a place and a culture he (in my case) knows next to nothing about. There’s a map of the characters at the front, which I needed to consult often.
Celestial Bodies won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (you can read how the judges described it at that link), which is how it came to be on offer at our Book-swapping Club. I’m glad to have read it.
From a septuagenarian’s memoir to queer teenage romance, the war on drugs and soundscape ecology, here are the next five sessions from the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival that Covid sent into virtuality.Once again, I haven’t read any of the books discussed.
Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The Erratics won the Stella Prize last year. It’s edging onto my TBR shelf, and I’ve heard and read quite a lot about it, so I almost didn’t listen to this podcast: hearing too much about a book before you read it can completely undermine the experience of reading it for oneself.
But once I’d started listening I was hooked. Ange Lavoipierre (so many excellent interviewers at this Festival that I’ve never heard of) elicited wonderful reflections, on the difference between memoir and autobiography, the astonishing way something that’s peculiarly personal can resonate with many people’s experience, the way writing a memory down is like taking a snapshot which replaces the fluid thing that was there before, and much more.
The conversation made me want to read the book rather than making me feel, as this kind of conversation sometimes does, that I don’t need to.
Antony Loewenstein is back, this time talking about his own book about the war on drugs, Pills, Powder, and Smoke, with George Dertadian. Dertadian introduces himself as an academic who researches aspects of illegal / recreational drug use, who only put Loewenstein’s book down because he had to. So it’s a high-level journalist talking to a scholar, a good combo.
The war on drugs is like the war on terror: neither can ever be won, and both – if I remember correctly – generally make worse the thing they seek to remedy. The war on drugs can become a war on drug users, as experience in the Philippines under Duterte shows. Shockingly but not surprisingly, Loewenstein says, Duterte’s program of extrajudicial killings is generally popular. But the Philippines is an extreme example of what is happening elsewhere:
American administrations have not killed millions of Black people to fight a drug war, not within the US at least. What they’ve done is, they’ve got the world’s largest prison population, which I might add was mostly expanded under Democratic administrations, not Republicans, and Joe Biden, potentially the next US president was the key architect of the War on Drugs rhetoric.
There’s a fascinating discussion of ethical drug use, challenging the mindset, ‘My enjoyment is not connected to other people’s suffering,’ with information about the cost of the drug trade for lower level people in the supply chain in the drugs’ countries of origin. And equally fascinating, though brief, discussion of the safe injecting rooms in Sydney and Melbourne.
My favourite quote: ‘With some notable exceptions politicians on this subject are gutless pricks. I think that’s the correct academic term.’
Ronnie Scott and Madeleine Watts, authors of the coming-of-age novels The Adversary (set in Melbourne) and The Inland Sea (set in Sydney) respectively, talk with Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Melbourne-based critic and writer.
They each read from their books, always a good thing in these conversations, and both books sound interesting. The conversation mostly avoids the trap of detailed discussion of the books and instead ranges over the questions of research and the relationship of these books to others. Patrick White, Christina Stead, Sumner Locke Elliott and explorer John Oxley are all mentioned. I learned a little about ‘post-AIDS-crisis’ culture among Gay men, and enjoyed hearing a Sydney-Melbourne conversation that didn’t indulge any of the inane rivalry tropes.
Josephine Rowe, described on the SWF website as one of Australia’s short-fiction greats, discusses her recent collection, Here Until August, with novelist Stephanie Bishop. Listening to this podcast was like eavesdropping on two smart, likeable strangers taking in spoilerish detail about a book I hadn’t read, a pleasant but pointless activity, until …
…. speaking of the importance of place in her fiction, JR went off piste for a moment to speak about the fascinating work of Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been recording the sounds made by particular locations over five decades:
[He has] built up this incredible archive of 1300 biomes, their sonic signatures, and how they change over time … He talks a lot about the ways in which animals communicate and the bandwidths that they use. There’s the geophony, which is the sound of the natural, non-animal, non-sentient world. Then there’s the biophony, which is all non-human creatures, sound-making organisms. And there’s the anthrophony, which is us: our noise interacting or coming in and taking up certain registers means that creatures can’t communicate with each other in the same way and they’re being edged out. So you might be looking at the same patch of forest and it might look completely the same, but when you listen to the sound signature of it you hear how much is missing.
… Of these 1300 environment that he has recorded over the past 50 years, two thirds of them are either unrecognisable or in some cases completely silent, and that’s such a terrifying idea.
The conversation then turns to craft – how writing a novel differed from writing short stories (not necessarily harder!), how building with bricks differs from building with stone … And the session finishes with a reading from one of the stories in Here Until August, which made me want to go out and by the book.
The non-digital SWF was to have an All Day YA event. This panel was to be part of it, featuring YA writers Erin Gough (Amelia Westlake), Sophie Gonzales (Only Mostly Devastated) and Anna Whateley (Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal), all of whom have written queer romance.
Again, I felt I was eavesdropping on smart, likeable people talking about books I haven’t read, and in this case am unlikely too, because my niblings are either out of the YA age group or aren’t much interested in romance, queer or otherwise, and by the time my grandies have reached YA reader age the field will have moved on.
There wasn’t really any YA as such when I was of that age. I searched out the little book where I listed all the books I read 1961 to 1975. Not including the books set for school, the list for 1961, the year I turned 14, which I understand to be peak YA, comprises:
20 books by Agatha Christie
5 by Edgar Wallace
4 by Erle Stanley Gardner
4 racist yarns by Sax Rohmer
2 by Ngaio Marsh
a guilty 2 by Carter Brown
only 1 by Georgette Heyer, alas
1 by Arthur Conan Doyle
2 detective stories by people I’ve never heard of otherwise
3 historical novels – Ben Hur, The Robe and I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy
1 science fiction: H G Wells, The Invisible Man
Cheaper by the Dozen by the Gilbreths
Patrick Dennis, Around he World with Aunty Mame
Willie Fennel, Dexter’s Court, which I noted was funny by don’t remember
Much Ado About Nothing (I don’t know why)
I guess if there’d been YA queer romance, or any YA books at all, I would have been spared that immersion in churned-out detective fiction.
The last line of Andrew Huntley’s ‘An Essay on Criticism’ comes to mind as I gather my thoughts about The Beating Heart’: ‘Poem can be way to make friend.’ (You can read Andrew’s poem in full at this link.)
Anne Casey’s introduction to this slim volume speaks of the poet’s ‘keen powers of observation’, of ‘an elegant interplay of evocative forays between [the poet’s] internal and external worlds’, of conjured enchantment. All this is true, but my overwhelming response to these poems wasn’t to be enchanted or impressed, but something much closer to home: it was the pleasure of meeting someone new. There’s art here, and technique, but it’s art that conceals art and feels like a natural voice speaking directly, warmly and openly.
The back cover tells us:
Born and raised in Rome, Denise O’Hagan lived in London before emigrating to Sydney, where she lives with her husband and sons. She has a background in commercial book publishing, [and] works as an editor with independent authors.
Many of the poems put flesh on the bones on that biographical note. To an extent, in fact, the book could be subtitled ‘Scenes from an Autobiography’: family holiday visit to Switzerland in ‘And the nuns wore lipstick’; a child’s perspective on the Brigate Rosse‘s kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro in Rome in 1978 in ‘Fifty-five days’; Proustian, unbidden memories in ‘A stain in the shape of Italy’:
That these milestones of our lives
(Laboriously recounted, photographed,
Or documented in countless other forms)
Are glued together by such details
We scarcely realise until later
When they emerge with doubled force
From the backrooms of our memory
There’s adolescent anguish (‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’), young adulthood in London (‘Bedsitter’, ‘Lost in Transition’ – the titles tell you a lot), a wonderful series of poems about early motherhood and her son’s hospitalisation for a rare condition, the death of parents, and then – a progression I recognise from my own experience – the discovery of a grandparent’s story. ‘The quiet assimilators’ canvasses the ambivalence of an assimilated immigrant. There’s even a poem about being an editor, which I love:
For we editors are tailors
(Seamstresses of old
Working in the back rooms of history
Heads bowed, diligently, invisibly),
We cut and paste and nip and tuck,
Sewing it all together
Until the point is clear
There’s much more than these autobiographical glimpses, but they lay a solid ground so the reader can recognise the voice in the other poems.
Rather than discuss one of the poems in detail, which is my usual practice, I’ve been prompted to write one of my own in response. I started with the quote from Andrew Huntley above and then went where the lines took me. I can justify the opening words of Dante’s Inferno because Denise quotes them in an epigraph to one of her poems, but the rest – sadly – couldn’t be further from Denise O’Hagan’s loose, informal, uncontrived openness.
Responding to Denise O'Hagan's The Beating Heart
'A poem can be way to making
friend,' my friend wrote years ago,
not something only for painstaking
exegesis, judgement – no,
instead an open invitation:
read, let's have a conversation –
silences, yours and mine,
word by word, line by line,
meet, we listen to each other.
When lost nel mezzo del cammindi nostra vita, each has seen
a thing or two. Dear sister, brother,
semblable or not, you write, I read,
together smile, together bleed.
The Beating Heart is the 15th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from the author.
I hadn’t read the Psalms, or any book from the Bible, since my seven years in a Catholic religious order in the 60s and early 70s. I used to love belting them out in the chapel several times a day, especially the complaining bits, the bloodthirsty bits and the bits that celebrate the natural world. They were choral spoken-word poetry of my late teenage years, a place where I could put words to feelings I hardly knew I had.
When this book turned up on offer at our Book-swapping Club, I liked the idea of revisiting that experience.
Alas, Robert Alter didn’t do his translating with me in mind. His version is concerned with precision of meaning, and not at all interested in rendering the poetry, the music of the language. These Psalms were barely recognisable.
A recent YouTube experience illustrates what I mean about Alter’s translation. Sister Nicole Trahan, talking on camera about racism in the US Catholic Church (link here), starts brilliantly with Psalm 55 verses 13–15:
If an enemy had reviled me,
that I could bear.
If my foe had viewed me with contempt,
from that I could hide.
But it was you, my other self,
my comrade and friend,
you whose company I enjoyed
at whose side I walked in the house of God.
Here’s how Robert Alter translates those verses:
No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,
no foe boasts against me, that I might hide from him.
But you, a man to my measure,
my companion and my familiar,
with whom together we shared good counsel
in the house of our God in elation we walked.
They both are clearly translating the same text, yet the meaning of Sister Nicole’s version is clear, it has a musical flow and it packs an emotional punch, while Alter’s version is dry and needs a footnote to clarify its meaning:*
Were it a known enemy showing hostility, the speaker would have found a way to bear the insult, but it is his intimate friend who has turned against him.
I eventually realised that Alter is not even trying to render the Psalms into memorable (or prayable) English. This is a book for the scholars and exegetes, not for poetry readers or, I imagine, the devout. Neither a scholar nor an exegete, I gave up on it.
But my appetite for revisiting the Psalms had been whetted. I dug out my tattered, dusty copy of the Jerusalem Bible (1966), which employed a ‘team of collaborators in translation and literary revision’ that included J R R Tolkien, James McAuley and Robert Speight. From here on my quotes are from that version unless I say otherwise.
The first thing I want to say is that pundits who cherry-pick the Holy Qur’an for quotes advocating violence should read the Psalms and chill.
Again and again, especially in the early Psalms, the speaker calls on God to destroy his enemies, as if his God is not much more than a secret super-weapon. I guess that’s where a bit of historical imagination comes in handy: you can read this book as a record of the developing notion of what ‘God’ is. Early on, it’s as if every tribe has its own god or gods, and Yahweh is the one belonging to the Hebrews. Gradually, the emphasis changes from, ‘God, smite my enemies,’ to ‘God defend me,’ and ‘God, let my enemies come to see your greatness.’ Morality comes into it: “God, I will obey your law,’ ‘I beg your forgiveness for my wrongdoing.’ They never give up bathing a just person’s feet in the blood of the unjust (58:11), or celebrating the way God heaps up corpses (110:5) but there’s an increasingly clear assertion of an incllusive monotheism: other gods are just lumps of wood or metal, but Yahweh is the creator of the universe. There’s history, wisdom, complaint, repentance, celebration: it’s a rich collection.
The Psalms are full of quotations: ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ ‘Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord,’ ‘A mighty fortress is my God.’ So there’s a lot that’s reassuringly familiar in them. But reading all 150 from start to finish, whether in Alter’s dryness version, the Jerusalem Bible’s lyricism, or the King James sonority, confronted me not only with their violent us-and-them-ism, but also with the absence of any sense of God in my own mind.
I’ve got a lot of sympathy for people of faith, and when I participate in religious observances I usually find a pragmatic way of paying more than lip service. I can be grateful for my blessings, repent my failings, commit to the things that matter, wonder at the splendours of the universe, acknowledge precarity and interdependence, make acts of faith, hope and love. I can rejoice in the story of the escape from Egypt, love the story of heroic, imperfect, pious King David and lament the destruction of the temple. I can do all that without a need for a supreme being. I can take part in a Mass or a Seder or a sundown prayer without feeling any need to assert my non-belief. But reading the Psalms, I find it hard to get past my outsider status.
My custom with books of poetry is to talk about one poem in some detail. I’m picking number 137, because Boney M:
The song, which I can listen to on hard rotation, was written by T. Mcnaughton, George Reyam, Frank Farian and Brent Dowe, and draws on Psalm 137 verses 1–4 and Psalm 19 verse 14. It absolutely captures the power of the first four verses of this Psalm. Spoiler alert: the Psalm has 9 verses and takes some dark turns after verse 4.
PSALM 137 **
Ballad of the exiles
Beside the streams of Babylon
we sat and wept
at the memory of Zion,
leaving our harps
hanging on the poplars there.
For we had been asked
to sing to our captors,
to entertain those who had carried us off:
‘Sing,’ they said,
‘some hymns of Zion.’
How could we sing
one of Yahweh’s hymns
in a pagan country?
The heading, ‘Ballad of the exiles’ is a little gloss by the translators. In the first half of the 6th century BCE a large number of people were taken captive from Judaea and taken to Babylon, for an exile that lasted half a century. This was a key event in the history of the Jewish people, and played an important part in the development of Judaism. This Psalm is framed as a song from that time. Its pining for home has struck a chord in the hearts of exiled people for millennia. It makes one think of African-heritage people enslaved in the USA being expected to entertain their oppressors. Or, since I’ve recently read Grace Karsken’s The Colony, ceremony and payback conducted by Eora people in what is now Sydney’s Hyde Park being treated as entertainment by the early colonisers. And it’s open to rich metaphorical reading about commodification of culture: how can I make authentic art for a marketplace?
Jerusalem, if I forget you,
may my right hand wither!
May I never speak again,
if I forget you!
If I do not count Jerusalem
the greatest of my joys!
Moving beyond the verses used in the Rastafarian song, these lines are framed as a kind of self-curse, but behind the curse there’s a feeling that if the speaker were to lose all connection to their home, their spiritual and cultural base, they would lose their ability to function in some crucial way. This is something like what many First Nations people say about the importance of country: on country you can feel a wholeness, a peace, a strength that you can’t feel anywhere else. So far, this is a powerfully resonant song/poem about the pain of exile
what the Sons of Edom did
on the day of Jerusalem,
how they said,
‘Down with her!
Raze her to the ground!’
Then, a sudden change of tone. The captors have asked for an entertaining bit of exotica. Here is the song of Zion that the singer can actually sing. As I write this it occurs to me that to imagine it being sung in response to the captors’ command, but in a language the captors don’t understand, so there’s an element of subversive joy in this as well as heartfelt cry to Yahweh. The singer recalls the harm that has been done to their people, and then ups the ante:
Destructive Daughter of Babel,
a blessing on the man who treats you
as you have treated us,
a blessing on him who takes and dashes
your babies against the rock!
This is directly addressed to the captors. This may once have been meant literally, and if so it’s just monstrous: other people’s violence is wicked, but baby-murder is fine if I or my allies do it. And when I started writing about this Psalm that’s how I read it. But you know, now I think it’s funny: ‘You want me to sing you one of my cute songs. OK, here’s one about the temple and a little baby.’ Then a cheerful tune is struck up. Maybe the Babylonians recognise the word for blessing that occurs twice towards the end. At the last line the performers and Hebrew listeners smile broadly, and their Babylonian listeners follow their cue and also smile broadly.
There’s no way the end of this poem can be read as a pious, morally improving text. Alter’s note says it’s morally unjustifiable, but we should take the terrible circumstances into account. Maybe, though, if you assume that the Psalmist had a sense of humour, the moral unjustifiability is the whole point: this is deliberately outrageous, wicked humour. In the unlikely, er, inconceivable, event that I had to give a sermon based on it, I’d talk about how when we say we want to hear the voices of oppressed people, we need to be prepared to hear things we really don’t like.
I’m not saying that all the psalms can be read as edgy comedy. Sadly, far from it. But I happen to have lit on one that makes me, and possibly you, remember that these songs/poems/hymn were written by people with complex minds – some for liturgical purposes, some to teach history and morality, some to allow the expression of emotion, some as theatre.
* Not to flog a dead horse, but here are a couple of other translations of those same verses from the Bibles on my bookshelves, each with its own clarity, grace and power. First the King James Version: For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: But it was thou, a man mine equal, and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.
The Jerusalem Bible: Were it an enemy who insulted me, I could put up with that; had a rival got the better of me, I could hide from him. But you, a man of my own rank, a colleague and a friend, to whom sweet conversation bound me in the house of God!
** If you’re really interested in comparative translations, here are two other translations. First the King James Version: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
Robert Alter: By Babylon’s streams there we sat, oh we wept, when we recalled Zion. On the poplars there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors had asked of us words of song, and our plunderers – rejoicing: ‘Sing us from Zion’s songs.’ How can we sing a song of the LORD on foreign soil? Should I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. May my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not recall you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my chief joy. Recall, O LORD, the Edomites, on the day of Jerusalem, saying: ‘Raze it, raze it, to its foundation!’ Daughter of Babylon the Despoiler happy who pays you back in kind, for what you did to us. Happy who seizes and smashes your infants against the rock.
Usually the Sydney Writers’ Festival lasts for two weeks. Usually I blog about the dozen or so sessions I attend live, and don’t feel the need to tell you about any podcasts. This year I seem to have made a decision to listen to them all and blog about every one. Here are sessions 35 to 40: journalism, memoir, First Nations voices, the world of high tech, terrorism, violence against women.
I know Trent Dalton’s writing from his novel Boy Swallows Universe, which I loved (blog post at this link). It turns out he has also been writing ‘long form journalism’ for The Australian for years. For even more years, Jane Cadzow has been doing likewise for Good Weekend, the magazine published on Saturdays with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Katrina Strickland is editor of Good Weekend.
This is an inside look at feature-article writing in Australia. There are lots of anecdotes about the biz, insights into the process (taping allows a journalist to take notes about things other than what is being said), and how ‘long form’ is seen by the ‘hard news’ journalists. As audience, I felt that I was listening in on a chat among people who knew each other well and moved in the same journalistic circles, rather than people who were discovering things along with us. The emphasis seemed to be on profiles of celebrities and others rather than stories from war zones or issues-based articles. But it’s a fun listen.
My last batch of SWF sessions featured two white liberal male authors in conversation. This session features two white left-wing males. Jeff Sparrow, former editor of Overland, has written Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre. Here he talks to Antony Loewenstein, whose My Israel Question is terrific – and he’s written a lot since.
Starting with the Christchurch massacre, the conversation range widely over contemporary politics and media. The perpetrator (Sparrow doesn’t use his name and the discussion of his reasons is interesting) was not a ‘mentally-disturbed individual’ but a convinced Fascist, whose main inspiration was Oswald Mosley. Donald Trump is not a Fascist, but has created a sea in which Fascists can swim. Social media platforms have some responsibility for enabling Fascists to flourish. Here’s Jeff Sparrow:
Genuine Fascists were some of the early adopters of the internet, precisely because they realised the internet allowed them to mobilise and organise in a way that they couldn’t do in real life. The far right in Australia tended to be recruiting people from the outsides of big cities or small countries towns. How do you organise those people in the real world? It’s very difficult. Australis is a big country. How do you bring them all together? If you have a website, it’s much easier, and the most recent attempts to organise Fascist movements in Australia were for that very reason closely associated with platforms like Facebook, because here is a mainstream form of the internet, everyone uses it, everyone in a country town can get on Facebook, there’s this one group you can set up. It’s very well suited to the structure of Fascist organisations because it’s participatory but not democratic. You can set up a Facebook, everyone can be involved but there’s a leader at the top who runs everything. In a sense it replicates the structure of a traditional Fascist organisations. That’s one of the reasons the far right has done much better on line than the left has.
We need to try to find some way to take the anti-Fascist principles that have worked in the real world into the online space. That’s easier said than done, and I don’t have a particular answer as to how that might occur, but it’s going to be a real issue from here on in, because the internet is gong to be central to whatever far right groupings emerge.
In normal times, Sparrow says towards the end of the conversation, the perpetrator’s eco-Fascist notion of mass murder as a solution to the climate emergency would be absolutely unattractive to absolutely anyone. In the context where the world seems to be breaking down, that may be changing. He concludes on what Loewenstein calls the ‘mildly optimistic note’ that it’s not enough to fight back against Fascism: we have to offer some genuine hope for a better world.
As in the session on long-form journalism, here three journalists who work in similar fields compare notes and discover how much they have in common. But this trio are Indigenous, and until recently it was rare for Indigenous journalists to be have major platforms. The participants are Warlpiri woman and co-host of NITV’s The Point Rachael Hocking; Anishinaabe and Polish Canadian journalist Tanya Talaga; and Kamilaroi/Dunghutti founder of the Tiddas4Tiddas podcast Marlee Silva.
Like the earlier session featuring Tanya Talaga, this one discusses strikingly similar experiences of First Nations peoples in Australia and Canada.
This is another podcast in the Stories Worth Telling series created by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas and Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Uncanny Valley is US journalist Anna Wiener’s first book, a memoir of her time working in the high-tech industry. Here she talks about it with Rae Johnston, NITV’s Science and Technology Editor. The conversation covers many familiar topics: the rise of surveillance, the exploitation of workers in the tech industry and by companies like Uber, the steady thrum of sexism in Silicon Valley.
There’s an interesting discussion of Wiener’s decision to name no companies and very few people in the book – for instance, there’s a company she calls ‘the social media platform that everyone hates’ and there’s no prize for guessing what that is. Another highlight was the explanation of ‘Down for the Cause’, unofficial motto of a start-up that calls on employees’ devotion above and beyond their official duty, and well beyond what they are paid for. But though both speakers mention several times that the book is very personal, the conversation generally stays at an abstract, journalistic level. Here’s Anna Wiener:
I just wanted to write about the way that it feels to look for meaning in work, to think you’ve found it and then to be totally disillusioned not just by your personal experiences but by the narrative and fantasies of an entire industry … I didn’t write the book as an instrument of social change. That was never my intention. I really wrote it hoping that people might see themselves in it in some way, people might see the world a little differently. I wanted to articulate the experience of being a fairly low level employee at tech companies in the 2010s in part because I just felt that was not a perspective that I was reading much about.
I would have liked to hear her read from the book, to hear something specific about those personal experiences and those fantasies. But the conversation was a good reminder that those unnamed/nicknamed companies aren’t necessarily our friends.
A small note about entertaining differences in pronunciation: Anna Wiener spoke of the importance of higher keys and buyer says, and it took me a moment in each case to realise she meant organisations with rising levels of power and prejudices.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Choose Elena and Ellena Savage’s Blueberries are both the debut books, the former a memoir and the latter a collection of essays. They both deal with personal experience of sexual assault, and its long, hideous tail.
Maeve Marsden, theatre person and curator of the ‘national storytelling project’ Queerstories, does a lovely job of facilitating the conversation – I particularly appreciated her for having both writers read from their books at the beginning, so we got to hear their deeply considered and carefully deployed words before hearing the back and forth of conversation. In that conversation one of the writers mentioned her PhD a couple of times and spoke in academically-inflected language a little too much for easy communication, but that’s a minor grumble from a relatively uneducated listener-in, who nonetheless benefited from the conversation.
The next batch of podcasts promises to include some story-telling. And maybe there’ll be some poetry …
A brilliant Polish movie starring Bartosz Belienia as a young man released from juvenile detention who through a combination of desire and accident finds himself acting as parish priest in a village, and winning the respect of the parishioners. It turns out he's a Christ figure, though no resurrection in sight.
Apart from a couple of overblown moments, in particular the final moments in the courtroom, this is terrific. It doesn't have that Aaron Sorkin look-at-how-many-big-words-I-can-say-in-ten-seconds performance. Sacha Baron Cohen's clowning is well in check. It made me want to reread Norman Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago and rewatch Hask […]