Category Archives: Books

SWF 2023: My fourth day

Friday was my day for poetry, starting early:

10–11am In Conversation: Anthony Joseph

Anthony Joseph comes from Trinidad and is currently based in the UK. He was in conversation with Felicity Plunkett, one of the few Australian poets to appear on the program. Though his most recent book of poetry, Sonnets for Albert, won the 2022 T S Eliot Prose for Poetry, Felicity Plunkett assumed, correctly in my case, that the audience was unfamiliar with it, and filled us in: it’s a book, mainly in sonnets, about the poet’s father.

The conversation covered two main subjects, both engrossing: the story of Joseph’s father and his use of the sonnet form.

A young friend of mine once said of her father, with obvious affection, ‘He was a terrible dad.’ Joseph could go further: ‘He was my father, but he wasn’t a dad.’ He married very young, and left the marriage after just enough time for two sons to be born, then in the rest of his life had ten more children by a number of women. Joseph’s brother remained bitter about being abandoned until, at the very end, he was at his dying father’s bedside. Joseph himself lived with his paternal grandmother as a small boy and her affection for her son rubbed off on him. The poems, as I understand it, explore this emotional complexity. I’ve bought a copy of the book.

The sonnet – which Felicity Plunkett described as being an inheritance just as much family experience is – is more than a poem. In the English-speaking world, it’s a feeling, a thing you recognise in many places: in the shape of a pop song, even in the shape of the human body. It’s a way of thinking. For Caribbean/Black poets, it’s interesting to find ways of using the form and making it fit their experience. When he was writing the book, Joseph started out adhering strictly to the rules, but then began taking all sorts of liberties. His father’s voice said to him: ‘You can’t put me in this box.’

He quoted two Caribbean poets. Kamau Braithwaite: ‘The hurricane does not roar in pentameter.’ Derek Walcott: ‘The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination.’

Speaking of himself, he said that luckily he has access not only to standard English but to Trinidadian Creole, which (I’m almost certainly getting this wrong) uses English words with African-derived grammar. To illustrate, he read us sonnets from the book in standard English and in Trinidadian.

There were some good questions. I loved his description of his process for writing a poem: ‘You write it. You leave it. You come back and edit it, and hope the original resonance is still there.

After grabbing a late breakfast, it was off to join a much larger audience for:

12-1 pm Eleanor Catton: Birnam Wood

Eleanor Catton was in conversation with Beejay Silcox who I know mainly as a critic in the Australian Book Review. Everyone keeps saying that Eleanor Catton’s new book, Birnam Wood, is her second, the first being the award-winning The Luminaries. Catton was careful to let us know it was actually her third, and that she didn’t disown her first, The Rehearsal, about a theatrical production in a girls’ school.

She talked about her venture in screen writing – for the 2020 movie Emma. (full stop is part of the title), directed by Autumn de Wilde. She learned a lot from her immersion in Jane Austen’s novel, and from the way film requires character to be revealed through action. She learned the dictum that every story had to have a beginning, a middle and an end was important for drawing attention to the transitions between those elements, the turning points of structure.

She and Beejay Silcox agreed that Emma is one of the great monsters of English literature, but she said that the genius of Jane Austen is to beguile the reader into committing the same mistake as Emma makes, in thinking ourselves morally superior to her, and then turning it back on us. (I do love a bit of Jane-Austen-ophilia.)

As for Birnam Wood, it sounds interesting, a satire that sets out to unsettle readers of all political stripes. I’ll wait for recommendations or otherwise from the Emerging Artist and others. Maybe I’m unsettled enough already.

Then scurry scurry scurry (I’m sure in the olden days when everything was better there was a bigger time gap between sessions) to:

1–2 pm ABC RN: The Bookshelf

The Bookshelf is an ABC Radio National program where hosts Kate Evans and Cassie McCullagh chat with guest writers about their books and the books they cherish. Each episode of the program adds a number of books to an imagined bookshelf. Their guests on stage for this session were Shehan Karunatilaka (I was glad to see more of him after Wednesday evening), Jason Reynolds (interested to hear him more discursive than on Thursday evening) and speculative fiction writer Grace Chan (yay for genre!).

One of the pleasures of this panel was the way it embodied Anthony Joseph’s quote from Derek Walcott: ‘The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination.’ An African-American YA writer, a Malaysian-born spec-fic writer, a Sri Lankan novelist, all own the language and its literatures. I did make notes of the books they mentioned, but I’ll just mention a couple of moments that gave me joy.

I loved it when someone mentioned a book I love. Jason Reynolds mentioned Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, a tiny book about a boy who writes poetry that I had forgotten until he reminded me of it. Grace Chan recommended Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho, saying that it had magic, and boarding school etc, and then referred, not to the obvious inspiration but to the late, great, beloved of me, Diana Wynne Jones. Shehan Karunatilaka was cajoled into confessing his love for the Choose Your Own Adventure books – it’s not that I loved them so much as that they were a feature of my early parenthood, and somehow it was a thrill to realise these formidable people were young enough to be my children.

Drums got a mention. Jason Reynolds quoted James Brown (I don’t remember the context): ‘Every instrument is a drum.’ Shehan Karunatilaka said he loved to play the drums: ‘I bang the drum, read some Yeats, and I’m ready to go.’

The most interesting moment was when one of the facilitators suggested that these writers of non-Anglo background were redefining the canon. ‘No,’ said Jason Reynolds. ‘We have different canons to start with.’ He listed a number of great African American writers, not as favourite authors of his, but as the eminences who defined the literary landscape. He suggested that each of the others on the panel had a similar lineage behind them. We’ve come a very long way since my days studying Eng Lit under the shadow of F R Leavis (even though that shadow was fading in my time), when there was The Great Tradition – a very short list of The Writers Who Matter. I for one am very happy for that distance.

7.30–8.30 pm The Rhythm of the Word

The thing I love most about the Sydney Writers’ Festival is being read to. The Big Read, when half a dozen writers would read to a packed Town Hall is now apparently a thing of the past, but moments like Sebastian Barry bursting into song at the beginning of his reading are still with me years after the event.

So I was happy to venture back out from my warm home for this poetry reading. Poetry readings at the SWF used to have a home-town feel, and when the festival was beside the Harbour poetry had a base in small, often crowded, sometimes glare-filled room at the end of the wharf. The Carriageworks doesn’t allow for such nooks and crannies, and poetry events have somehow become rarer.

Not that there was anything unattractive about this event.

Western Sydney poet Omar Sakr was the host. He used his platform as MC to slip in a poem of his own (the only poem I heard at the festival by a Australian living east of the WA border!). It was ‘Diary of a non-essential worker’ a Covid poem, and I wrote down two lines that struck me. I can’t read my own writing, but I think the lines are:

Everything is a miracle when you're alive
I'm learning that reluctantly

Madison Godfrey did a reprise of ‘When I grow up I want to be the merch girl’, which they read on the opening night. Their other poems were ‘Harry Styles was [illegible] on a beach and the horizon was aligned with his thighs’, ‘Utopia translates as no place’ (a heartbreak poem), and ‘Impulse’ (named for a brand of deodorant).

Joshua Whitehead, Canadian First Nations scholar and poet (a different person from novelist Colson Whitehead who is also a guest at the festival) did a stunning performance of a medley of poems from his two books, including Making Love with the Land (2022). If you heard his astonishingly rapidfire stuttering delivery on a recording you could easily assume his effects were achieved by electronic feedback but he did it all.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai read three poems, first in Vietnamese and then in English. At the end, she gave us a short lesson in the importance of diacritical marks in Vietnamese (‘those funny little marks above the letters’). She had us all pronounce Quế , and explained it means ‘cinnamon’. Then she taught us Que (which is how her English-language publishers) wanted to print it). It sounds quite different and means ‘snake’. Point made.

Anthony Joseph read two poems, quite different from the sonnets of this morning’s session. They were ‘On the Move’ and ‘The Ark’ He introduced the latter saying it was an elegy for a London hip hop performer whose name I didn’t write down. It’s a list poem, or a litany: name after name of African-heritage writer or singer or performer with the recurring phrase ‘is on the Ark’. The cumulative effect is powerful – for me, partly by making me aware of how few of the names I recognised (making me think back to Jason Lester’s observation this morning about different canons), and partly by invoking the force of those I do recognise (from Langston Hughes to Maya Angelou). At the end his friend’s name was added to the list, and Omar Sakr came onstage wiping his cheeks and saying his face had melted.

After the reading I looked around and saw just one face I recognised. We had a chat, and were soon commiserating over the absence of Sydney’s usual poetry audience from the event, and the near absence of Sydney or even eastern Australian poets from the Festival program. We happened to walk past Ann Mossop, Artistic Director, and buttonholed her briefly on the subject. She said that it’s hard to find an audience for poetry. I wonder what would happen if the Festival commissioned someone like Magdalena Ball of Compulsive Reader or Toby Fitch, poetry editor of Overland and organiser of Avant Gaga, a monthly poetry reading in Glebe, to curate a poetry stream in a tiny room somewhere at Carriageworks. If such a curator needs t be someone who’s not white, what about Eileen Chong, or Sara Mansour of the Bankstown Poetry Slam? Just wonderin’.

SWF 2023: My third day

I’m not exactly live blogging the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s now Sunday and my festival is over, but the blog is still at Thursday.

On Thursday, we arrived an hour or so before any of our booked events and caught up with friends over lunch, then we were off.

2 pm: Climate Hope

This was billed as: ‘a trio of environmental experts examine promising developments, signs of hope and viable solutions for a greener, more sustainable future.’ It delivered on that promise.

Simon Holmes à Court, founder of Climate 200 (tagline ‘climate proofing politics’), was the chair. Other panellists were a scientist, an engineer and a community activist: Joëlle Gergis (Humanity’s Moment: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope), Saul Griffith (The Big Switch and the Quarterly Essay The Wires that Bind), and Claire O’Rourke (Together We Can: Everyday Australian’s doing amazing things to give our planet a future).

There was an awful lot to digest, or even grasp as it flew by. I hope it will turn up as a podcast – I recommend it.

Here are some of my takeaways:

Jöelle Gergis described how, after helping to write the IPCC report on the state of the climate, she was filled with despair. Technological solutions are pretty much all there, but there is little political will to implement them. This is no longer a scientific problem; it’s a social, cultural and political one. She found hope in looking to history. Many times in the past when there has been a major crisis, people have come together and created solutions. She gave a number of examples, but what I remember is Saul Griffith’s amplification of her point by mentioning Dunkirk: the Allied forces had been roundly defeated, and then Winston Churchill, who can be criticised on many fronts, inspired what could have seemed an irrational hope with his rhetoric (‘We will fight them with teaspoons’ – not an actual quote as far as I know), and the people famously rallied.

The motto ‘Reduce, Re-use, Recycle’ doesn’t point to the way out of the climate emergency. It puts the onus for action at the individual level, when what is needed is systemic change (though individual initiatives are important to achieve that). It can be paraphrased as, ‘If we just sacrifice a little, the world will be a little bit less fucked.’ (Numerous apologies for swearing were made to Saul Griffith’s mother who was in the audience, though if she’s anything like women I know who are mothers of people Saul Griffith’s age, she swears quite a bit herself.) in reality, if we do this right, we can get a good outcome and not sacrifice any of our standard of living.

Claire O’Rourke is already active in the social movement space. She gave example after example of ordinary people who have taken action and organised to bring about change at local and regional levels.

There were some great quotes:

Claudia Rankine (link to my blog post about her Citizen): ‘Every state of emergency is also a state of emergence.’

Bill McKibben (link to my 2007 blog post discussing his Deep Economy): ‘Winning slowly is losing.’

Rebecca Solnit (link to my blog post about her Hope in the Dark): ‘People today will determine the future of humanity.’

Saul Griffith recommended that each of us makes six big decisions about our lives in the next year in order to bring about systemic change: decisions about home heating, cooking, cars, nutrition and so on. Just a handful of major decisions, he means, not the hundreds of decisions involved in ‘lifestyle changes’.

Claire O’Rourke mentioned systems theory, said change happens most effectively through networks and recommended the All We Can Save Project.

Jöelle Gergis had the last word: The missing piece is a social movement.

I rushed off to arrive late and sit at the edge of the space set aside for ‘curiosity Lectures’ and ‘Beginnings’, the latter being sessions where people read the beginnings of books to the audience:

3 pm: Benjamin Gilmour on Taking Tea with the Taliban.

Among other things, Benjamin Gilmour is notable for the extraordinary film Jirga (2019), which he wrote, directed and shot in a tribal area of Afghanistan. He recently revisited Afghanistan for a new film documentary project, which if I heard correctly is to be called Taking Tea with the Taliban. In this Curiosity Lecture he told about interviews with members of the Taliban government and his time with villagers who told him of terrible brutality at the hands of Australian soldiers.

It was disturbing stuff. He relayed the Taliban’s protestations that the way they are portrayed in the western press is self-serving propaganda, that their treatment of women is misrepresented, and that it’s hypocritical for the west to condemn the Taliban for mistreatment of women when USA and Australian forces have destroyed so many Afghan lives, of women and children as well as men.

I couldn’t help thinking of those Australians who visited Stalin’s Russia and came back with glowing reports of happy workers at times when, it was later revealed, the gulags were filling up. All the same, he made a strong argument for governments to engage with the Taliban. ‘I did,’ he finished his talk, ‘and I’m just some guy.’

Benjamin Gilmour has a special place in my heart: we published a number of his poems in The School Magazine in the 1990s, when I was editor and he was a teenager. I introduced myself and we had a photo taken together. I’d share it here but I made the mistake of lowering my mask instead of taking it off altogether, and I look mildly deranged.

Then straight on to 4 pm: George Monbiot: Regenesis

A giant George Monbiot on video chatted with Rebecca Huntley. This was a brilliant talk. Monbiot’s ability to marshal facts and present a clear argument is breathtaking.

His central message was that the global food supply system is at risk of catastrophic failure. Not only that, but farming is contributing hugely to global warming. Second only to the urgent need to keep fossil fuels in the ground is the need to stop farming animals. It’s as if the scientists who have been researching this area have been shouting and waving their arms about, but have been doing it from behind plate glass, inaudible to the rest of us.

Although world hunger fell steadily from about 1960, in 2014 it began to rise again, and has been rising steadily ever since – even before the shocks to the food supply system that were Covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is because the food distribution system now works in such a way that even small shocks to the system can cause disproportionate price hikes in vulnerable communities.

He gave us a brief introduction to systems theory. Complex systems, such as the climate or the global food supply system, take a lot of understanding (and after this talk, I’m keen to learn more). There are six elements required for a complex system to be resilient:

  • diversity
  • asynchronicity
  • redundancy
  • modularity
  • circuit breakers (in this case regulatory constraints)
  • back-up systems

I imagine his book Regenesis spells out how the food system scores on these elements. From the talk I understood that concentration of the control of food in about four massive corporations makes for low resilience. Industrial farming likewise. Redundancy is so limited that if the Ever Given had been stuck in the Suez Canal a year earlier, when Covid was at a different stage, the result would have been disastrous.

It’s not a question of tightening our belts. He sees hope in technology, in what he calls a technoethical shift: when something becomes amendable it becomes intolerable. That is to say, if a food can be developed that has the nutritional value of meat and it’s flavour, texture and general appeal, we will be able to face the reality of what our meat-eating has been doing to our relationships with other animals and to the planet.

The technology that he favours is ‘precision fermentation’, in which single cell organisms are used for food: we already do it with yeast, and many other species are being explored. A naturally occurring pink microbe has been discovered in Europe that when grown in a culture looks, feels and tastes like sausage. He himself was the first person to eat a pancake grown from microbes – ‘One small flip for a man’ – and it tasted like a pancake. He surmises that this will lead to a culinary revolution as radical as the one produced by the development of agriculture. And food produced in this way uses a tiny fraction of the earth’s resources.

We went home for a vegan dinner, then caught public transport into town for our one event not at the Carriagework:

8 pm: Storytelling Gala: Letters to the Future

Not to cast shade on any of the readers or organisers but this ‘gala’ was a bit of a dud. A stellar line-up of writers got to read to a packed Sydney Town Hall. They had evidently been given the title ‘Letter to the Future’. Most of them gave us a piece that began, ‘Dear Future’, and too many wrote what could be summarised as: ‘Dear Future, we have fucked up the world. I expect Earth is posthuman/a disaster where you are. Please forgive [or forget] us.’ After hearing someone say in the 2 o’clock session that people find it easier to imagine a disastrous future than one where the problems have been solved, it was dispiriting to hear so many people take the easier path as if they were doing something serious.

There were exceptions.

Anthony Joseph (about whom more tomorrow) read two poems in a form known as the Golden Shovel, where the last words of the lines spell out a quotation. His first one took Kierkegaard’s ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards’: I was too busy trying to spot the line breaks to follow the poem, but it sounded great.

Shehan Karunatilaka spoke elegantly about the impossibility of the task and told a fable about a child refusing a hug to her father, thereby setting of a chain of events leading to disaster.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai wrote an imaginary letter from her ten-year-old self, bookended by fabulous a cappella song.

Jason Reynolds also read a letter from his past self: I found it hard to follow, but his performance was fabulously musical.

Nardi Simpson rejected the idea of the future, saying that as a First Nations person she has responsibilities to Now. It was striking how she echoed Alexis Wright’s talk on the opening night.

Tabitha Carvan got the only laughs of the evening with a comic bit about a leadership course where on the first meeting the participants wrote a letter to their future selves.

It was a day full of excellent things, and things that will bear thinking about and acting on for some time.

Books I read in October [2007]

[27 May 2023: This was originally posted to my old blog on 1 November 2007, and not retrieved when I moved to the WordPress platform. I’m republishing it now because Bill McKibben’s name came up at the 2023 Writers’ Festival, and this blog post is where I made a note of my first impressions of his Deep Economy.]

Charles Firth, American Hoax (2nd edition, Picador 2007)
William Carlos WIlliams, Selected Poems (edited by Charles Tomlinson, New Directions 1985)
Yukio Mishima, The sailor who fell from grace with the sea (translated John Nathan 1965, Vintage 1994)
Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future (Henry Holt 2007)
John Tranter, editor, The Best Australian Poetry 2007 (UQP 2007)
Caroline Overington, Kickback: Inside the Australian Wheat Board scandal (Allen & Unwin 2007)
Geoffrey McSkimming, Cairo Jim and the Astragals of Angkor (Hachette Children’s Books 2007)

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Charles Firth invented five commentators, basing their opinions on top hits on Google, and set out as an experiment to see if they could make it in US public debate. One of them got a lazy, plagiarised, largely nonsensical article attacking Cindy Sheehan published, and others had moderate success in being taken seriously in Internet conversation. It’s a disturbing and intelligent book, but undermined by the author’s apparent commitment to his comedian identity. Clive James objects to being classified as a humorist. He wants his wit and humour to be elements of his essays rather than their purpose: the essays, he says, are serious attempts to communicate ideas. I’d like to see Charles and Clive get together for a quiet chat some time, and Charles come out from behind his relentlessly Chaserian persona.


Having acquired a BA (Hons) in the 1970s majoring in Eng Lit without ever reading any William Carlos Williams, I thought it wouldn’t be a crime now to read more than ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and ‘This is just to say’ … And indeed the book is an education and a joy. I did go hunting for learned commentary so as to deepen my appreciation of the poetry, and had the perverse pleasure of deciding that in some cases I would trust my own reading over that of the scholar. For instance, in an article on WCW’s most anthologised poem – essentially unparaphraseable eight short lines noting the existence of a red wheelbarrow and some white chickens – I found this:

This is a poem about the tension between regularity and irregularity, and it invokes irregularity on many levels: metrical, sexual, racial. Mouth/vulva, this ‘colored’ object beckons ‘white chickens’, which like the satyrs on Keats’s urn, approach but never touch, except in the palpable rhythms and vowels of the lines, which rise – but then fall again. After the phallic assertion of the emphatic iamb ‘upon’, the poem shifts to falling rhythms, and as the speaker and his Lucy roll forward like the wheel of the barrow (a tumulus or mound over a grave) in the twelve months/feet of the year with its four regular seasons/stanzas in their ‘diurnal course’, the speaker stammers in the long i’s of the final stanza: I . . . I . . . chicken out.

I would have solemnly, if disappointedly, accepted the Freudian reading of the wheelbarrow as a female symbol, but really: ‘upon’ as a phallic assertion! ‘barrow’ as tumulus! racial tension! the fantastical invocation of Keats and Wordsworth! I’m glad I don’t have to earn a living writing things like that. In fact the way I read the poem it’s pretty much a dismissal of that kind of discourse.


I came to The sailor who fell from grace with the sea with quite a lot of baggage. Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide when I was 23. This, along with his extreme right-wing politics and his reported preoccupation with body-building put me off. How could someone who was acclaimed as a great writer, a runner-up for the Nobel Prize for Literature, get things so bizarrely wrong? (I was 23, OK?). This is his one novel that I know about without looking, and from its perch on my Reproach Shelf (where it has sat unread with War and Peace and Pride and Prejudice) it exuded a kind of sulphurous glamour.

Without all that foreknowledge I might have thought this was a finely executed exercise in genre horror. It’s certainly well written, capturing beautifully the way people – adults and children, men and women – misunderstand each other’s silences. But it’s not an exercise: in this narrative the writer is fairly evidently struggling with his membership of a death-cult of one: mad, repulsive, deeply horrible, but in the end (for him, apparently) irresistible. It strikes me as being an adult version of the drawings young Mary Bell did in the days before she murdered that little boy: a cry for help. Like Mary’s, it went unheard.


Don’t be put off by the title of Deep Economy. It’s a tremendously readable journey through the hope and terror of our times (not Terror with a capital as in suicide bombs, but lower-case terror as in the world going to hell in a handbasket). Someone once told me of a rule of thumb for comic writers that you need at least three laughs a page to keep up the momentum (a rule which – see above – I wish Charles Firth would ignore). Bill McKibben seems to work to a three-striking-bits-of-information-a-page rule. It was only great self-restraint that stopped me from constantly regaling (or should that be assailing?) companions or passers-by with tidbits.

The subtitle more or less says what the book is about: it challenges the single minded preoccupation with growth as the supreme indicator of economic success, and the ‘hyper individualism’ that that preoccupation involves; and advocates for a durable future as opposed to the likely outcome if things keep moving in the current direction with the current impetus. It’s a passionate, research-based argument for renewed – or brand new – attention to the local: in food production and consumption, and in all other economic activity. It piles up examples of the loss in human terms caused by the ruthless pursuit of economic ‘efficiency’ but it also accumulates a persuasive number of counter-examples, of people forgoing large profits for the sake of the common good.

We assume, because it makes a certain kind of intuitive sense, that industrialised farming is the most productive farming. I mean, if I sit on my porch whittling toothpicks with my Swiss Army knife, I can produce a hundred in a day. If I install a toothpick-whittling machine, I can produce a thousand in an hour. By analogy, a vast Mid-western field filled with high-tech equipment ought to produce more food than someone with a hoe in a small garden. As it turns out, however, this simply isn’t true. If all you are worried about is the greatest yield per acre, then smaller farms produce more food. Which, if you think about it some more, makes sense. If you are one guy on a tractor responsible for thousands of acres, you grow your corn and that’s all you can do: one pass after another with the gargantuan machines across your sea of crop. But if you’re working on ten acres, then you have time to really know the land, and to make it work harder. You can intercrop all kinds of plants: their roots will go to different depths, or they’ll thrive in each other’s shade, or they’ll make use of different nutrients in the soil. You can also walk your fields, over and over, noticing. … Does this sound like hippie nonsense? According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, smaller farms produce far more food per acre, whether you measure in tons, calories or dollars.

It’s very much a US book, and I don’t know how much of the specifics is true of Australia (far too much, I expect); but it also looks at the global picture. It has felt like a lifeline as both major party leaders in the current federal election campaign bang on about upward pressure on interest rates in what is fairly blatantly baby-talk economics. Intuitively, to this uneducated mind the prevailing view that permanent growth is the only way forward looks like a recipe for disaster. Here is a substantial, reasoned, systematic move towards an alternative way of thinking about these things. Not that Bill McKibben is trying to pass himself off as a brilliant innovator; his brilliance lies not only in his throng of memorable stories to flesh out his argument, but also in the mass of telling quotes from an army of researchers, experimenters and thinkers.


I confess that with The Best Australian Poetry 2007 and me it was irritation at first sight. What does it mean to publish ‘best of 2007’ book in September? A quick look up the back of the book reveals that a couple of its poems were first published in 2005 and the rest in 2006.

Ok, that’s my first nitpick out of the way. Then I looked at the list on page 98 of ‘Journals Where the Poems First Appeared’ (the book is subtitled ‘a selection of the best poems from Australia’s literary journals’), and was a bit surprised to see that Quadrant didn’t get a guernsey. But it turns out that there are poems from that venerable right-wing rag, and from the equally venerable left-wing, though less well funded, rag Overland, which also doesn’t rate a mention on page 98.

And there’s more substantial cause for irritation: more than 40 of the book’s 120 pages are devoted to commentary: introductory material by and about the guest editor and the series editors, and then notes from the contributing poets about the poems, which reminded me inevitably of William Carlos Williams’s remark: ‘You should never explain a poem but it sometimes helps nevertheless.’ Some of the poets’ own commentaries here are witty, some are illuminating, but most are plain dull – this is not a criticism of the poets, since the poems themselves are presumably what they wanted to say.

My mounting irritation didn’t  put me in a mood to enjoy the forty poems, some of which, it turns out, are very good. Some, of course, left me cold and uncomprehending. Perhaps all the bumph is meant to deal with the all-to-frequent failure of a lot of post-modern poetry to grab the lay reader; sadly, it only adds to the alienation for this one.


Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have picked up Kickback or Leigh Sales’s Detainee 002 (which I read in September). I’d read enough about both scandals in the newspapers as they were unfolding. But some members of our book club (really a Book Swap) do relish that sort of thing, and recommended these books strongly at our last meeting. I somehow came away with both of them. Caroline Overington’s epigraph, which turns out to be her punchline as well, is a found poem from the utterances of Alexander Downer, who I hope will soon be relieved of the burden of producing such gems:

What you don’t know, you don’t know.
And you can’t get to the heart
Of what you don’t know.

This is a book about last year’s headlines, but it contains a lot of the news that stays news. It’s largely a blow-by-blow account of shonky dealings – Iraq’s corruption of the UN’s Oil-for-Food program as aided and abetted by a highly reputable Australian company and the subsequent cover-up – involving hundreds of millions of dollars: illegal, immoral, carefully ignored for as long as possible by lily-white John Howard and shameless Alexander Downer (who seem to have people on staff whose job is to make sure they never actually see faxes, emails, cables and other inconvenient communications). This was an excellent follow-up to Deep Economy (which I intend to urge on my co-Book-Clubbers), as an extended case study of collateral damage from a single-minded pursuit of profit. I found myself drawing morals from the story:

  • For those who sup with the devil, no spoon-handle is long enough
  • If you have a conflict of interest with the USA, make sure you’re squeaky clean
  • When top members of your organisation go by nicknames like ‘Slug’, don’t let your guard down
  • Government organisations that are privatised may not be nastier than long-established capitalist enterprises, they may just be more likely to get caught
  • Too many Australian journalists take the government at its word too much of the time
  • Page 2 of the newspaper may contain gems
  • Not only ladies do protest too much
  • Seekers after the truth sometimes have vile motives
  • Seekers after the truth can expect to have vile motives attributed to them
  • Suppressors of truth sometimes have good intentions
  • Under the Howard government, the public service tradition of frank and fearless advice has taken a battering.


I read Cairo Jim and the Astragals of Angkor in a day, just after the final episode of The Sopranos was screened here, while Tony Abbott was impersonating an arrogant callus in his final days in office. As a finale, Astragals offers less closure but more certainty than the former, and inspires more hope and more sorrow than the latter.

In Cairo Jim’s world words like ‘flabbergast’ are part of normal speech, alliteration runs as wild as jungle creepers, similes (all more original than any I’m offering here) sprout like hairs in a mole, evil never wins the day but life would be much less interesting if it didn’t try. I think Geoffrey McSkimming may be the one who told me the rule about frequency of laughs I referred to above: and sure enough, even though this is a chase story with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, it’s the laugh lines that provide the momentum. These books have captured and sustained a loyal and ever-expanding following among their intended readership with no boost from awards and little notice in the press – quite an achievement.

SWF 2023: My second day

After a day on grandparent duty, we made our weary, head-cold-heavy but cheerfully expectant way to Carriageworks for:

8 pm: Shehan Karunatilaka: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

The Emerging Artist loved The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which won the 2022 Booker Prize and which the Festival program describes as an ‘epic, searing and darkly funny satire’. Shehan Karunatilaka was in conversation with Michael Williams, former acting director of the Festival, current editor of Melbourne’s The Monthly, and one of my favourite SWF interlocutors.

Michael Williams kicked the session off with a joke about the smell of a room full of book people. When that fell a little flat – very flat, actually – he followed it up by saying the SWF was Nerd Christmas, which went over much better, all the more because this was a Melbourne person who didn’t indulge in tiresome inter-city comparisons.

The session was everything I could have hoped for. Shehan Karunatilaka was urbane, witty, serious about his work but not at all self important.

The book, I gather, is about a recently dead war photographer at the end of the Sri Lankan conflict in the 1980s. It’s a ghost story, in which the ghost investigates his own death while dealing with the bureaucratic system of the afterlife.

Karunatilaka gave a number of different origin stories for the book. He wanted to write about something other than cricket (he mentioned his cricket novel, Chinaman, quite a bit), and thought that the complex ‘squabbling’ and blame-laying at the end of Sri Lanka’s long and devastating civil war was a good subject. A good way of resolving the squabbles would be to ask the ghosts of those who had died in the war.

On the other hand, he just wanted to write a ghost story, not something political. In fact, an early draft was a horror-slasher set on a bus. The book is genre rather than magical realism.

‘Why does this beautiful island go from catastrophe to catastrophe?’ The malign presence of ghosts seemed a plausible explanation.

There was much more: the rules for ghosts; the reason for making his protagonist a war photographer; the book’s relationship to a real-life journalist who disappeared during the war; whether as a ‘cis het normative man’ he would write a gay character if he were starting the novel today.

I have to mention the audience questions. There were five, all of them interesting.

  • Asked about his influences, he named a number of South Asian writers as well as westerners including Kurt Vonnegut, then told us about Carl Muller
  • The questioner said that Shehan’s identifying as heterosexual was a great disappointment to the gay men in the audience, and asked how much of himself was in the character. He said that one of the joys of fiction is that it lets you inhabit different people, but of course you also draw on yourself
  • Asked about the book’s reception by religious people in Sri Lanka, he said it hadn’t been an issue. His afterlife was sufficiently nonspecific not to offend, but the earlier questioner’s mention of The Satanic Verses had him worried
  • A young woman who sad she was a writer passionately concerned about Sri Lanka asked him how he did it. His reply began, ‘I wake up at 4 o’clock every morning.’
  • The final question could have been a classic of the genre. Told we needed her to be very brief, the questioner read from her phone a brief essay explaining that she’d only just started reading the book but saw it as an obituary for the casualties of war. A question followed but I didn’t make a note

Oh, I should mention that had been allocated excellent seats, four rows from the front, in the middle of the row

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2023: My first day

At the end of one of the cool, cloudless autumn days that makes you love Gadigal-Wangal land in the Sydney Basin, we headed to the Carriageworks for the Sydney Writer’s Festival. We took our seats in Bay 17 and remembered too late that if you allow the booking office to give you the ‘best available seats’, they’ll put you right up the front on the very end of a row, so you risk a stiff neck from watching everything in profile. Next year I’ll remember! My grumpiness evaporated when the show started.

6.30 Opening Night Address
(link is to the SWF website blurb on the event, as I plan to link event titles for the rest of the Festival)

After a huge, loud ad for the City of Sydney, Uncle Michael West did an eloquent welcome to Country, pointing out that the Carriageworks was once an important source of employment for Aboriginal people who came to Redfern from far and wide.

Then we had a number of necessary speakers, who all managed their curtain-raiser status with grace. Brooke Webb, the festival’s CEO, thanked its many partners. John Graham, the NSW Minister for the Arts, by his mere presence demonstrated that the ALP values art and literature more than the other side of politics, and in a well crafted speech managed to quote appositely from Frank Moorhouse, Sarah Holland-Batt, and Shehan Karunatilaka (who we’re going to hear tomorrow night). Edward Federman, Executive Chair of ARA, the construction company that is the festival’s principal partner, won my heart by talking about brining his granddaughter to Children’s Day ten years ago, and every year since. Ann Mossop, Artistic Director, was mercifully brief and introduced the speakers.

As has been the custom recently, the address was a multivocal affair. Four writers were invited to address the theme, ‘How the Past Shapes the Future’.

Bernadine Evaristo, author of Girl, Woman, Other and Mr Loverman (links to my blog posts), began with a quote from Oscar Wilde: ‘The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.’ She then said a lot of things that need to be said again an again – about the way the ruling class and the dominant culture tell a narrative, inculcate a timeline that negates the experience of women, conquered peoples, etc. She spoke mainly of England, and had fun with the notion that Cheddar Man. the earliest human remains found in England has recently been discovered to have black skin: the great grandfather of England and possibly of Europe was Black. Now, she said, the marginalised are moving the centre towards them. We need to know and honour multiple timelines.

Alexis Wright, currently looms large in my reading life with her mammoth novel Praiseworthy. I won’t try to summarise her talk. She began by saying that she has tried to write about living in the all times. Aboriginal culture doesn’t have linear time in the way western culture does. ‘We live in the eternal clock of country.’ ‘we cannot step out of or apart from the pulse of country.’ She spoke with wonderful gravitas, sometimes stumbling over her words, as she tried to communicate across a great cultural divide. My companion observed on the way home that not so long ago when white people spoke as allies to Aboriginal people the discourse was about alleviating the harshness with which these oppressed people were treated. Now, thanks to Alexis Wright and other people doing this mammoth labour, we white people are coming to understand that we have a lot to learn from First Nations people – a lot we need to learn.

Benjamin Law, creator of The Family Law and author of the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101, had a hard act to follow. He managed it with wit and charm and intelligence. Ten years ago he was thrilled to be invited to his first Sydney Writers’ Festival. When a volunteer asked him how he was enjoying the festival, he said how delighted he was. The volunteer said, ‘Enjoy it while it lasts. It won’t last forever.’ Ten years later, he knows he belongs here, knows he belongs in writers’ rooms for TV shows, and when he encounters shocking (to me) dismissiveness of his presence as a token non-white, he takes comfort from that volunteer’s words. Things are changing. This stuff won’t last forever.

Madison Godfrey (pronouns they/them) put a similarly personal spin on the Past-Future theme. They read a medley of poems from their second book, Dress Rehearsal, asking us to imagine them as a young emo in the first poems, and as an older emo (not so old from my perspective) in the later ones. There was a memorable image of wanting to press one’s face into the tattoo on a loved one’s back like an old woman smelling a mango before putting it in her shopping basket. And they finished up with a glorious ode to their kneecaps – at one stage inviting the audience to join in on a kind of refrain.

The place was buzzing as we all headed out into the brisk night air.

2023 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards night

Tonight, the New South Wales Premier’s Literature Awards were announced at an event livestreamed from the State Library of NSW. I missed the start but got to see two of Debra Dank’s four acceptance speeches, and Sara Mansour and Bilal Hafda accepting the Special Award on behalf of Bankstown Poetry Slam (Bilal’s hands were a joy to watch). It’s been a while since a Premier has actually presented the awards – Chris Minns may be the first to do it since Christina Keneally in 2011. The recording is on YouTube, and I can think of worse ways to spend a couple of hours if you’re interested in Australian literary culture.

The winners (with links to the judges’ comments):

UTS Glenda Adam’s Award for New Writing: We Come With This Place, DEBRA DANK (Echo Publishing)

Indigenous Writers’ Prize: We Come With This Place, DEBRA DANK (Echo Publishing)

Multicultural NSW Award: The Eulogy, JACKIE BAILEY (Hardie Grant)

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting: Whitefella Yella Tree, DYLAN VAN DEN BERG (Griffin Theatre Company/ Currency Press)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting: Blaze, DEL KATHRYN BARTON and HUNA AMWEERO (Causeway Films)

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize: People from Bloomington, BUDI DARMA, translated from Indonesian by TIFFANY TSAO (Penguin Classics)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature: The Upwelling, LYSTRA ROSE (Hachette Australia)

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature: The First Scientists: Deadly Inventions and Innovations from Australia’s First Peoples, COREY TUTT and BLAK DOUGLAS (Hardie Grant)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry: The Singer and Other Poems, KIM CHENG BOEY (Cordite Books)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction: We Come With This Place, DEBRA DANK (Echo Publishing)

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction: Women I Know, KATERINA GIBSON (Scribner)

The People’s Choice Award: Every Version of You, GRACE CHAN (Affirm Press)

The Special Award: Bankstown Poetry Slam

Book of the Year: We Come With This Place, DEBRA DANK (Echo Publishing)

The evening ended with a bunch of flowers to Jane McCredie, Senior Judge, to mark her final year in that role.

I have read exactly none of the winning books, plays or TV shows, but I am a huge fan of the Bankstown Poetry Slam and couldn’t be more delighted by that award.

Books I read in July [2007]

[I originally posted this in my old blog on 31 July 2007, but didn’t retrieve it when I moved to the WordPress platform. I’m republishing it now because I’m about to blog about Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy, and what I wrote about Carpentaria here is true of Praiseworthy as well. Retrieving the post is also a tiny way of having the blog mark Robert Adamson’s death on 16 December last year.]

Robert Adamson, The Goldfinches of Baghdad (Flood Editions 2006)
Alexis Wright, Carpentaria (Giramondo 2006)
Marjane Satrapi, Chicken with Plums (Jonathan Cape 2006)
J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Bloomsbury 2007) (begun)
Harold Bloom’s Best Poems (continuing)


The Goldfinches of Baghdad includes an elegy for Arkie Whitely, thereby providing a smooth segue from the last book I read in June, Another Country, which is dedicated to her. Bob Adamson’s book is published by a US company. Couldn’t he find an Australian publisher? Or does this give him a crack at a larger readership? Or is it just an an example of globalisation with no subtext at all?

The book is in three sections, of which I expect to reread the first two many times. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, or the music that happened to be playing as I read, but these poems, almost all of them featuring birds, the Hawkesbury River and/or fishing by night, just picked me up and took me with them: the word that comes to my mind for the interplay of real birds, the real river and what the poet’s mind makes of them is ‘charming’, as in having magical force. Without a hint of appropriation of Aboriginal stories or images, it seems to me, Adamson manages to create a sense of sacred involvement with his country.

After been immersed, as it were, in whitefella Robert Adamson’s Hawkesbury, it felt quite natural to move on to Carpentaria, which starts with a river. This is from page 2:

Imagine the serpent’s breathing rhythms as the tide flows inland, edging towards the spring waters nestled deep in the gorges of an ancient limestone plateau covered with rattling grasses dried yellow from the prevailing winds. Then with the outward breath, the tide turns and the serpent flows back to its own circulating mass of shallow waters in the giant water basin in the crook of the mainland whose sides separate it from the open sea. To catch this breath in the river you need the patience of one who can spend days doing nothing.

The book is like nothing else I’ve ever read. I suspect that my decades of working as an editor, mainly of things written for children, have set me up for a quite distinctive relationship to it. It matters to me that words are used with their correct meanings (I hate ‘discomfit’ being used to mean ‘make uncomfortable’, for instance), that punctuation and spelling are correct (though I yearn for spelling reform and love George Bernard Shaw’s spelling of ‘fish’ as ‘ghoti’ and, truly, am not a rule-bound comma-curmudgeon), and that writing makes syntactical sense (I cringe when ‘none’ is used with a plural verb, but I acknowledge that no meaning is lost and don’t see it as absolutely incorrect). Mixed metaphors, stock phrases, tautologies, inconsistencies, all are guaranteed to turn me off or – if I’m so empowered – to make me reach for the blue pencil. I think of these attitudes as constituting a passion for the language, and of myself in my small way as a defender of its integrity. Well, Carpentaria is like a grenade lobbed into the middle of that way of reading.

It’s a wonderful book, richly poetic (I defy anyone to read it quickly), passionate, and funny. There are extraordinary, surreal set pieces, a stunningly original cast of characters and a plot full of surprising turns. But the most striking thing about it is the language. Alexis Wright has said that she based the narrator’s voice on a conversation she overheard between two old Aboriginal men in the street in Alice Springs. I don’t doubt it. But this isn’t Aboriginal English, or a literary equivalent of it, as the language of Beasts of No Nation suggests an African English. It’s pretty standard English, but as used by someone coming at it from outside: it contains every one of the things that make my editor’s heart shrink and fingers twitch, with the possible exception of the greengrocer’s comma: a dog lies with its belly belly-up; something has ‘flown the coup’. I had been shocked to read Ivor Indyk, redoubtable editor-in-chief of Giramondo, quoted in the newspaper as saying that the manuscript when he first saw it was ‘woolly’. But I now think he was misquoted, or at least misunderstood. He was most likely referring to the peculiar challenge this book must have posed to any copy editor: what in almost any other manuscript would have been errors to be corrected, in this one are integral elements. Here’s a passage, chosen at random:

Initially, on that eventual morning, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the month of November, when Gordie did not play the remembrance bugle, everyone thought: Alright! Something is astray. Something smells mightily funny to me. Although, at first, everyone had thought very little about it. Perhaps Gordie was sick with the summer flu. Nothing to be done about that. Life went on as usual. Desperance was a normal town where even the bugle player had as much right as everyone else to get sick with influenza and stay home in bed. Normal people knew how to tell the time without depending on a clock, or a signal, and had enough decency, unlike the rest of the country, to stand for a minute’s silence in respect of the fallen on the eleventh hour, even without the bugle of the returned, to remind them.

There are some changes that a competent copy editor would make almost automatically to this: change ‘mightily’ to ‘mighty’, delete the comma between ‘returned’ and ‘to remind them’ (this kind of mis-comma-ing is rampant in the book, often rendering the sense very difficult to determine), change ‘on the eleventh hour’ to ‘at the eleventh hour’. One who had slavishly subjected his or her will to the style manual would ruthlessly make other changes: fix the fragments ‘Although … about it’ and ‘Nothing to be done about that’, amend ‘Alright’ to ‘All right’. Someone with an eye for redundancy and consistency would suggest fixes for the contradiction between what ‘everyone thought’ initially and what ‘everyone had thought’ at first; would query the assertion that ‘normal people’ were ‘unlike the rest of the country’; would circle ‘flu’ and ‘influenza’ and the repeated ‘on the eleventh hour’. This tidying up would make the passage read more smoothly, and make its meaning easier to access, but what it would lose is exactly the thing that is so distinctive about the prose: its outsider quality. The narrator loves language. The words come tumbling out, alliterative, onomatopoeic, idiosyncratic … and in some sense out of control.

In one of her many appearances at the Sydney Writers Festival this year, Inga Clendinnen said that whereas essayists invite the reader to come on a companionable walk with them, writers of fiction are always playing Catch Me If You Can. That may be true of some, even most, novelists: they build worlds which they invite us to enter. Reading Carpentaria, one feels that the author is running as hard as anyone else trying to catch up with her own creation. I mean no disrespect when I say that the book is less a raid on, than a prolonged campaign by, the inarticulate. The language is out of control and refuses to be tied down to the rules of ordinary discourse. It might seem that I’m talking about a trivial aspect of the book, and perhaps I am. But I found it profoundly challenging; it invaded my dreams. And the constantly unnerving play with language is a key part of that challenge.

[Added 7 August 2005:
Ivor Indyk was quoted in Thorpe’s Weekly Book Newsletter as saying of Carpentaria:

It was quite an intellectual challenge for me as an editor: there are ungrammatical moments that you wouldn’t want to cut out, even though your training tells you to ‘fix’ them.

Which says elegantly a lot of what I was trying to say.]


Marjane Satrapi’s stark black and white comic strips provided a brief holiday from Alexis Wright’s tumultuous ride. The plot of Chicken with Plums has been unkindly summarised on LibraryThing: ‘a man without his musical instrument is depressed.’ Which is like ‘old man gets dementia’ as a summary for King Lear. It’s a fine romantic tale about true love lost twice over. I’m glad to see that Satrapi can move on from her powerful autobiographical Persepolis, and tell this touching, complex tale so elegantly. (All the same, I’m eager for the English version of Persepolis, tome trois, in which Marjane goes to Austria.)


I continue to make my meditative way through the Harold Bloom anthology, and I’m mostly enjoying it and getting an education. For someone who has a reputation as being a great upholder of the canon of great writers, he’s remarkably idiosyncratic in his selection of ‘the best poems in the English language’, and in his annotations on the selection. I think I already mentioned that he disparages Edgar Alan Poe, but includes a poem or two because he’s so popular. Well, when he gets on to Ezra Pound, our Harold makes no bones about despising the Fascist anti-Semitic montageur, and he takes eight pages ripping into him, followed by one poem, a translation from mediaeval French, included because Pound is an excellent translator. At least that’s why Harold says he included it; it’s pretty darned obvious that the poem’s there because without it he wouldn’t have been able to include his extended anti-Pound bile. Of course the publisher probably came up with the book’s title: Shorter English and United States Poems I Feel Like Anthologising, with Some Notes on Poets I Hate would have been more accurate, but isn’t as catchy.


Given Professor Bloom’s feet of clay, I don’t feel any need at all to defend myself against his judgement on the Harry Potter books: ‘Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? Yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter.’ I did, however, have to overcome other sources of reluctance – I’ve not been totally grabbed by what I’ve read of the saga previously; I had an unpleasant exchange of emails with JKR’s agent nearly a decade ago; and I’m moderately disgusted by the way the press piles onto the Potter bandwagon, heaping lazy and ignorant generalised scorn on the extraordinary wealth of other works written for children. But I joined the 35+ million, and bought the children’s edition at the recommended retail price, of which Gleebooks assures me a certain amount will go to the Fred Hollows Indigenous Literacy Program. I wanted to read for myself HOW IT ENDS. I’m half way through it as I upload this, and so far, I have to say, it’s also like no other book I’ve read – in this case because of the constant sense that I’m not just reading a book but taking part in a major cultural event, being just one of millions of people absorbing these very words at roughly this very time. Having found out ten minutes ago what the Deathly Hallows are, I still want to know what happens next.

Journal Catch-up 19

I’m almost caught up on my journal-reading. This isn’t a result of my diligence, but of the difficulties besetting literary journals just now. Heat has been appearing like clockwork, but the Summer 2022 edition of Overland arrived in my mailbox in mid Autumn 2023, and Southerly and the Australian Poetry Journal and Anthology – to which I subscribe – haven’t published hard-copy issues for two years.

Here are two almost-current issues, blogged with attention to page 76 as per my arbitrary blog policy.

Alexandra Christie (editor), Heat Series 3 Nº 7 (Giramondo 2023)

From the Heat website:

The first issue of HEAT was published in July 1996, in the wake of the Demidenko Affair, in which an Australian author of English background posed as Ukrainian in order to gain credibility for her Holocaust-inspired novel. The anger provoked by this hoax accounts in large part for the magazine’s name, and a commitment to the publication of genuinely diverse writing.

The third series is different from the first two in many ways, but it continues to make a rich contribution to Australian literary culture through its commitment to writing from non-British backgrounds. This issue includes translations from Chinese, Spanish, French and Ukrainian, as well as work by two non-Anglo Australians – П.O. and Eda Gunaydin. Five poems by Melbourne poet Gareth Morgan may make him an exception, though a man in one of his poems says, ‘He must be fresh off the boat,’ which seems to imply a non-Anglo appearance.

I most enjoyed Eda Gunaydin’s ‘Fuck Up’, a comic tale of two young Anglo men who set up a Go Fund Me for an imaginary anti-Islamophobia conference, whose scheme goes awry when they find themselves actually trying to organise the conference. Two stories by Zhu Yue (translated from Chinese by Jianan Qian and Alyssia Asquith) reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges; Andriy Lyubka ‘Roasted Uganda’ (translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan), a letter from the war in Ukraine, is available to read on the Heat website.

Noémie Lefebvre’s ‘Les non-dupes errent and other ghosts’ (translated by Sophie Lewis), which begins on page 76, overcame my codgerly resistance to stories that invoke French Theorists: the narrator is stuck in the middle of writing a tragedy, pondering the futility of literature given the state of the world and remembering her mother’s anorexia as she prepares to eat some toast – as one does – when Lacan (no first name) turns up and they have a weirdly obscure, but funny and resonant conversation.

Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 249 (Summer 2022)
(Some of the content – less than in the past – is online at the revamped Overland website, and I’ve included links)

Apart from its usual excellent content this issue of Overland brought tears to my eyes with a letter to ‘the Overland family’ from the editors committing themselves to the MEAA’s Freelance Charter, which among other things means not passing on the effects of funding challenges to their contributors. I’m an MEAA member, book editors’ section. They’ve just guaranteed that I’ll keep subscribing for the foreseeable.

The issue kicks off with an excoriation of Heather Rose’s Bruny, which almost makes me want to read the novel to see if Elias Grieg, the excoriator, might have failed to notice that the narrative was deeply ironic. But I can resist. There are also interesting articles on forced adoption (by EJ Clarence), brain tumour as experienced by an environmental activist (Bonnie Etherington), and language liberation (Natalia Figueroa Barroso).

Of the generous array of poems, I most enjoyed Ouyang Yu’s uncharacteristically upbeat ‘To Richard Ouyang’, a meditation on the naming of his bicultural son.

There are five short stories, including one (by Avi Leibovitch) that features a talking cat, another (by Tim Loveday) that features small dogs in a bushfire (and mentions in passing a horrific practice in commercial dog-breeding), a family drama (by Rob Johnson) told from a child’s point of view (‘it was like a movie and I wasn’t part of it’). I enjoyed all of them. Fortuitously the one beginning on page 76, ‘Black Spring’ by Hossein Asgari, is perhaps the most interesting.

The protagonist of ‘Black Spring’ is a university teacher who has moved back in with his parents during the pandemic. It begins:

He pushes his chair back and stretches his limbs, turning himself into a multiplication sign before taking his glasses off and rubbing his eyes. He knows how they must look: red, irritated, thirsty for a few artificial tears. Has he just snapped at a student? In an online class which was recorded? God damn it! He slams his laptop shut, opens his desk drawer, picks up his eyedrops, and walks to the window. His father still squats where he’s been for the last hour, under the shade of the fig tree, a garden trowel in his hand.

The family relationships reveal themselves – the father is in early stages of dementia, the mother has health issues, the pandemic brings its own problems, it’s not easy working from home when it’s also your parents’ home, and so on. It reads as a Melbourne story, like most of Overland‘s contents, with mild hints of non-Anglo culture in the father’s habit of sucking on sugar cubes, or the mother’s offer of a choice between dates and dark chocolate with a cup of tea. Then there’s a deft reveal, first with the mention of an Imam influencing the water supply, and then with a place name, that the story is unfolding in Iran. No big deal is made of the reveal, and the story continues – a sweet, understated piece of anti-Othering.

Heat 8 has already landed (and been reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog). The good things just keep coming.

Middlemarch: Final progress report

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 73 to end

I had lunch last week with a friend from university days, who remembered me going on about Middlemarch back then. Apparently I was very keen on Casaubon’s doomed project, the Key to All Mythologies. My friend assured me that my keenness was ironic, but maybe in his heart of hearts the young me feared he had a lot in common with Casaubon.

As I read the book this time, two things stood out for me that I’m pretty sure I took for granted in 1968 (yes, it’s been that long!).

First, the main characters are very young, and the narrator speaks with the gravity of experience. In 1968 I read a contemporary review that, from memory, began by saying that reading George Eliot’s prose was like lifting the heavy lid of a sarcophagus. I was at a loss to understand what the reviewer meant, but this time around the narrator’s world-weariness is clear as a bell, along with her deep affection for, and possibly even envy of, the young characters.

Second, there’s a serious concern with money. Dorothea can be virtuous because she inherited a small fortune from her mother, and she inherits a further substantial fortune when Casaubon dies. Part of her virtue for most of the novel consists of a commitment to use her wealth well: she sets out to be a decent landlord, but never considers that her wealth is created by the labour of the people she means to be kind to. (Marx was still working on Das Kapital when Middlemarch was published, but George Eliot had almost certainly read Les misérables.) Lydgate comes from gentry, but is determined to make his own way as a doctor and scientist. Rosamond is all about wanting affluence without worrying where it comes from. Fred gets into serious trouble by gambling, and finds his way to responsible work.

These two strands come together brilliantly in the climactic scene at the end of Chapter 83. Dorothea and Will have just declared their love for each other, all doubts as to the other’s integrity dissolved, and they have faced the apparent impossibility of marriage because of the terms of Casaubon’s will:

‘Oh, I cannot bear it – my heart will break,’ said Dorothea, starting from her seat, the flood of her young passion bearing down all the obstructions which had kept her silent – the great tears rising and falling in an instant: ‘I don’t mind about poverty – I hate my wealth.’

(Page 923)

It’s been stated explicitly much earlier that Dorothea could renounce what she has inherited from Casaubon, but only now does she see that as a real option. ‘I hate my wealth’ – the wealth is a kind of prison from which she can escape.

But the word ‘young’ is crucial here. The narrator and the reader know not to take her outburst literally. Will takes her in his arms and, looking into his eyes, she says ‘in a sobbing childlike way’:

‘We could live quite well on my own fortune – it is too much – seven hundred a-year – I want so little – no new clothes – and I will learn what everything costs.’

(Page 924)

So, she doesn’t really hate her wealth as such, only the part of it that constrains her. She’s hardly opting for poverty. The narrator sees that, and so do we, but we can still appreciate the moral leap she is making. And that wonderful final clause, so clearly the cry of a young person – ‘I will learn what everything costs’ – sends echoes back through the whole book. Fred has had to learn the cost of his gambling; Lydgate the cost of marrying unwisely; Rosamond, however briefly, the cost of dalliance. Even some of the older generations learn what things cost – notably Mr Bulstrode whose sins find him out.

I’l miss the world of Middlemarch. I’ll wait a couple of weeks before I plunge into my next slow-read project, in no hurry to have George Eliot’s voice fade from the front of my mind. I’ll give her the last word, from the beginning of the ‘Finale’:

Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic – the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.

(Page 945)

That’s from Mary Ann Evans, towards the end of a book dedicated ‘To my dear husband’, to whom – scandalously – she was happily not married.

The Book Group and Percival Everett’s Trees

Percival Everett, The Trees: A novel (Graywolf Press 2021)

Before the meeting: This is another excellent book I wouldn’t have read but for my wonderful book group.

The book moves disconcertingly from genre to genre. After a bit of hayseed comedy, it develops into one of those murder mysteries where wisecracking out-of-town detectives arrive to help resentful local cops with an apparently insoluble case. Then there’s some social satire as the detectives, who are both African-American, make fun of the racism endemic in the small town. It’s all good TV detective show fun with an anti-racist bent.

Then the corpses multiply, each murder scene featuring a dead and mutilated White person paired with a long-dead Black person whose clenched fist holds the other’s severed testicles. It could be a highly implausible serial-killer yarn, or a revenge ghost story about racist violence in the USA (against Chinese people as well as African Americans, as the narrative makes unnervingly clear). A magic realist parable, perhaps, in which the murder scenes eerily evoke, and partly reverse, iconic images of lynchings? Or a tale of witchcraft? Certainly one key character identifies as a witch, but then she is also an amateur archivist who has accumulated records of thousands of lynchings from 1913 to the present. Or maybe, as the plot widens, it’s a zombie apocalypse, one whose allegorical meaning lies right on the surface. And Donald Trump makes an appearance. In the end, it’s a genre mash-up that manages – perilously – to stay coherent.

It’s all – to quote Quentin Tarantino from another context – ‘so much fun’. But it doesn’t lose sight of the monstrous historical reality. For example, one chapter consists of a ten-page list of names, in the manner of a spread in Claudia Rankine’s brilliant book, Citizen (my blog post here), and reminding me of Nana Kwama Adjei-Brenyah’s short story ‘The Finkelstein 5’, in which Black vigilantes kill random white people while shouting the names of Black people who have been murdered (my blog post about Friday Black, the book the story appears in, here).

A book that plays around like this with form and genre, that preaches a little, chills a lot and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, has to work brilliantly at the scene level and even the sentence level. This one does. I could give lots of examples, but take the moment at about the one-quarter mark, when the detectives, Ed and Jim, visit the juke joint on the edge of town.

The narrator doesn’t say so, but everyone in the joint is Black. Apart from one character who passes for White and another who is revealed to be Black late in the book, this is Ed and Jim’s first encounter with the town’s Black people. (In classic movie structure the one-quarter mark is the second turning point, often involving a change of location.) When they walk in, everything stops:

Jim and Ed stared back at the staring faces.
‘Yes, we’re cops,’ Jim said loudly. ‘And we don’t like it either. Everybody carry on. Have fun. Break the law, if you like.’
A couple of people laughed, then others. There was the sound of someone breaking a rack at the pool table in back. The dancing and chatting started up again.

(Page 75)

Maybe you have to enjoy writers like Elmore Leonard to be tickled by moments like this. I do and I am. You almost don’t notice that what is being described is a tacit alliance, or at least deep mutual understanding, among the Black characters, whether they’re cops, people relaxing at a bar, or possibly murderers.

What happens as Ed and Jim question the bartenders continues on that note. The bartenders express no sorrow for the racist White men who have been killed, but it’s different with the photograph of the Black corpse whose face has been beaten in. This corpse has appeared at the first murder scene, disappeared, turned up at the second murder scene, and disappeared again. Soon after this scene he will be identified [rest of this sentence whited out, but you can select it with your cursor if you don’t mind spoilers], mistakenly but with great thematic impact, with Emmett Till, whose murder sparked outrage in 1955. At this stage, most of the townspeople, Black and White, believe that this ancient corpse is somehow the murderer.

Jim pulled the picture from his pocket. ‘This is kind of hard to look at, but tell me if you recognise this man.’
The man cringed at the sight. ‘Ain’t nobody gonna recognise him. What the fuck happened?’
Jim shrugged. ‘If this man is alive, we want to find him before that cracker sheriff and his deputies do.’
‘How can that man be alive?’ the bartender asked.
Jim shrugged again.
‘Franklin, come here and look at this.’
The other bartender came over. Jim held up the photo for him to see. ‘Lord, have mercy. What’s that?’
‘That’s a human being,’ Ed said. ‘Somebody did that to another human being. Do you recognise him?’
The second man shook his head. ‘He must be dead. Is he dead?’
‘On and off,’ Jim said.
The man offered a puzzled look.
‘We don’t know,’ Ed said.

(Page 76)

‘Somebody did that to another human being’ lands like a well placed rock in the middle of the hard-boiled humour. It’s a sentence that is to gather force like a snowball in an avalanche. An awful lot of the writing in this book is as impeccable as that.

Why The Trees? Trees don’t feature in the book much at all. But a character sings the Billie Holiday classic (written by Abel Meeropol / Lewis Allan):

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Nearer to the meeting (spoiler): On Friday 28 April news broke that Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman whose accusation led to a notorious racist murder, had died. Percival Everett got there just before Real Life: in the novel Carolyn Bryant, aka Granny C, is the third person to die in the presence of the small Black corpse. It’s unlikely that the Real Life Carolyn Bryant even heard of this book, but the timing!

After the meeting: Tragically I came down with a heavy cold (not Covid) on the morning of the meeting, and spared them all the risk of infection. It’s now a couple of days later and the customary brief account of the evening hasn’t materialised, so all I can say in this section of my blog post is: a) one chap beforehand said he could barely read for tears of laughter, until the book went dark and the laughter dried up; b) on the night itself, the conversation turned – as it does – to identity politics, including pronouns (several of us have gender non-conforming family members or friends); and c) they all had a good time while I stayed home nursing a stuffy nose.