Category Archives: Books

Journal Catch-up 13

I used to call these posts Journal Blitzes, but there’s nothing very Blitzy about them. Just two journals this time: an Overland from a year ago and a Heat just one issue back.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 243 (Winter 2021)
(Much of the content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

This issue of Overland opens with a suite of excellent articles:

  • Coming through ceremony, a brief insider’s history by Kim Kruger of the Melbourne-based Aboriginal theatre company Ilbijerri, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year
  • A teleology of folding, and of dying by Dženana Vucic. Don’t be put off by the high-philosophic title. This is a lucid personal account of the complexities of being a white Muslim – a child refugee from Bosnia – who is now atheist and hipster-presenting yet still identifies viscerally with Muslims worldwide who are facing something akin to the Nazi holocaust
  • The bridge and the fire by Robbo Bennetts, published before the terrible floods of 2021–2022, and perhaps written before the terrible fires of 2020–2021, reflects on the effects of two disasters he has been close to: the Westgate Bridge collapse in 1970 and the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009
  • Torrey Peters Detransition, Baby, in which trans person Yves Rees reviews a novel that has a Sex and the City frothiness, but whose ‘window onto transfeminine interiority is nothing short of revolutionary’. Recommended reading for anyone struggling with their inner TERF.

In a welcome return to tradition, this issue includes the winner and two runners-up of a literary prize. The inaugural Kuracca Prize for Australian Literature, established by Overland in honour of the late Kerry Reed-Gilbert, is open to all Australian writers for fiction, poetry, essay, memoir, creative non-fiction, cartoon or graphic stories, and digital or audio storytelling. The winner this year is a short story, the runners up are a poem and a personal essay.

There’s a generous eight-page poetry section, and three short fictions, of which the stand-outs are ‘Tight lines’ by Allee Richards, a tale of the collateral pain when the main character’s relationship with a child is brought to an end by the ending of a relationship with the child’s father; and see you later by Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn, a vivid evocation of work on a dairy farm, which most satisfactorily brings up to date the genre of workplace short stories.


Alexandra Christie (editor), Heat Series 3 Nº 1 (Giramondo 2022)

Heat is back from hiatus. Series 2 Nº 24 was published in 2011 (my blog post here) with no promise of a return. Now here is Series 3, slimmer, with a new look and a new editor, promising to appear every two months and – in my opinion – well worth the annual subscription price of $120 (slightly more for individual copies). My sense is that the new, intimate format is better suited than the previous, book-sized issues to the limited attention spans of our image-dominated era – there’s also a deft use of images.

This issue, introducing a minimalist design by Jenny Grigg, kicks off with a one-page linocut by Ben Juers, which works mainly as a reminder that Heat has in the past included substantial sections of visual art. The main body is made up of:

  • ‘Only one refused’ by Mireille Juchau, a Heat veteran. The essay tracks down the story of a family member who survived the Nazi camps, and makes dramatic use of illustrations, including a double page spread of the ‘Hollerith card’ that recorded her relative’s physical features, and a photograph of ghostlike women recuperating in the Mauthausen infirmary soon after liberation (This article is on the Heat web site, at this link)
  • ‘Special Stuff’, a grim short story by Josephine Rowe, featuring a woman, man and baby doing a futuristic equivalent of ‘duck and cover’, seconds before a nuclear explosion
  • Five poems by Sarah Holland-Batt, all dealing with the death of parents. I’m especially glad to have read these so soon after hearing SH-B read at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (my blog post at this link). If these poems, especially ‘Pikes Peak’, are any indication, her latest book, The Jaguar (University of Queensland Press 2022), is definitely something I want to read
  • ‘Brief Lives’ by Brian Castro, a kind of Decameron for readers with short attention spans, blended with a lament about ageing, with raging bushfires as a backdrop
  • Death Takes Me’, fiction by Hispanic USer Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker and Robin Myers, an esoteric variation on a police procedural that opens with a quote from Renate Saleci to the effect that castration is a prerequisite for sexual relations, and does nothing to allay the scepticism the quote provokes.

Number 2 is waiting on my shelf, and I’m looking forward to reading it.


PS: There’s a word in the Heat that I need help with. In the Brian Castro story, there’s this, speaking of an ageing writer taking refuge in a guesthouse with a number of other people:

He thinks. He thinks too much. Never sleeping. Now that Eros is held in liam in the other room, he fades into ancient tapestries.

(page 69)

What does ‘liam’ mean? Or is it Iiam (that is, does it begin with a capital ‘I’ rather than a lower case ‘l’? Given Heat 2’s propensity for typos and malapropisms, it may be an error. But if so, what is the correct word? All answers welcome, even correct ones.

Clerihews, limerick, double dactyl

It’s a long time since I’ve been inspired to write silly verse about party politics. I’m still quite proud of this clerihew, from election night November 2007:

Kevin Michael Rudd
may turn out to be a dud
but at least we’ll no longer be showered
with the duplicitous spittle of Howard.

Here are a few attempts inspired by recent events.

Clerihew:

Scott John Morrison's
orisons
must have fallen on deaf ears. He
lost to Albanese.

And another clerihew:

Anthony Norman Albanese
won’t make everything magically easy
but now we will not
hear too much more from Scott.

Double dactyl:

Hokumen pokumen
PM Scott Morrison
counted on miracles,
came up with zip.

No longer licensed for
bloviatorial
chats to the press he must
button his lip.

Limerick:

There is a Gen X-er called Scott
Who boasted he stopped boats a lot.
He bulls and he dozes
And doesn't hold hoses
And very soon will be forgot.

Feel free to add yours in the comments.

Jimmy Barnes’s Working Class Boy

Jimmy Barnes, Working Class Boy (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)

This is a terrific book.

These days, Jimmy Barnes turns up on social media as a genial grandfather who makes music with his large family for the pleasure of a nation beleaguered by Covid and other ills. Once he was a hard living, hard-drinking rock star whose songs ‘Working Class Man’ and ‘Khe Sanh’, the latter sung as front man of Cold Chisel, have anthem status.

At the end of Working Class Boy, he more or less promises us the story of how he made the transition from then to now. This book is a prequel, a back story: ‘How I became Jimmy Barnes.’ It begins in poverty-stricken Glasgow where alcohol-fuelled violence is the norm in the streets and in the home. It takes us through the small boy’s emigration with his dysfunctional family to South Australia, where the town of Elizabeth is hardly less violent or alcohol-riven than Glasgow. It leaves off as Jimmy, now as addicted to alcohol and other substances as the next knockabout young man, sets off for Armidale with the newly formed Cold Chisel, not with any hope of peace or stability, but at least with the possibility of making it as a rock band.

It’s a harrowing story, but it doesn’t ask for pity, and it doesn’t feel as if it aims to shock. The writer uses his great skill as a yarn-spinner to keep the narrative alive, at the same time never letting the reader lose sight of his serious purpose, as he articulates it in the Acknowledgements:

There’s a lot of my past that I wanted to push out of my memory and never see again. But I couldn’t. I tried to drown my past in every possible way, but as long as it was festering inside me I could never really move on. My childhood affected every step I took over the rest of my life. It twisted the way I thought and the way I interacted with normal human beings. Eventually I realised that these wounds needed to be brought out in the open and aired if I ever wanted them to heal.

So I started trying to write things down.

(page 359)

I read Working Class Boy at the Emerging Artist’s suggestion, when I told her about Shuggie Bain. I’d read that novel for the Book Group (blog post to come in a couple of weeks), and was uneasy about its insistence on the main woman character’s wretchedness and victimhood amid alcohol-fuelled violence and poverty in Glasgow – was it a kind of misery porn? ‘Jimmy Barnes’s childhood was in Glasgow,’ the ER said.

It turned out that reading the books in close sequence increased my appreciation of both of them. I won’t talk about Shuggie Bain here.

None of Jimmy Barnes’s characters is a straightforward victim. He doesn’t hold back from telling us about his own violence, and sexism. He makes no excuses, but gives us glimpses of the inner struggles, and terrors, that he was dealing with at the time of his worst behaviour. The effect is that when he tells us about his mother’s and father’s violent moments, we aren’t invited to sit in judgement. It’s understood that they too are wrestling with demons. I was struck by his account of how his first son, David Campbell, was conceived and born when Jimmy was just 16. This episode of teenage sex and consequences can’t have been easy to write, but Barnes tells it with generosity to all involved, including David when he learned the truth of his origins. Then he says:

I don’t need to say much more about this time. Not to you guys anyway.

(Page 317)

How’s that for telling the reader to respect the writer’s boundaries?

Comparing the two books made me appreciate the quality of Barnesie’s humour (I hope it’s OK to call him that). Even as he laments the terrible damage wrought by alcohol and poverty, he celebrates the wit and resilience, and the sense of community, of the people involved. I came away from the scenes in Glasgow wanting to see a lot more more of the Glaswegians, though I’d prefer to be out of striking range. Many of his adolescent exploits have a terrific derring-do about them. There’s the time he drove a half a dozen drunken mates to the drive-in cinema in a car with no brakes, or the occasion when he and a few of his mates took LSD and got drunk before turning up at a party given by ‘a quiet young guy’ from the foundry, to find that the young guy ‘was a drag queen in his spare time’, and the party a great success.

The book pulls off the minor miracle of taking the reader along on this wild ride, feeling the excitement of it, but not losing sight of the human cost both for the writer and the other young men like him, and for the many people – girls, women, strangers – they damaged. I’m not drawn to celebrity autobiographies, but Jimmy Barnes’s Working Class Man (HarperCollinsAustralia 2018) just made it onto my TBR list.

SWF 2022, my Sunday

I managed to squeeze in a second Writers’ Festival event. I console myself that I’ll be able to listen to podcasts from the Festival over the next year, but I’m still sorry to have seen so little of it in person. The place was buzzing today

In the session I attended, The Unacknowledged Legislators, we were read to by eight poets. (It being poetry, it wasn’t hard to get a good seat at such a late moment.) The title comes from Shelley’s much-quoted assertion, ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ Declan Fry, emcee, said some elegant things about how poetry is a place where we can be free, where we can put our minds to things that we can’t quite say, so, invoking the theme of this year’s festival, it can literally change minds.

Tony Birch kicked things off with a number of short poems from his recently published collection, Whisper Songs, giving us a gentle introduction.

Eunice Andrada read from her second collection, TAKE CARE (link is to my blog post, as are the ones that follow). She read a number of confronting poems in solidarity with Filipina and other brown women.

Sarah Holland-Batt, author of the wonderful Fishing for Lightning, read from her most recent book of poetry, The Jaguar, poems written in the weeks and months after her father died. On the face of it these breathtaking poems about being with a dying parent aren’t political, but they drew tremendous political force from today’s context: Assisted Dying legislation has just been passed in the NSW parliament, and the federal election has removed from office a shamefully negligent Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services.

Madison ‘Maddie’ Godfrey describes herself as an emotional feminist. I don’t understand what that term means. She prefaced one of her poems with a ‘trigger warning for menstruation, endometriosis and sexy stuff’.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, author of The Hate Race, read from her collection How Decent Folk Behave. It was round about here that the poetry got explicitly political, in the sense of naming names and taking positions. She commented after one poem that it was a joy to be able to read it with a name that had to be taken out of the printed version on legal advice.

Sara M. Saleh describes herself as a Bankstown Poetry Slam Slambassador. Among the poems she read was one – I didn’t write down its name – that started out sounding like a fairly literal protest at the treatment of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints and became a powerful, joyous assertion of humanity in the face of belittling treatment.

Omar Musa, whose debut novel, Here Come the Dogs, we read at my Book Group, has also performed at the Bankstown Poetry Slam. He performed ‘UnAustralia’ (I think that’s its name), a provocative and witty rant, then said, ‘I like to fuck around,’ and followed it with a rich, complex, passionate, compassionate poem about visiting the mosque in Christchurch where people were killed last year – you could hear a pin drop.

The last poet, Jazz Money, whose debut collection how to make a basket was published in 2021, told us she had changed her mind about what to read after she heard the others. After an excellent though mild-mannered poem about the endangered night parrot, she treated us to ‘Mardi Gras Rainbow Dreaming’, which is the stuff that slam poems are made of, and after hearing which the commercialisation of Sydney’s Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras will never feel bearable again.

And that was my Festival for this year. The Director, Michael Williams, has moved on to be editor of The Monthly. Who knows what next year will bring?

SWF 2022, my Thursday

Mainly because of grandparenting commitments, I booked for just one event at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival – a conversation with the great African-American poet Claudia Rankine last night. Then that event was cancelled.

When this morning’s grandparenting commitments vanished, I decided to at least drop in on the Festival before reporting for afternoon duty.

The sun shone warm and bright on the Carriageworks. The mostly unmasked, mostly of retirement age punters queued cheerfully, milled around the piles of books, ate, drank, chatted and read. The mood was bookishly cheerful.

I asked a couple of people wearing the Festival’s Change My Mind t-shirt if they knew why Claudia Rankine’s event was cancelled, but no one had an answer, so I haven’t got any inside information. I do know that no one would blame Ms Rankine for deciding so soon after the racist killings in Buffalo that she had better things to do with her time than talk to a mainly white crowd several thousand miles from her home base.

I bought a copy of her new book, Just Us: An American Conversation, and look forward to reading it.

I also went looking for this year’s Book of the Year of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System, a graphic novel/comic by Safdar Ahmed. Alas, the book’s publisher has been caught off guard by its success, and no copies are available for sale at the Festival. I can wait.

I bought a ‘rush’ ticket to a midday session. The woman sitting beside me had just been to Fiona Murphy, My Life as a Walking Stick, which she said was a passionate talk by a physiotherapist, with a big emphasis on falling. My new friend said that the audience, who were almost all over 60, loved it. If you have a fall and don’t get up within 60 minutes your chance of survival is roughly 50 percent. Sadly the lights dimmed before she could spell out just what that means. I just had time to thank her – ‘You may have just saved my life’ – before the session began.

It was A Critical Eye, a panel/conversation involving three people, each of whom wears many literary hats including the literary critic hat: Declan Fry, Delia Falconer and Eda Gunaydin (links are to the Festival notes on the participants).

I went into the session with a vague hope that the conversation would help me think more clearly about what it is that I do on this blog. I don’t think of myself as a critic so much as a reader with a keyboard and time to use it, but there is definitely an overlap with what reviewers and critics do.

The conversation started out with the notion of longevity. Delia Falconer first starting writing criticism in 1992 when it was paid decently and was a way of earning an income while doing other writing (she has written novels, non-fiction (including Sydney, which my Book Group read and loved), history, and biography. Ena Gunadyin was born that year. They talked about the way festivals such as this one currently tend to feature debut writers, even fetishise newness, which can lead to a degree of anxiety, of ‘churn and burn’ in those new writers as well as a possible neglect of the elders of the writing community (that’s my term, not theirs).

The conversation was pretty free-range – all three had incisive things to say about reviews/criticism. I took scrappy notes, so please don’t blame the three presenters if I write something crass or stupid here.

Are there conventions to which a review or piece of criticism must adhere? Well, yes and no. Declan said that a piece of criticism was a response to a creative work, and can take any form. Ena kind of disagreed, invoking Marx’s dictum that the aim was not just to discuss the world but to change it. Delia spoke of the way criticism has changed over the decades: once, a critic’s job was to discuss how well a piece of writing succeeded in achieving its aims, and to map its cultural context; and while that may still be true, there has been a cultural shift so that many excellent reviews these days are more akin to personal essays than to objective analyses. At one time a review went out into the void. Now, with the internet and especially social media, it can become part of an immediate conversation. (I remember my surprise the first time the author of a book I’d blogged about turned up in my comments section!)

My vague hope wasn’t completely dashed. There seemed to be general agreement that it was a cop-out for a critic to say he or she couldn’t talk meaningfully about, say, a book by a First Nations poet because he/she, the critic, was a white settler. I think it was Declan, who describes himself as a proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta. People who are invested in a work will write differently from people who aren’t, but there’s no reason a settler can’t be invested in a First Nations work: the ‘meta-critical’ task is to articulate the nature of that investment.

There was more. If this turns out to be my only session of the Festival I won’t feel too bad about it.

The Iliad: Progress report 5

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 12 line 42 to Book 14 line 407

For the last five months, I’ve beenreading roughly 70 lines of The Iliad each morning, and it’s a great way to start the day. I expect to finish reading it by the end of this year

Books 12 and 13 are mainly accounts of horrific fighting. There’s some attention to tactics as the Trojans, supported by Zeus, attack the Greeks’ ships, and the Greeks, surreptitiously helped by Poseidon in spite of Zeus having forbidden it, inflict serious damage right back.Robert Fagles’ translation goes for anatomical precision where Pope, for example, is much more general and so less visceral in effect. I actually gasped aloud at least once. I’ll spare my reader’s sensibilities and not give an example.

I have so many questions. Is this an anti-war poem – a cry of despair about ‘the surging inhuman blaze of war’ (Book 12, line 205)? If so, what to make of its talk of glory and the joy of battle? Like this (Book 13, lines 398–399):

Only a veteran steeled at heart could watch that struggle
and still thrill with joy and never feel the terror.

If The Iliad is a foundational text of western culture, what kind of civilisation is this, where killing and robbing the freshly dead are honourable deeds? What is a man in this culture? What are we to make of the seemingly endless lists of warriors? Do they refer to stories and histories that were familiar to the book’s original leaders and listeners? Or are at least some of them Homer’s inventions? (Either way, it’s a formidable feat on Homer’s part.) Are the gods there as light relief, or as anything more than a whimsical embodiment of the idea that things aren’t always under human control?

Today I’m in the middle of an episode in which Hera decides to seduce her brother–consort Zeus. Many lines have been spent describing her alluring attire and perfuming. She has tricked Aphrodite into giving her a breastband, ‘pierced and alluring, with every kind of enchantment woven through it’, and bargained with Sleep to knock Zeus out after she has had it off with him. Now she flies to Zeus on Mount Ida and ‘at one glance / the lust came swirling over him, making his heart race’. He then tries to sweet-talk her into going to bed with him, little knowing that this is exactly what she is planning. To my mind, his seduction speech is hilarious. He says his lust for her at this moment is greater than any he’s ever had for goddess or mortal woman, and proceeds to list his past conquests. I’ve peeked ahead and see that his speech works, or at least it doesn’t put Hera off. And after all the horror of the battlefield, here’s the passage about the gods making love that I’ve just glimpsed in tomorrow’s reading (Zeus is the son of Cronos):

With that the son of Cronus caught his wife in his arms
and under them now the holy earth burst with fresh green grass,
crocus and hyacinth, clover soaked with dew, so thick and soft
it lifted their bodies off the hard, packed ground ...
Folded deep in that bed they lay and round them wrapped
a marvellous cloud of gold, and glistening showers of dew
rained down around them both.

Phew! And I expect that the rest of Hera’s plan, which will let Poseidon come out into the open to help the Greeks, will also go ahead … up to a point.

It’s brilliant story-telling to have this interlude as an emotional respite in the middle of the terrible man-on-man fighting and killing. But to return to my question: does it represent some understanding of the nature of the gods; is there a theological point to the episode? I expect a lot of scholarly ink has been spent on that and similar questions.

I have no idea. In the same way, I don’t understand the ancient Greek concept of the Hero, which is very important to this book. But the abrupt change of perspective that happens when the story turns to the gods felt strangely familiar. I realised that having recently read the current issue of Southerly (my blog post here) and then read news items on the current election campaign, I had encountered a similar switch. First I was immersed in personal accounts of people who have suffered under the Australian government’s policy about ‘boat people’. Then, coming up for air, I read the abstractions and personality-based coverage of the election, some of which would be mildly laughable if it wasn’t so consequential., where if refugees and asylum seekers in detention are mentioned at all, they are counters in a game of wedge and counter-wedge. So if I happen to say that a particular politician is godlike, please understand that I have the petty, lustful, self-serving, deceitful and arrogant gods of Homer in mind.

Journal Blitz 12

‘Blitz’ is becoming less and less appropriate as a title for this series of posts. This one in particular has been a long time coming, but both these journals manage to have relevance to the current headlines. The Overland is co-edited by Evelyn Araluen, whose book of poetry Dropbears has just won the Stella Prize, and the Southerly shines a harsh light on both major Australian parties as a federal election campaign is heating up.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 242 (Autumn 2021)
(The content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

Let me walk you through this issue of Overland.

As usual, I skipped the editorial, beyond noticing that it opens with an apposite reminder of continuity: ‘Overland was founded with dual commitments to literary quality, and to publishing and fostering diverse writers.’

First, 51 pages of articles, kicking off with ‘The invisible sea‘ by Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn, which takes up a fifth of the journal to look at fracking in the Northern Territory: its contribution to climate change, its violation of First Nations people’s rights, its political and economic shortsightedness, its potentially disastrous effect on the Great Artesian Basin (the invisible sea of the title), the treatment of whistleblowers, and the lies, half-lies of distortions of fossil-fuel lobbyists and complicit government agencies. All this is told with a meticulous marshalling of data, and acknowledgement of the ‘data desert’ in which much of the extractive activity takes place, interwoven with moments of poetry, considerations of water as symbol, and snippets of the writer’s life story. The result is that the excellent summary of the state of things is also a personal call to arms:

Rather than ‘saving the children’, we need to equip young people with the resources for an ecologically, socially and economically just future. There is no way we can achieve this without addressing the traumas entrenched in our collective memory. But young people are powerful. We are embodied change, and youth should not be underestimated.

After this atypically long piece comes the very short ‘Libations‘, an impressionistic memoir/meditation by Cherry Zheng, whose mother migrated to Australia at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre; and ‘Hopeless labour‘ by Giles Fielke, another relatively short article that focuses on the way universities exploit their casual staff, though it sends sparks flying in so many directions that it’s hard to say that it’s about any one thing.

In ‘A house in the country spells death‘, Aidan Coleman regales us with tales from the unruly life of poet John Forbes – foreshadowing his biography of Forbes due out soon. ‘Reclaiming Space’ by Robert Poposki, subtitled ‘An essay of autotheory’, reflects on the ‘tired and gendered French concept’ of the flâneur, argues that walking is still a good thing, and includes autobiographical anecdotes sequestered in text boxes – anecdotes that don’t obviously relate to flânerie or any kind of walking.

Second, the poetry section, starting with the judges’ notes on the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and the four winning poems. (This is the first issue under the new editorial team to include prize results, and there are two!)

It may be parochial of me, but I’m delighted that Sara M Saleh of Western Sydney won the prize with ‘Border Control: Meditations‘. It and the runners-up are all here, plus another generous seven page feast of poetry.

More parochialism from me; The fiction section, which comes next, starts with judges’ notes on the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize 2021, followed by the winning story, ‘The Case of G: A Child Raised by Trains‘ by Inner-Western Sydney poet Tricia Dearborn, a wonderfully creepy scientific paper, complete with footnotes, whose title is self-explanatory.

The runners-up are all worth reading: the protagonist of ‘Anchor point‘ by Allison Browning is on the phone to Lifeline as she contemplates suicide; in ‘Mary Regard the Virgin’ by Jo Langdon (not on the website) it’s the politics of girls in high school; ‘Why green when silver‘ by Jordan De Visser has an older sibling’s relationship to a much younger brother that I’m not sure I followed completely; the title character of ‘The wild red herbivore‘ by Karen A Johnson is bushfire, and in this quiet, almost meditative fiction, it’s pretty much an offstage character.

The guest artist for this issue is Stephanie Ochona.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Janet Galbraith, Hani Abdile, Omid Tofighian, Behrouz Boochani (guest editors), Southerly 79.2: Writing Through Fences – Archipelago of Letters (2021)

After a two-year hiatus, during which subscribers received an alarming but mercifully incorrect email notifying them that their standing orders had been cancelled, Southerly is back.

This issue is a departure: an anthology of writing sparked by the hardships imposed on refugees and people seeking asylum by Australia’s immigration policies. Most of the writing is by people who have been or currently are in detention. There are also pieces by allies and advocates. Of the guest editors, two are themselves refugees, Hani Abdile from Somalia and Behrouz Boochani from Kurdistan/Iran; Omid Tofighian famously translated Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains from Farsi; and Janet Galbraith is the founder of the Writing Through Fences project, in which artists and writers who are refugees and asylum seekers work with non-refugee artists and writers who ‘are involved in collaborative, amplification and resourcing roles’ (the project web site is at this link).

A statement from Behrouz Boochani, quoted in Elizabeth McMahon’s Introduction, encapsulates the raison d’être for the project, and for this issue of Southerly:

Where we are is too hard. I think only in literary language can people understand our life and our condition.

In these pages, many minds grapple with that literary challenge. Some, many of them anonymous, write from detention; others after release and resettlement in other countries; some as journalists, allies or advocates; some as literary critics and/or theorisers; some as students writing to Behrouz Boochani about his book No Friend but the Mountains as part of a university exam while in Covid–19 isolation.

The language ranges from raw statements of painful emotion to capital-T Theory. There are folk tales, sweet anecdotes (I love the one about the cat in an Indonesian detention centre), poems, chronologies, reflections on translation, interviews and obituaries, as well as a scattering of visual art.

Many of the texts are translated into English. Some incorporate Tok Pisin as a sharp reminder that English is the language of the detainers and that for the detainees on Manus Island there is a chance of closeness with the locals, whose language is not English.

The collection makes for confronting reading. This is a side of Australia that most of us avert our gaze from. The title of each item includes a date and place, and in some cases the age of the writer. There is no looking away from the poems written by teenagers who have been in detention for years. Nur Azur, for example, tells her story in ‘Unfinished Sty of a Girl Born Stateless’. Born in 2001 of a Karen mother and a Rohingya father, she tried several times as a child to reach Australia, and in 2020, the time of writing, was still in a terrible limbo, partly of Australia’s making, in Indonesia. She writes:

Imagine:
Still there is not enough money for your baby and for food. Often there is only rice and salt. For 7 years, each time you ask the UNHCR about your resettlement process they reply: ‘We have already sent your files to the third countries, and they are under process.’ You have never received any proper information from the UNHCR regarding your resettlement, and neither have you seen any improvement or hopeful developments in your life.

Most mornings, when I wake up, my first thought is that I long to see a change in my life. Drifting into daydream, I escape into a world where I see myself going to school, studying, drawing, painting and doing homework with a large number of students. But when I get up, my dreams are shattered and all I can see is a small smoky room.

(‘Unfinished Story of a Girl Born Stateless’, page 243)

The most dramatic and harrowing piece is ‘siege’, a 23-page compilation of tweets written by detainees on Manus Island during the weeks-long stand-off when the Australian government set about closing down their camp and, in the end, forcibly removing hundreds of men to ill-prepared camps elsewhere in the island.

Ever since John Howard prevented journalists from visiting the people saved from drowning by Captain Arne Rinnan of the MV Tampa in 2001, successive Australian governments have done their best to ensure that people detained offshore and on the mainland are kept anonymous. Behrouz Boochani and the Murugappans (the ‘Biloela family’) are rare individuals who have breached that wall. This collection, and other projects like it*, take to it with a battering ram. If they could read a wide audience, surely the rage, sorrow, pain and heroic generosity of spirit in these pages would sweep into the dustbin of history the three-word slogans and mealy-mouthed policy utterances of our political leaders.

Omid Tofighian’s comment on Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains is just as true of this Southerly:

Also, equally as important, the book has transformed the image of refugees as weak, needy and broken masses of people into creative, intelligent and assertive individuals.

(‘Australian Border Violence, Race, and Translating No Friend but the Mountains‘ an interview with Al Abram in Cairo, p 223)

Sometimes I feel as if the unstated motto of my blog is, ‘Things I’ve read so you don’t have to.’ This is not one of those times. Southerly isn’t the most readily available publication in the world, and this issue is certainly not a fun read, but if you have a chance I urge you to read and engage with it.


* One that I’m aware of is Penny Ryan’s Connecting Hearts Project. As part of her installation at Sydney Circular Quay in 2016, messages were smuggled from Manus Island and Nauru on pieces of muslin. Photographs of a number of these messages were published in the Guardian on 7 December 2016 – at this link.

Rebecca Huntley’s Italian Girl

Rebecca Huntley, The Italian Girl (UQP 2012)

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

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

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

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

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

(Page 23–24)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Farrell’s Family Trees

Michael Farrell, Family Trees (Giramondo 2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives at the Book Group

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Afterlives (Bloomsbury 2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Page 91)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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