Category Archives: Books

Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies

Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies (Headline 2020)

The Emerging Artist has been urging this terrific book on everyone who will listen (it was her insistence that made it jump my To Be Read queue). It’s a novel that manages to include mini-essays about politics, economics, religion, cancel culture and the art of war while telling a deeply personal story about an immigrant Pakistani Muslim family in the USA, particularly after the 11 September attacks and during the Trump era. The author has described it as literary reality TV, by which I think he means that while it follows the author’s life closely and is populated by recognisable characters from his real story, and so reads like memoir, it’s actually carefully structured fiction. The epigraph, from Alison Bechdel, gives fair warning:

I only make things up about things that have already happened …

Ayad Akhtar is a Pulitzer winning dramatist. His play Disgraced was put on by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2016, so some of my readers may know his work, but this book is my introduction. It has made me a fan.

Like Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Homeland Elegies starts with current presidential scandals – for Roth it was Clinton’s sexual misdemeanours, for Akhtar it’s Trump’s all-round egregiousness. But where Roth forgot about Clinton and moved on to his protagonist’s own misdemeanours, Akhtar stays with Trump, or at least with his (or the narrator’s) father’s infatuation with him, and Trump remains at least an ominous background presence for the duration. In the end, the book is an exploration of the state of the US nation under Trump. I read it as a kind of elegy for the USA that has been ailing for decades and been given what may be its death blow by Trumpism (it was published before the 2020 election, but hasn’t been defanged by Biden’s election). It also includes an earlier immigrant generation’s lament for a lost homeland – hence the plural elegies of the title.

In the first pages, in a section named ‘Overture: To America’, the narrator’s university mentor remarks ‘almost offhandedly’, long before the advent of Trump or even the Tea Party, that

America had begun as a colony and that a colony it remained, that is, a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment is paramount and civil order an afterthought. The fatherland in whose name – and for whose benefit – the predation continued was no longer a physical fatherland but a spiritual one: the American Self.

The rest of the book can be read as the narrator’s process of discovering what that means.

I may be making it sound dull and programmatic. It’s anything but. Its arguments are complex and compelling, and given to Proust-like reversals. Its characters, especially the narrator’s father, leap off the page. At the sentence level it’s alive and engaging. Take this brilliant passage about the early part of Trump’s ascendancy:

The national mood was Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, nihilistic – and no one embodied all this better than Donald Trump. Trump was no aberration or idiosyncrasy, as Mike saw it, but a reflection, a human mirror image in which to see all we’d allowed ourselves to become. Sure, you could read the man for metaphors – an unapologetically racist real estate magnate embodying the rise of white property rights; a self-absorbed idiot epitomising the rampant social self-obsession and narcissism that was making us all stupider by the day; greed and corruption so naked and endemic it could only be made sense of as the outsize expression of our own deepest desires – yes, you could read the man as if her were a symbol to be deciphered, but Mike thought it was much simpler than all that. Trump had just felt the national mood, and his particular genius was a need for attention so craven, so unrelenting, he was willing to don any and every shade of our moment’s ugliness, consequences be damned.

(page 242)

‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.’ That is, the characterisation of Donald J Trump may not be startlingly original, but this is beautifully put, and there’s a lot more of it in context. No sooner have you stopped cheering (if you’re me) for this passionate statement of a vital truth, than the narrator takes us into the sleepless night that his friend Mike’s tirade has brought on. And just in case the reader wants to cheer for Mike, it turns out that Mike makes a logical – or at least logical to him – leap to arguing that it makes sense to vote Republican. This is a book that never falls in love with its own rhetorical power. It avoids cheap shots and easy answers. In a short final section, the narrator is to give a talk at a university. At first the Muslim student organisation calls for his invitation to be rescinded because his work is ‘offensive and demeaning’, but then when someone puts up posters accusing him of being pro-terrorist, the Muslims rally to back him. He’s not implying the bogus argument, ‘I’m being attacked from both sides, so I must be right,’ but holding out for complexity, for thoughtful reading. The book as a whole repays thoughtful reading in spades.

Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear

Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (University of Queensland Press 2021)

This is a formidable book. I’d heard Evelyn Araluen read some of its poems, which she always does with a slight, dangerous smile, and was looking forward to reading them. The smile is mostly still in evidence, but the danger doesn’t feel slight. What’s endangered is any hope of emerging with Australian settler colonialist assumptions intact, or at least untroubled. In the book’s generous notes, Araluen spells out her understanding

that the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.

(page 99)

What looks like an elegantly designed slim volume of poems is actually a piece of incendiary resistance to colonial attempts at genocide and erasure, from May Gibbs’s cute bush creatures to perfunctory or self-serving acknowledgements of country, by way of a whole gallery of settler-Australian poets and poetic tropes. There are rage-fuelled mash-ups taken from widely read, familiar texts; poems whose ideal readers have PhDs in critical theory or contemporary poetics; and longer prose poems that could just as easily be categorised as essays and short stories. There are poems that turn their gaze away from the colonisers and dwell on family and the natural world.

In her conversation with Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers’ Festival My blog post is at this link), Araluen said. ‘This is not a cancel culture book.’ And that’s an important point to make. ‘For the parents’, one of the longer pieces, is in part an expression of gratitude and appreciation for her parents who read May Gibbs to her and her siblings, which when she first ‘discovered theory’ she thought meant they were ‘losing to the settlers’:

While my siblings and I consumed those stories, we were
never taught to settle for them. My parents ever pretended 
these books could truly know country or culture or 
me – but they had both come from circumstances in which 
literacy and the access it affords was never a given. They just 
wanted me to be able to read.

The acts of resistance in this book are not rants against an easily demonised foe. They involve the poet’s own inner wrestles, and bring a finely tuned, disciplined intelligence to bear on issues that lie at the heart of Australian culture. The book isn’t an easy read, especially for old white men, but it’s not hostile. Speaking as an old white man I felt it as a bracing invitation and a forthright offer of guidance and even help.

Added later: There’s an excellent discussion of Dropbear by Jeanine Leane in Sydney Review of Books, at this link. Here’s a taste:

Dropbear is blunt, biting and beautifully crafted. Although it is those things, it is more than the sum of those things. It’s a radical and timely affront to the history, the myths, the gossip and the stereotypes that still confront us all as the Country’s First Peoples.

Dropbear is the tenth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Journal Blitz 7

Given the lack of government support for the arts in general and literary magazines in particular, it’s no small miracle that so many of them survive and continue to publish excellent work. I do my little bit, subscribing to three and buying an occasional one-off as the spirit moves me. Then I find time to read them, sometimes falling terribly behind.


Jessica L Wilkinson (editor), Tricia Dearborn (guest editor), Devika Belimoria (artist), Rabbit 31: Science (2020)

Rabbit is a ‘journal of nonfiction poetry’. I don’t subscribe, and I’ve only read one previous issue, Number 10 (my blog post here). Like that issue, this one is beautifully designed – it features gorgeous images made by Devika Belimoria using a mysterious (to me) process involving acrylic paint and macrophotography.

The Science issue is edited by Tricia Dearborn, whose poetry I love. Whereas Tricia’s own science-related poems tend to be accessible to a non-specialist reader (as I have testified in blog posts here, here, and here), some of the poems she has chosen here are dauntingly technical. But one good thing about anthologies is one can skim, though I didn’t skim very much at all.

To give you a taste, here’s a sampling of opening lines:

From ‘Perpetual Motion’, a series of prose poems by Amit Majmudar:

Amazonian nomads, last studied in the 1940s in Brazil (in that
anthropologist's recordings of their dirges, you can hear chainsaws buck
alive in the background), had a religion based on the quest for eternal
life – only immortality wasn't a quality, as it is for us, but a place they had
to keep walking to find

From Jacqui Malins, ‘If you’:

If you are reading this I may be dead
or alive and you have survived past
infancy

Jilly O’Brien, ‘No Laughing Matter’, which is a prime example of what Tricia Dearborn’s editorial describes as ‘science at play – revealing the world, cracking bad jokes and considering the big questions’:

Pierre met Marie in the lab
He had his ion her

Jaya Savige, ‘Starstruck’:

I cannot honestly claim to have met Stephen
Hawking. But once I was skidding down the steepest 
bridge in Cambridge – in the rain, on my rusty BMX 

As well as the science poems, this Rabbit contains the winners of the 2020 Venie Holmgren Environmental Prize, with clear and accessible notes from the judges; a number of articles including one by Tricia Dearborn about her own poetry’s relation to science; a stimulating interview with Astrid Lorange; an essay adapted from a performance piece; and several reviews of recently published books of poetry. All good reading.

I have taken Rabbit 31 into the sauna with me over a couple of weeks. It was ideal reading in that contemplative environment, but alas, it’s bound with glue, and my copy is now pretty much a loose-leaf gathering of poems, images and articles. (Also I was mocked for inappropriate sauna behaviour.)


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Southerly 80!, Vol 79 No 1 (2019)

Southerly, Journal of the English Association, Sydney, has turned 80, and though no issue has appeared since this one came out in 2019, rumours of its death were apparently exaggerated. At least, the website is back up and running.

As befits a journal of such longevity, this Southerly has something for a range of tastes: poems, stories, memoirs, critical articles, notes about literary history, and a substantial number of reviews. A handful of contributors have been around for the majority of the journal’s lifespan, while others are writers appearing in print for the first time.

In ‘A Bell Note’, David Brooks, retiring editor, offers a fascinating account of his years in the chair, including the difficulty of producing the journal with mostly unpaid labour (contributors are paid, but not editorial staff) in an environment that has become increasingly hostile to literary magazines, or at least to the notion of funding them. His account of the role of literary magazines in the funding economy is worth quoting:

The government was using the journals as a means, on the one hand, of arm’s-length funding of writers (through their payments to contributors), so that, at ground level, it did not have to involve itself in deciding which writers to fund, and, at another level, the journals’ decisions as to who was worth publishing and supporting aided the Board in its decisions concerning which writers to give individual grants to. The journals, in other words, were supported because they were a vital filter in the government’s wider program of support for Australian writing. But increasingly, in the last two decades, this ground has shifted. Literary journals continue to perform this same function, but it’s now largely for the publishing industry; to the government they are supplicants, mendicants.

Richard Nile’s ‘Desert Worlds’ is a survey of the way literature has portrayed the Australian soldiers’ sojourn in Egypt in 1916. It’s almost as if the proponents of patriotic myths should be very glad of the disaster of Gallipoli, because without it those gallant men might now be remembered as racist, sexist, drunken hoons.

Alison Hoddinott’s ‘Poetry and Musicophobia’ does a quick tour of distinguished poets and other writers who have been, not deaf like Henry Lawson, but tone deaf – unable to hold or even recognise a tune, even while being extremely sensitive to the musicality of language. There are amusing anecdotes about Hal Porter, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Plath, among others.

’Editing Daniel’ is a brief account of the life and work of Daniel Thomas, art historian and gallery director, written by Hannah Fink, co-editor of Recent Past: Writing Australian art, the first collection of Thomas’s writing.

Jumana Bayeh’s ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’ glances at a couple of pages of Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story where, she says, an Arab-Australian character appears in an Australian novel for the first time, then goes on to a fascinating discussion of two much more recent novels by Arab-Australians, Loubna Haikal’s Seducing Mr Maclean (2002) and Michael Muhammad Ahmad’s The Lebs (2018), with Edward Said’s Orientalism as theoretical backdrop.

There’s a wonderful variety of poems, including: the melancholy ‘wrap’ by joanne burns (whose apparently is reviewed by Margaret Bradstock elsewhere in the journal); the harrowing ‘Explant (caveat emptor)’ by Beth Spencer (I had to look up breast explant surgery to understand this poem); Anne Elvey’s poem in memoriam Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Grevillea Robusta’; and Jaya Savige’s ‘Coonoowrin (Crookneck)’, on which I spent far too much time and still have only deciphered less than a quarter. Just in case my reader shares my love of impossible word puzzles, here’s the opening of that last-named poem:

Hushbound, mountchain, coiled for-kin ache
revenant, calm. Warm hay be stark enigma flags, but cannot 
rarely be sore heart to tune and luck upon your sighin'?

Decoded:

Husband, mountain, [unintelligible] 
[unintelligible], come. We may be [unintelligible], but can it
really be so hard to turn and look upon your son?

If you can fill in the blanks, the comments section is open.

Of the reviews, Michelle Cahill made me want to read David Brooks’s The Grass Library; Toby Fitch reviewing Dave Drayton’s P(oe)Ms offered valuable insight into some contemporary poetics; Oliver Wakelin on Luke Carman’s Intimate Antipodes, perhaps inadvertently, caught me up on some literary gossip.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 237 (Winter 2019)

As a marker of how far behind I am in my Overland reading, while I was reading this issue, the last one edited by Jacinda Woodhead, the fourth edited by her successors, Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk, has landed in my letterbox.

Mind you, Overland isn’t all that committed to timeliness either. The punchiest article in this issue, ‘Crocodile tears‘ by Russell Marks, is a blistering criticism of a book published in 2016, Cathy McLennan’s Saltwater. After noting that the book met critical acclaim and won awards (not to mention modified praise from bloggers such as me, link here), it goes on:

All of this should come as a surprise because Saltwater‘s myriad problems could have excluded from publication altogether.

Drawing on his own extensive experience as a lawyer working with and for First Nations people, he makes a very convincing case that Cathy McLennan’s memoir of her time as a young lawyer working for an Aboriginal legal service in Townsville is full of poor legal practice which the older McLennan seems to endorse, is misleading in many ways and feeds a racist agenda, while distracting readers from its reactionary politics by ‘vivid and shocksploitative descriptions of her clients and their lives’. (I searched online in vain for any defence of the book.)

The only moment that felt seriously dated was a citation of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth in Hannah McCann’s ‘Look good, feel good‘, an otherwise excellent article about the emotional labour of beauty salon workers. Though The Beauty Myth may well hold up, it’s hard to imagine an article in Overland these days quoting someone who so bizarrely argues against masks and basic contact tracing mechanisms.

My other highlights in this issue were: ‘Only the lonely‘ by Rachael McGuirk, discusses the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’ from the perspective provided by her family’s long-term, harrowing experiences with drugs, mental illness and the justice system, ‘Inspired and multiple‘ by Rebecca Ruth Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian, who describe their process of co-translating poetry as ‘a dance in chains’; ‘At the crossroads‘ by Con Karavias, a history lesson about the German revolution that raged from 1918 to 1923, but will never be restored to mainstream respectability because to do so would be to acknowledge that conservative forces unleashed Hitler and Nazism in order to crush it.

Of the four short stories, ‘Womanhood‘ by Mubanga Kalimamukwento, a Zambian coming of age story involving female genital modification, had most impact on me. ‘The Sublime Composition‘ by Gareth Sion Jenkins incorporates elements of Microsoft Word’s track changes feature in a deconstruction of an incident recorded in Thomas Mitchell’s journals of exploration, but it’s an extract from a work in progress, a taste rather than a meal.

In the eight pages of poetry, I loved the way ‘Tenor and vehicles‘ by Shastra Deo and ‘Learning‘ by Jini Maxwell resonated with each other. One begins:

Fact: things are like other things. Supposition: liking
tweets is like a simile. 

The other:

There is a very fine line
between writing and just sitting down

Overland has a number of regular features:

  • a guest artist. Number 237 has Matt Chun, who is currently – or was in January 2020 – the Children’s Literature Fellow at the State Library of Victoria, and who brings a children’s illustrator’s sensitivity to these sometimes necessarily grim pages.
  • three columnists: On failure by Alison Croggon; On the school as utopia by Giovanni Tiso; and On writing in water by Mel Campbell
  • the results of at least one competition. This time it’s the 2019 Fair Australia Prize (FAP), an annual prize co-sponsored by the United Workers Union and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. The winners – two short stories, an essay, a poem and a cartoon – share a fresh directness in the way they address issues facing working people in Australian and, in the general fiction prize winner, in India.

And three more journals are now on the shelf above my desk …

Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus

Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus (Allen & Unwin 2019)

I’m not a Christos Tsiolkas fan. I read most of The Slap aloud on a long car journey and it wasn’t a pleasant experience – the sex scenes were embarrassing and the characters’ misogyny repugnant. But I knew I had to read Damascus.

Like two other novels that come to mind – Mary’s Testament by Colm Tóibín, and The Book of Rachel by Leslie Cannold (links are to my blog posts) – this promised to explore the stories I received in childhood as containing the deep and enduring meaning of life; to explore them, interrogate them, reimagine them. Those other novels told the stories of Jesus’ mother and imagined sister respectively; the central character of this one is the man most responsible for shaping the Jesus story, St Paul, once known as Saul of Tarsus.

Damascus delivers on the promise, in spades. I’m not equipped to comment in any detail on Tsiolkas’ use of the sources. I have only read excerpts from Paul’s epistles, I couldn’t say for sure whether I’ve ever read the book of Acts, and I know nothing about the apocryphal gospel of Thomas except that it exists. Tsiolkas has immersed himself in these documents, and emerged with a story stripped of holy-card or gold-leaf piety, about a man, and a nascent community, coming to grips with a transforming way of understanding what it is to be human.

The world of the novel is callous and often violent. Israel and the rest of Western Asia is under brutal Roman occupation. It’s a place where divisions between free and enslaved, male and female, Jew and Stranger, Roman and non-Roman are rigidly enforced. For a man to touch a woman, or a free person to touch a slave, is a shocking transgression, and in the wrong time and place can meet with shocking punishment. Anyone born disabled or with a physical abnormality, or even sometimes a person born female, would be dumped alive in a cave outside the city and left to starve or be killed by wild beasts. The novel doesn’t draw a discreet veil over any of this horror: the opening scene is a graphic account of a stoning; the fate of rejected babies is realised in nightmarish detail; a man is seen breathing his last after days suspended on a cross, pecked at by carrion crows; a young Jew is castrated and has his tongue plucked out for desecrating a Roman shrine, and then is killed and buried unceremoniously by his brothers because of the shame. Pagan practices involving animal sacrifice that are familiar enough to us are described in stomach churning bodiliness.

In this world, the people who follow Jeshua, as he is called, believe in the brotherhood and sisterhood of all. Slaves and free, women and men eat and drink and embrace together. They are reviled as a death cult because they revere someone who was subjected to the ultimate humiliation of crucifixion, but they are tender and affectionate with each other. Their ritual greeting – ‘He is risen’ ‘Truly he is coming’ – sounds a little Handmaid’s Tale-ish, and foreshadows the way that community was to harden into an institution, but in the present time of the novel we see a genuine striving to live the truth of loving all.

At the beginning, Saul is a zealous, scholarly Jew who supplements what he earns as a tent-maker by hunting down Christians, entrapping them and handing them over to the authorities for execution. He’s also riddled with guilt and self-hatred because of his compulsive sexual attraction to men, and has a troubled relationship with his family because he is unmarried. According to Acts, he was struck down on the road to Damascus where he heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ and that moment marked his dramatic conversion to Christianity. The book handles that moment beautifully. it’s told from Paul’s point of view, and we’re never completely sure what happened. There is a lot of light. He is brutally beaten, incurring permanent injuries, and it’s the days of care he received from a Christian group, even though they know he is their persecutor, and even though he repudiates them, that brings about his conversion. Part of the care is warm intimate connection with another man – and though we’re never told whether any actual sex is involved, a strong homoerotic tenderness pervades his relationships with other male followers of Jeshua: much kissing on the lips, sleeping in each other’s arms, bathing each other and so on. Paul is loving with the women members of the community as well, but never with this kind of intimacy.

Paul wants to expand the community to include non-Jews – Strangers. He takes on a young man, Timothy (who is there in Acts), whose mother was a Jew and father Greek. Acts tells us that Paul circumcised him. Damascus gives us the detail of that – the gore (this is a Christos Tsiolkas novel, after all), but also the religious dilemma: Paul is going against his own preaching that is the coming kingdom there is neither Jew nor Greek, but the emotional and social demands of the moment overwhelm the correct line.

The Biblical Paul’s injunction, ‘Slaves be obedient to your masters,’ is the basis for a major narrative thread. Consistent with the rest of the novel, the horrors of slavery and the terrible implications of that injunction are realised.

As anyone who has read even a little about the beginnings of Christianity knows, those early years were full of controversy. The first Christians were Jews, and what now reads as antisemitism in the gospels was written as one group of Jews attacking others. The story of Mary Magdalen meeting the risen Jesus is a vestige of her role as a leader in the early community. The story of doubting Thomas, who said he wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen unless he saw him with his own eyes, is polemic against the real-life Thomas who preached a different version from the one that became canonical. One of the terrific things about Damascus is the way it includes the controversy: a body of belief is in the process of forming, and the proponents of different positions have enormous difficulty staying loving with each other, and can fail spectacularly. Realistically, none of them shake off the religious world-views they inherited as children: conversion is always a work in progress.

Thomas is a major character. In this novel he, not John, is the disciple most beloved of ‘the Lord’. He is the one who witnessed the crucifixion. And he doesn’t believe in the resurrection. He and Paul – and the other leaders, mainly James in Jerusalem, whom we don’t meet – clash, and he is expelled from the community. By the end of the novel, there are four generations of Christians, the belief that Jeshua will return in triumph imminently is wearing thing, and there is a groping towards a different way of understanding the meaning of his life and death. We – or at least I – feel it is unbearably sad when Thomas, who is every bit a generous, forgiving and loving against the odds as Paul or any of the others, is rancorously dismissed, when his understanding – that the kingdom of heaven is to be found in how we can be with each other, not in any supernatural intervention – is perhaps the richest of all.

So, it’s a terrific book. I don’t know what Christos Tsiolkas’ devout Orthodox relatives will make of it, but it helps this lapsed Catholic look back on his roots with fresh respect, even awe. I hope it’s not pushing the Biblical allusions too far to say that in this book the word of the Christian New Testament is made stinky, fluid-emitting, blistered, burned and suffering flesh.

Proust Progress Report 21

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2273–2334

If I’d kept to my original plan of five pages a day, or even my second plan of three a day, I would have finished À la recherche du temps perdu by now. But I’ve slowed down and had a couple of gaps, so I’m only just entering the strait.

Not that the pace is picking up, but this last month’s reading has had a definite end-is-nigh feel. As I mentioned last month, a sequence of tiny experiences – standing on some uneven paving, hearing a spoon click against a plate, feeling a starched cloth against his lips – send the narrator into complex rumination about the nature of memory and art.

I won’t even try to summarise his reflections on art, but he has a lot to say about the importance of drawing on one’s own experience, and on paying attention to one’s own idiosyncratic (not his word) responses to the material experiences. The specifics of this, remembered, half-remembered, retained only in the unconscious, are what make a work of fiction live. ‘A book’, he says, ‘is a great cemetery where we can no longer read the eroded names on most of the tombs.’

Un livre est un grand cimetière où sur la plupart des tombes on ne peut plus lire les noms effacés

Having earlier given up on his pretensions to be a writer, he now decides to write a book based on his fresh understanding of a certain kind of memory as a way to transcend time. It’s fabulously self-referential, and it does make me want to start all over again to see how the book lives up to his stated intention.

All that thinking happens in the library of a house where he has turned up for a social event. The musical piece in the next room finishes and he goes into the salon, which is full of people he hasn’t seen for years while out of town at health establishments. And they’re all in fancy dress: the men have stuck white moustaches and beards on their faces and most people are wearing white wigs; one young man has put on ingenious fake wrinkles; a glamorous woman has made herself look overweight … which leads into reflections on old age. Just as he as decided to write a work about transcending time, he is confronted with evidence of time’s inexorable effects on human beings.

Individual humans age, some more devastatingly than others. Some people disappear from society altogether – they may have been the subject of scandal, or they may have been Germans. Some who were barely on the fringes of le monde now have great prestige. Others have swapped dubious reputations for status as men of high moral standing. The same title is now inhabited by a different person altogether. The young have no idea of the origins and history of the people who now shine on the social scene. And who but the old now remember that the still-beautiful Duchesse de Guermantes – Oriane – could once make or break a social occasion by deigning to appear for half an hour, or staying home.

Proust’s contrast between the virtues of solitude and the emptiness of social life is here the clearest it has ever been.

Through all this, there’s what amounts to a roll call of the novel’s characters alive and dead: the devious Morel now gives character references in court; Mme Verdurin is now the Princesse de Guermantes; Bloch is a prestigious man of letters; no one quite remembers how Gilberte became a Guermantes; Oriane is as commanding a presence as ever, but in a flash-forward of three years we see her in sad decline.

The lose ends are being tied up. I have 70pages to go and am missing Proust already.

The Book Group and Lamorna Ash’s Dark, Salt, Clear

Lamorna Ash, Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town (Bloomsbury 2020)

Before the Meeting: Lamorna Ash, a posh young Londoner fresh from university, decided to visit the part of Britain her mother came from, and from which she got her first name. She lived for two stints in the fishing village of Newlyn, just a couple of miles north of Lamorna in Cornwall, all her senses on the alert to see and understand everything about it, its people, and the life of fishermen (no fisherwomen during her time there) and their families. She went out on trawlers and smaller fishing boats. She drank with young and old. She formed solid friendships. She learned to gut fish and oscillated between horror and unholy glee as she graduated to stabbing rays in the heart – all part of a fisherman’s job. She talked and listened to everyone who would give her the time of day. And she wrote a lot of it down.

Meanwhile, she read or remembered writing by Elizabeth Bishop (whose poem ‘At the fishhouses‘ describes the sea as ‘Dark, salt, clear’), Barry Lopez, Walter Benjamin, Marianne Moore, Herman Melville, Antonia Barber (author of the picture book The Mousehole Cat, whose name doesn’t appear in the well-deserved praise of the book), W G Sebald, and other literary giants – and found ways they shed light on what she was discovering.

Then she made all that into this book. I enjoyed it. The author’s extreme youth gives rise to some embarrassing moments – as when she explains that ‘yarn’ is an old term meaning ‘story’, or when she reflects on how differently one sees the world when one is older, for values of older that are less than 25. The literary references sometimes feel forced. But by about page 100 these qualities had come to feel like part of the charm of the book. She’s capable of mocking herself, as when she writes of the walks she takes to stave off loneliness:

I often leave notes for myself on my phone when I go on these solitary walks, little inanities I wish I had someone else with me to whom I could say them out loud. This morning I wrote myself a particularly bold one. ‘For someone who gets lost a lot, coastal walks are a godsend. Only if the sound of the sea disappears from your left ear, can you have possibly gone wrong.’

Well yes, I guess it’s an inanity, but no more so than many of her observations, and this little moment of self-deprecation earned my forgiveness for a lot.

On the other hand, no forgiveness is required for her description of her week on board the trawler Filadelfia, which forms the book’s narrative backbone. Here’s her wonderful account of gutting a stingray:

I flip the ray over on to its back. Its stomach is a cadaverous grey and its almond-shaped mouth gapes open and shut like the puckering of a teenage kiss. The lips are so human I am momentarily dumbstruck. Open and shut, open and shut, its mouth sounds out a wordless plea.

I shake myself from my trance and hear Stevie prompting me to make an upside-down V incision along the translucent flap of skin that conceals its vital organs. Underneath is a mess of multi-coloured, pulsating guts – bright pinks, yellows and oranges. Over the roar of the engine, the men guide me to seize hold of a fistful of guts and pull them away from the ray’s body. But as I do so, the ray’s muscular wings start to close in upon my hand. In film footage of rays swimming, they use their wings, properly named pectoral fins, to propel themselves forward, gracefully rippling through the water like thin material animated by wind.

The ray’s last desperate bid to defend itself shocks me out of the automatic, mechanical state I usually induce in myself while gutting. In panic, I try to withdraw my arm, but its wings are still clutching me tightly. Beyond the boat, the waves have picked up and the boat slams down into the water. ‘You have to stab it!’ the men cry, goading me on as if we were outside the Swordy [hotel in Newlyn] preparing for a brawl. I let out a cry and stab the ray in the heart.

(page 256)

Her initial horror changes to murderous glee. The crew take to giving her all the rays to gut, and nickname her Raymundo.

After the meeting: For no particular reason we met in an Indian restaurant, the food was excellent, and the tragedy currently unfolding on the subcontinent had no obvious impact on the mood of our hosts, but there were nine of us at a long table. Conversation was animated and the book was discussed vigorously, but it was hard to manage a single shared for more than a very brief time. Next meeting’s host, who is responsible for summarising each meeting, put it well on WhatsApp: ‘

So yes, it was a excellent banquet last night where I got a week’s worth of meat, we agreed the book was somewhere between 2.5 & 4.5 stars, was either deeply revealing or a series of pleasant vignettes, … was in a place we should all visit and was generally an enjoyable read.

The 2.5 party hadn’t finished the book and didn’t intend to. He hadn’t read the fascinating historical account of how the town was saved from actual destruction in the 1930s at the hands of bureaucratic health and safety regulations, how a petition was taken to London on a small fishing vessel whose crew were astonished to see the banks of the Thames crowded with well wishers. He felt that the (to me fascinating) tidbits of Cornish language were mere padding.

The 4.5 party, just loved the book. He was completely charmed by the author’s voice. He described her quotes from other writers as smacking of undergraduate naivety and enthusiasm, but saw it as part of her youthful charm. (Given that our group is made up, all but one, of old farts gentlemen of a certain age, the youth of the writer was an issue for all of us one way or another.) He spoke eloquently of the way the narration would move from descriptions of social life in the pub to a deep dive into some aspect of the life of the town.

Whereas I, and others, found the description of life on fishing trips, of the way time at sea opens up spaces for communication and reflection, one man who has worked on boats said he found that fairly ordinary and wished there was a lot more about the women left ashore. Though the difficulties of the life were touched on, we were left feeling that a much darker story could have been told.

One chap had been to Cornwall a couple of years ago, and could show us photos of the town, including the very boat on which a pigeon dies in once of the book’s many atmospheric anecdotes. Actually he showed us these pics on WhatsApp before the meeting; he brought them to the dinner on a tablet, but couldn’t see a way to pass it around.

A couple of chaps drew comparisons between this book and James Rebanks’s A Shepherd’s Life. Each of them is an account of a community, a place, a working life that has endured for centuries and is under threat in the modern capitalist world. One is a passionate insider’s story, the other that of an interested visitor. It’s not that Lamorna Ash was trying to do do a James Rebanks: she’s completely upfront about her outsider, ‘posh’ status, her lack of skin in the game, but the book is still a serious piece of non-fiction, combining advocacy, memoir, linguistic sidelights, character studies, and adventure on the high seas.

Eileen Chong’s Thousand Crimson Blooms

Eileen Chong, A Thousand Crimson Blooms (UQP 2021)

Someone* said recently that the work of a poet isn’t just to write poetry. Poets also teach, mentor, encourage other poets, edit, proselytise for poetry … and the list went on. At the launch of A Thousand Crimson Blooms last month it was clear that by this criterion Eileen Chong is a real poet. I chatted with an emerging poet who has won prizes and attributes it to her inspiration and mentorship. Three other poets, all women of colour, read at the launch, and each testified to Eileen’s kindness, collegiality and solidarity.

The poems in A Thousand Crimson Blooms bear strong testimony to the poet as embedded in a community of poets and other artists. Many of the poems carry epigraphs, and we are given meticulous notes referring us to their sources – most of which are other poems, but at last one is a quote from a conversation with another poet. Sometimes the notes give us web addresses where we can see images of works that inspired a poem.

The sense of connectedness goes further. A central feature of this book, as in Eileen Chong’s previous collections, is the sense of living heritage, in birthplace (her own Singapore and her husband’s Scotland), in family (especially mother and grandmother), in food (maybe not as much as in earlier books, but this is still poetry that makes you hungry), in language (a number of poems make play with the components of Chinese ideograms), and always in poetic tradition.

This connectedness and rootedness provide a sustaining background in poetry that mostly deals with personal pain: bereavement, sexual abuse, illness and surgery, involuntary childlessness, the challenges of migration.

This is a terrific book. I learned a lot, I cried, I laughed, I was confronted. Only a couple of times I was mystified. More than a couple I was surprised by the twist of a last line. I was sent down interesting rabbit holes, and found myself reflecting deeply on my own life. Eileen Chong reads her own work beautifully: you can hear her, among other places, when/if the Sydney Writers’ Festival release a podcast of the session that included her – The Unacknowledged Legislators.

There are so many poems I’d like to spend time with here. There are powerful poems about loss that it would feel almost indecent to write about in this necessarily abbreviated way. There’s ‘Making Sense’, whose beginning sheds light on the poems in general:

I tell my students:
poetry is a way to make sense 
of what you fear. 

I sing to them of 
blackbirds. I read my poems 
aloud

There’s ‘Spring Festival’, which includes similarly suggestive lines:

My husband reminds me I write poems 
in threes: three lines, three pathways.
One for the old life, one for the new 

and one for the hours 
I do not notice as they pass.

There’s the ‘The Hymen Diaries’, each of whose four parts responds to a work of art (see mention of rabbit holes above). There’s ‘Child’, whose subtitle, After Andy Kissane’s ‘Joy and a Fibro Shack’, offers generous possibilities for a ‘compare and contrast’ kind of discussion – and many poems like that.

I’ve picked the title poem, ‘A Thousand Crimson Blooms’, mainly because before spending this time with it I didn’t understand how it hung together, starting with what feels like kindergarten innocence and ending with lacerating pain. You can see an earlier version of the poem with a slightly different title on the Peril magazine website (here). Here’s the poem as it appears in the book:

To start with the epigraph: I haven’t read the poem it comes from, ‘Don’t Trample This Flower’ by Bing Xin, but I have learned that Bing Xin was a prolific Chinese woman writer of the 20th century, many of whose works were written for young readers (Wikipedia entry here). These lines are a straightforward call to pay attention to something that is beautiful, easily overlooked and vulnerable.

There’s a smooth transition to the opening lines of the poem. Like the epigraph, they address children/little ones: having looked, now, let’s draw. We’re in a domestic or classroom setting; the voice is that of an adult – a teacher or parent? – addressing small children, possibly in a rural environment. The third line’s invocation of the daily cycle of time has a traditional Chinese feel. It reminds me of the ancient poem, ‘The Peasant’s Song’, that begins, ‘Sun up, work / sundown, rest.’ (That’s Ezra Pound’s translation, in his Canto XLIV.) It’s a benign opening, and my fridge door is covered with just the kind of artworks that the little ones might create. (I should mention to anyone who’s just visiting the blog that I have a three-year-old granddaughter who loves to put pencil/crayon/brush to paper.)

The next three lines could be summarised as detailing the process of drawing the dog and rooster, and the children’s focused, unblinking attention to the task. But the language alerts us that something may be slightly off. ‘Let’s shape their bodies with our hands’ may be just an odd way of describing the movement of hands holding pencils, but it feels a little more dominating. Maybe we’ve moved on from drawing to shaping in clay. The second line takes us a step further with the hint of violence in ‘gouge’. The adult speaker has taken us quite a way from paying close attention to something vulnerable to something on the edge of cruelty, even if it is only cruelty to the paper. In the third line, as I read it, the ‘little ones’ speak. The ‘lidless eyes’ suggests a kind of forced, sustained attention that is far from the relaxed, open regard of the epigraph. That there are a hundred eyes suggests that the context has moved from the intimate to the institutional. I have to admit that on first reading I resisted this darkening mood, but once seen I can’t unsee it, and it refers to a common phenomenon. The late artist Kim Gamble, for example, used to lament the way education put a damper on creativity: that children who draw and paint beautifully in Year 1 of school are generally creating cliché images with no spark of originality by the time they are in Year 3.

I’m generally sceptical of poets who talk about the crucial importance of punctuation and spacing, but I think it’s interesting that where the Peril version has a simple paragraph space before the next stanza, this version has an asterisk. The poet wants to be clear that there’s a substantial break. The stanzas change here too, from three-liners to four-liners, but it’s the asterisk that signals a gear-change to the reader.

Sure enough, there’s now a radical change in tone. The benign teacher/parent has been superseded by a harsh authoritarian voice. If the earlier stanzas were in a small, friendly kindergarten classroom, this is now a disciplined, bullying high-school class, perhaps a laboratory, where there is no room for emotion or vulnerability. Science experiments using test tubes and bunsen burners become metaphors, or maybe metonyms, for the harm done to people in such an impersonal environment. (I don’t think there’s an implication that science is necessarily that way, but the reference to glass and fire do conjure up a chemistry lab in my mind.)

The final stanza follows another leap – in time, in setting, in scale. The speakers are the bullied ones, and the 50 people of the second stanza have grown to be a thousand. Blue-and-white vases are traditional Chinese creations, vulnerable like the flower of the epigraph, emblematic of a long history of artisanal skill and creativity (of the kind that produces gasps on Antiques Roadshow). We have been prepared for their appearance by the echo of traditional Chinese poetry in the first stanza. They are broken, with violence that parallels the breaking of the benign teacher-child relationship of the earlier stanzas. ‘They’ is undefined. If I stick with the classroom reading, they are a particular kind of educator, and in making us do the kind of ‘creativity’ that the curriculum requires, they not only take us away from our innate creative impulses, they make us tread all over them.

The second last line takes us back to the flower of the epigraph, only now the flower is not ‘by your feet’, but part of oneself. It is our blood, our suffering, that now produces the flower, that becomes the subject of art. Creativity and pain are now closely linked.

The final line takes a step back. I can best say how I read it by attempting a paraphrase: In our present wounded condition, any attempt to make art must find a deep connection to tradition or some other form of community, if it is to have any vitality. Of course, it doesn’t refer only to the making of art: I think of the importance that First Nations elders place on connection to culture as a means to youth suicide prevention.

Now that I’ve understood how the poem coheres, it hasn’t quite finished with me (and perhaps never will have). The reading that I’ve sketched so far is loosely tethered to my own life experience. But that reading can expand. The poem could be read as a meditation on part of Bing Xin’s life story: I only know the Wikipedia version, and haven’t read any of her poetry, but she was denounced during the Cultural Revolution, a time when blue-and-white vases were quite literally being smashed.

The poem can be read as a response to a work of art: it was initially written on commission as a response to The Masks of Me, a mixed media installation by Vipoo Srivilasa consisting of ‘a group of small masks that celebrate cultural differences and diversity’. You can see the artwork and the artist’s statement on the Peril magazine site, at this link. Actually, I can’t see this reading at all.

Since it has given its title to this book, the poem can be read as referring to the collection of poems. Many of these poems are indeed filled with pain, unflinchingly named, but what makes them readable – more than just readable, deeply satisfying – is their rootedness. This poem itself is an example of that. The classical references, the restrained language, the way the images are allowed to do their own work on the reader, the formal neatness: all these are a kind of rootedness that let the poem flower.


* Sorry, I don’t remember who said it. I think it was on Al Filreis’s PoemTalk podcast.


A Thousand Crimson Blooms is the ninth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

SWF 2021 Sunday

Sunday was another beautiful late autumn day in Sydney, and another day of challenge and delight at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Evidently one of our ideologically driven weeklies ran a piece online saying the Festival was extremely ‘woke’, which is apparently a bad thing. I don’t know about woke but, as someone who nods off whenever I’m in a dark room, I was kept awake almost without fail. (The one fail was inevitable, in the after-lunch slot when I would have slept through an announcement that I’d been granted the gifts of immortality and eternal youth.)


10.30: Land of Plenty

This panel addressed environmental issues about Australia from a range of perspectives. Philip Clark of ABC Radio’s Nightlife did a beautiful job as moderator, giving each of the panellists in turn a prompt or two to talk about their work, and managing some elegant segues. The panellists did their bit to make it all cohere by referring to one another’s work. (How much better these panels work when the writers on them have read each other!)

Rebecca Giggs, whose Fathoms sounds like a fascinating book about whales, said that whales are a Trojan horse for a conversation about other animals’ relationships to humans. She described a moment when she was close enough to a whale that she could see its eye focusing on her – and only to learn a little later that whales are extremely short-sighted and there as no way that that whale could have actually seen her. What is actually there isn’t what we want to think is there,

Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu and co-author of Loving Country (about which more later) spoke about the difference between Indigenous and Western capitalist ways of relating to the land. Echoing Rebecca Giggs’s story of the whale’s eye, he said, ‘We look at animals and want to be friends with them, but as soon as a capitalist wants to be your friend …’ He begged us to take seriously the possibility of a reciprocal relationship with animals. Something terrible happened to humans, he said, when the combination of Christianity and capitalism happened. I think he has a book coming on the subject.

Victor Steffensen is a Tagalaka man from far north Queensland, author of Fire Country. Someone from my family had the privilege of doing some video work with Victor some years ago, and his stories from that time have given me a deep respect for Victor and his work in ‘using traditional knowledge for environmental wellbeing’, as the Festival site puts it. In this panel, he took off from Bruce Pascoe’s call for reciprocity with other animals, and spoke of relating to fire as a friend and not as something to fear. It’s about reading country, listening to landscape. His project of recording traditional knowledge that is in danger of being lost is not to archive it but to get it back into people, ‘to young fellas and then to the broader community’.

Richard Beasley, senior counsel assisting for the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission and author of  Dead in the Water about that catastrophe, said that the situation in the Murray-darling Basin had got so bad that ‘even John Howard’ did something about it. Howard’s legislation included clauses to the effect that whatever was done needed to be science-based. But then the lobbyists went to town, and in response to their pressure, politicians insisted that reports from the CSIRO were altered to suit the big capitalists’ agenda. His lawyerly rage was palpable.

There was a good question (a rarity at this Festival), about grounds for hope:

  • Rebecca Giggs: Thee’s hope. But you don’t get to be hopeful until you make yourself useful in some way – whatever your situation and abilities allow.
  • Bruce Pascoe: I have to think we can do it differently. We have to give our grandchildren a chance, not treat them with contempt. We need love of country, not nationalism.
  • Victor Steffensen: Language is important. [Sadly what I wrote from the rest of what he said was illegible. I think it was an elegant version of ‘Action is also important.’]
  • Richard Beasley: I’m a lawyer. I don’t know how to challenge any of this by law.

12 o’clock: Sarah Dingle & Kaya Wilson

We hadn’t booked this session in advance, but faced with a gap of a couple of hours, we spent one of our Covid Discover vouchers to buy rush tickets. Kaya Wilson, whose book As Beautiful As Any Other has the subtitle A memoir of my body, is a tsunami scientist and a trans man. Sarah Dingle, author of Brave New Humans: The Dirty Reality of Donor Conception is a donor-conceived person. Their conversation was aided and abetted by Maeve Marsden, host of Queerstories who was also donor conceived, though not anonymously through the fertility industry as Sarah was.

Sarah’s revelations about the fertility industry were nothing short of shocking. Not only is it monumentally unregulated, but records that might have allowed people to know what had happened to a particular donor’s sperm, even anonymously, have at least sometimes been deliberately destroyed. Couples using donated sperm have been systematically encouraged to lie to their children about their origins, leaving them unaware of any genetic predispositions to disease, let alone possible incest.

What Kaya told us about the systemic treatment of trans people was just as shocking. He said that he tended to keep his scientific life and his trans life separate. ‘In some ways they hate each other.’ But he has a chapter in his book that tries to reconcile them. The scientific literature, like legislation about, for instance, changing one’s ‘sex marker’ on a birth certificate, is shot through with assumptions that bear not relation to the reality of trans experience.

Both people spoke of the joy of finding themselves to be members of communities they weren’t aware of when young. When asked what they read for relief, both named writers I’ve loved: Sarah chose Terry Pratchett; Kaya chose Ocean Vuong, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous.


2.30: Bruce Pascoe & Vicky Shukuroglou

Loving Country: A Guide to Sacred Australia was an initiative of Hardie Grant Publishers, who approached Bruce Pascoe suggesting a follow-up to Marcia Langton’s guide to Indigenous Australia, Welcome to Country. Pascoe joined forces with Vicky Shukuroglou, a non-Indigenous woman born in Cyprus, who took the photographs and also contributed to the writing. The Festival website says that the book ‘offers a new way to explore and fall in love with Australia by seeing it through an Indigenous lens’. Daniel Browning, host of ABC Radio National’s Awaye, chaired this conversation.

Again, we were called on to love this country. The thing I loved about the session was the way the two authors could disagree. Bruce Pascoe, speaking of the horrendous bushfires last year, said that the disrespect for Country shown by authorities afterwards was in some ways worse than the fires themselves. We meekly accept the terrible destruction of heritage in the Juukan Gorge. We have to rebel as a people, he said, meaning all of us, not just First Nations people. Vicky Shukuroglou argued against the idea of rebellion, and spoke of the importance of conversations and of love: ‘If we’re going to talk about marginalisation, we first need to look at our humanity.’ From where I was sitting it didn’t look as if the two things were incompatible, but I was struck by the way as a non-Indigenous woman she was secure enough in their friendship and working partnership to challenge an Indigenous man. I would have liked to know more about what she had done to achieve that confidence.

The book, Pascoe said, is about how to restrain human go and let Country have a voice, He got Vicky to tell a story about a sick echidna that, without her realising it, had come to know and trust her, as a result – she thinks – of her being still around it over time.

We don’t need a black armband.
We just need to know the facts.
This is the country that invented society, bread and the Richmond Football Club.


4.30 pm The Unacknowledged Legislators

This was a great way to end my festival. (The Emerging Artist’s festival ended with the previous session: she thinks poetry and she don’t like each other.) Seven poets read to us, hosted elegantly by ‘writer, poet, essayist and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta’, Declan Fry. Here they are, in order of appearance.

Eileen Chong, whose poetry my regular readers will know I adore. She read five poems from A Thousand Crimson Blooms, which I’ll be blogging about soon. I was glad to hear her read the three part poem, ‘The Hymen Diaries’ after I had spent some time with it and checked out the artworks it refers to.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, poet laureate of the Saturday Paper, read three poems. I won’t report what they were because i wasn’t sure I heard their names correctly. One of them began, ‘When I say I don’t want to become my mother,’ and went on brilliantly to challenge the internalised sexism of that sentiment.

Ellen van Neerven read three poems from Throat (my blog post here), including ‘Treaty of shared power’ and ‘Such a sad sight’. The first-named is a play on the relationship between the writer of a poem and its reader that worked beautifully in this context.

Erik Jensen, reading to an audience for the first time, read six short poems from his first book of poetry, I said the sea was folded, a book that, he told us, is about falling in love and learning to be in love. He then read a poem by Kate Jennings, who has just died (this was how I heard the news) – and wept as he read it. He wasn’t teh only one to shed a tear.

Felicity Plunkett followed that hard act, reading four short poems from her 2020 collection, A Kinder Sea. The first, ‘Trash Vortex’, whose name tells you a lot, may be the kind of poem that Evelyn Araluen had in mind when she said artists have a responsibility to address the world’s urgent issues.

Omar Sakr read three poems, ‘Birthday’, Self-portrait as poetry defending itself’ and ‘Every Day’. This is the first time I’ve heard or read any of his poetry. I hope it won’ be the last.

Alison Whittaker, Gomeroi woman and a crowd favourite, read a piece that depended on knowledge of and (I think) contempt for ASMR, not that there’s anything wrong with such poems. She reminded us of the tragic reality of Black Deaths in custody and read a poem consisting of anodyne found phrases from court proceedings.


And my 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival was over. There were at least four moments when someone on stage paid tribute to a parent in the audience or, in one case, on stage with them (and I’d left my run too late to see Norman and Jonathan Swan, and I probably missed other trans-generational moments). I didn’t see any of the international guests who attended on screen. It was a thrill to hear such a diversity of First Nations voices. I came home with a swag of books and a list for borrowing from the library. Hats off to Michael Williams and his team for making this happen in the flesh, and making sense of the slogan Within Reach: a living demonstration that the famous cultural cringe, while it may not be dead, has not much reason to live.

SWF 2021 Saturday

I had three events on my second day at the festival.


10 o’clock: Your Favourites’ Favourites: Tony Birch & Evelyn Araluen.

‘Your Favourites’ Favourites’ is series of events where an established writer interviews the author of their favourite Australian debut from the last year. This was the only one of the series that we attended. It’s a terrific idea, and this pairing must have delighted whoever thought of it.

Tony Birch is not only an established writer, he’s also a seasoned interviewer of other writers, and a passionate and articulate reader. Evelyn Araluen is not only a debutante poet, she’s also among many other things co-editor of Overland literary magazine. Tony Birch has not only read her poetry, he has been edited by her. They know each other well, and were radiantly at ease with each other in this session, their deep mutual respect not excluding some friendly teasing. After introducing Evelyn as a formidable presence in Australian literary circles and beyond, Tony asked her, ‘Have I pumped up your tyres enough?’ She said it was a bit embarrassing to be described like that when her parents were in the audience. He said her father had had a quiet word to him before the session.

This friendly banter provided a leaven for a weighty conversation. Tony quoted Evelyn as saying in another context, ‘We are reclaiming this place through poetry,’ and asked ‘How so?’

I recommend listening to the whole conversation when it comes out as a podcast. What I’ve managed here is a rough and partial account.

Australian national identity, she explained, is a literary construct. As scholar George Seddon said, ‘The English language is a filter over the Australian landscape.’ Evelyn said, ‘whiteness does not understand itself in this landscape.’ Non Indigenous writers tend to go for the Gothic (Marcus Clarke comes to mind) or the cute (the work of May Gibbs features large in Evelyn’s poetry), both of which erase black presences. Both conservative and progressive white writers generally fail to get further past the erasure than shallow acknowledgement. Tony Birch quoted Anita Heiss: ‘You can’t just speak language. You have to think language.’ That is, Aboriginal people also have work to do to reclaim the place from colonising language.

Tony asked Evelyn what she had meant when she said on the festival’s opening night, ‘I’d like to write happier poems but there isn’t time.’ This prompted her to talk about the climate emergency and the responsibility of poets to address it. So most of her poems are angry and urgent (I think that’s what she said, and from what I’ve heard at readings I’d agree, but add ‘funny’). There is a place for poems, and art in general, that allows us to pause, to rest so we can go on facing our responsibilities, but for Aboriginal poets there is a need to be constantly asserting our existence, survival and resilience.

At Tony’s request, Evelyn read to us. ‘See You Tonight’ evokes an uneventful, peaceful moment of family life. It was written during Melbourne lockdown after eight months of not being able to see any of her own family. No one was surprised when, after the final words, ‘It’s all good. / I will. I will. I will,’ she raised her arms in triumph and said, ‘Got through it without crying!’ (I wiped a tear from my eye even though we hadn’t yet been told the circumstances of the poem’s composition.)

‘This is not a cancel culture book,’ she said.

There were two questions, one from another poet that moved the conversation into academic territory, with words like ‘liminality’ and ‘positionality’, and one from Evelyn’s father – we knew this because as he approached the microphone she shed at least 10 years and almost squealed, ‘Oh, Da-ad!’ He used his platform to draw our attention to all the powerful Black women who are central to First Nations life and activism – and didn’t embarrass his daughter at all.


12:30 pm: Whose Country Is It Anyway?

Nayuka Gorrie is a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta freelance and comedy television writer. This is one of the events she rganised as Guest Curator at the Festival. She was in conversation with Melissa Lucashenko, author of Too Much Lip (my blog post here) among other books, and Nardi Simpson, author or Song of the Crocodile. (At one stage Tara June Winch was advertised as appearing zooming in from France for this session, but that wasn’t to be.) They were there to talk about the craft of writing Country.

As you’d expect, the conversation ranged widely. At the end of it I was keen to get hold of Nardi’s book, because a lot of what she said was tantalisingly hard to grasp. For example, ‘We inherit a never-ending process of belonging. whose country? It depends on where you’re standing. You can create a relationship to a place that’s important to you, but it cold be completely different for someone living 200 metres down the road.’

Melissa quoted Paul Kelly’ ‘Writers pay attention.’ She said there are two kinds of writers – the big, loud, macho writers (who can be women), and the quiet ones who pay attention. Her implication was that quiet attentiveness is the pathway to writing Country well. She talked about ‘extraction’ as key to the ‘western project’, and contrasted it to ‘reciprocity’.

Melissa again: It’s a writer’s responsibility to write the truth of violence without doing violence to the reader. There’s a place for writing that lashes out about injustice and cruelty, but we must write about life as much as death, otherwise we’re invading ourselves.


We did our Covid Check-out from Carriageworks to have lunch at a nearby pub (hamburgers with those horrible brioche buns), then back for our afternoon session.


2:30 pm Faruqi on Faruqi

This was a mother and son act: Senator Mehreen Faruqi and journalist Osman Faruqi. As with Tony Birch and Evelyn Araluen, there was a lot of good-natured teasing. “When I was in labour, I fervently hoped that I would have a girl.’ ‘We are a family of engineers. I so wanted him to be an engineer, and look what he’s become – a journalist!’

Sally Rugg as moderator didn’t have to do very much. She signalled at one point that it was Ok to broaden the conversation out by asking them about their theories of change. I don’t know that either of them directly addressed the question, but they took the hint and what followed was a very interesting conversation about the role of parliament and politicians in bringing about change – both of them agreed that real change came from the community and the political class played catch-up.

Both Faruqis have books coming out later this year. Mehreen’s is a memoir and manifesto, to be called Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud. Os is writing a book about racism in Australia. He would love to go back to writing music reviews, but has things he needs to get out there about racism. White friends say to him, ‘Why do you make everything about racism. When are you going to move on?’ He says, ‘You’re the ones who made everything about racism. I’ll move on when you do.’ (He probably said it better than that.)


Then we were off to the bookshop, to a number of catch-up conversations with friends we tend to see only at events like this, and to walk home on a beautiful Sydney autumn afternoon

SWF 2021: Friday

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has come back from the virtual world, and though it hasn’t returned to the splendours of its old harbourside venue, the Carriageworks is an expansive site whose acoustic problems of past years are no longer an issue, and for me it has the advantage of being just a 40 minute walk from home. My festival this year got off to a slow start, with just two sessions on Friday.


Friday 30 April 4.00: Writing the Unspeakable

The Unspeakable of the title didn’t refer to the Great Australian Silence about the massive wrongs of colonisation or other vast silences, but to personal unspeakables like depression, grief, trauma and addiction. Each of the panellists has written a memoir about that kind of unspeakable – and in some ways the session played out the implication of the session’s title: you’ve written about something that’s unspeakable, but maybe that doesn’t make it any more speakable?

I haven’t read any of the panellists’ books: Lech Blaine’s Car Crash, which tells the story of a car accident where three of his friends were killed but he and two others survived; Ashe Davenport’s Sad Mum Lady, about the difficulties of being a new mother that had its origins in a blog, ‘Sad Pregnant Lady’; and Fiona O’Loughlin’s Truths from an Unreliable Witness, which deals with her long struggle with alcoholism and addiction, often in the public eye as a successful stand-up comedian. Michaela Kalowski was the moderator.

Rather than start out with each panellist reading a short passage from their book – even, say, the opening paragraph – which would have grounded the conversation, MK opened with a question to each of them in turn, ‘Why are these subjects taboo?’ The panellists weren’t terribly cooperative, but the way each of them avoided answering the question, and pretty much every question after that, led to some entertaining and sometimes illuminating conversation. Here are some snippets that I have managed to decipher from notes I jotted in the dark.

Lech (I’m going to use first names) said that these subjects aren’t actually unspeakable. He spent his childhood in a pub and by the tenth or eleventh beer anything could be talked about, though not necessarily in a civil or constructive manner. Ashe told a horrific tale of her mother being groped when a child, in full view of a room full of people who pretended it hadn’t happened.

Fiona ventured to ask her mother if there was anything in the book that upset her. ‘Of course not,’ her mother said. ‘I haven’t even read it.’ This prompted Lech to tell us that he showed his brother a passage in manuscript where the brother is quoted as saying something profoundly offensive about Labor voters. His brother said, ‘That’s brilliant! You got that exactly right.’

Ashe described the process of making the transition from blog to book. In the blog she would work hard at creating amusing anecdotes out of her struggles. The book could still be funny, but she realised that she had to become less abstract: not so much, ‘It’s hard being a new mother,’ and more, ‘This is how I struggled as a new mother.’ At MK’s prompting she told the story of how she went to an anger management group for women, thinking it would make an amusing story for the blog – and she told it to us in a way that got laughs, until she got to the point where one of the group of older women asked her a question, she burst into sobs, and the other woman simply placed a supportive hand on her back until she was finished.

Fiona spoke beautifully about the shame of being an addict – and the importance of kindness. Tom Gleeson (the cheerfully cruel host of Hard Quiz) got a special mention as a kind person, but she said that the whole community of comedians is tremendously supportive.

Each of the panellists spoke about intensely personal difficulties. That they’ve written books about those difficulties didn’t make it any less easy to talk about them. Lech was often left staring blankly into his personal voice, and I felt that Ashe wasn’t quite ready to serve up her personal pain in person to a big audience. Fiona is a professional at airing her linen to live audiences, and did most of the work of keeping the conversation aerated by comic touches. At one stage Ashe turned to Fiona and said something like, ‘You know what it’s like to feel that you’re a bad mother.’ Fiona did a nice comic routine, turning away in mock denial. As Ashe continued with her point, it became clear that she was talking about something that was still raw. Fiona reached out and touched her on the forearm. A little later, doing her own bit of mock denial, Ashe waved her arms joyfully in the air and said, ‘And now I’m completely all right!’

Asked about how it felt writing this personal material for an audience, there were two very different, but equally memorable answers. Someone recalled the reassuring words of a wise editor: ‘Always bear in mind that no one is going to read every word you write.’ Fiona said that she wrote her book ‘for my children, to explain myself to them’.


Our only other event for the day was the Within Reach Gala at 8 o’clock. We managed to squeeze in a celebration dinner for a friend’s 70th birthday on our way to the Town Hall. Once there, we were taken back in time by the Town Hall’s insistence that masks were mandatory – though there was a lot more non-compliance than there was back in the day.

After a short introduction from Festival Director Michael Williams – in which he said among other things that Geoffrey Blainey’s concept of the Tyranny of Distance was regressive and idiotic but part of our culture – we were treated to a dozen writers speaking on the Festival’s theme, Within Reach, reflecting on the past year. Their interpretations of the brief ranged widely. Each speaker was identified simply by their name on a big screen, so that we were spared time-consuming introductions and appreciations by an MC, which made a huge difference to the pleasure of the evening.

Tony Birch told a beautiful story of how the gift of a stone at a wake made a huge difference to him when he was depressed and despairing from the death of a close relative and the lack of progress in action on climate change. He held up the stone.

Ceridwen Dovey said she has been working on space objects, and talked about the ‘golden records’ that have been sent out into space. There was a debate about whether those records should include material about the dark sides of humanity. In the end, the woman writer on the team managed to have the sound of a kiss included – and the actual kiss that was recorded was both an expression of tenderness and the beginning of a betrayal.

Sisonke Msimang spoke of the great movement of white women in response to allegations of sexual assault in Parliament. She was onside with the protests but couldn’t join them, knowing that she couldn’t ask her group netball mothers to join her on a BLM march. She spoke eloquently and generously about this impasse.

Ellen van Neerven started with the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, and the question that resounded in her mind:’When will this country see as much justice?’ She said that like all First Nations people in Australia, deaths in custody was a family matter. She pledged to continue to tell the stories that need to be told.

Geraldine Brooks spoke from Martha’s Vineyard in the USA by video. I confess that the beauty of the country where she’s living largely overwhelmed my ability to take in what she was saying. I think that was her subject: missing home.

Trent Dalton, I think, meant to remind us of the importance of human contact and the pain of physical distance in pandemic times. He misjudged the moment by presenting himself as an indiscriminate hugger of strangers, telling a story in which he hugged woman after woman who were standing a in a queue for the toilet at a previous SWF. Sorry, Trent, but issues of consent are high on the agenda right now and the humour didn’t really work – but the crowd was forgiving.

Maria Tumarkin riffed on the question, ‘How close is too close?’ What she had to say was formidably complex and wide-ranging, and she spoke tantalisingly fast. I managed to jot down one sentence: ‘One person’s specific safety makes as much sense as one person’s piece of sky.’

Michael O’Loughlin, who came out as ‘not a writer’, told the story of his illustrious career as a footballer, from telling his mother when he was 11 that he would her a house to his final words, ‘I hope you’re enjoying the house, Mum.’ I’m appallingly ignorant about sport, so his story was a revelation to me in many ways, but especially about the significance professional sport can have for First nations players, and their families and their communities.

Adam Goodes, a footballer even I have heard of, did a brilliant, modest thing. He read to us the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and confined his own commentary to a single sentence: ‘That was 2017. It’s now 2021. We’re still waiting.’

Alison Lester told us a story of a medical crisis. As she was in hospital being wheeled into emergency she saw on a wall a clumsy copy of one of her illustrations. The orderly was unimpressed when she croaked, ‘That’s my picture.’ she described the experience of an induced coma as an awareness of darkness, cold and discomfort and nothing else, and the struggle to respond when at last she heard her daughter calling to her.

Fiona McGregor read what felt like a prose poem, ‘Eight scenes from a dancing life’: the profound joy of dancing as part of a community, witnessed and experienced

Christos Tsiolkas‘s opening words were, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ It’s Orthodox Easter, and this present moment is one where the gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars brings home for him the tension between his own life as a middle-class Australian writer and the life of his Greek migrant working-class parents, especially his much-loved mother.

Michel Williams then called all but Geraldine Brooks back onto the stage for a big round of applause and we all went home.