Category Archives: Books

Laura Tingle’s High Road

Laura Tingle, The High Road: what Australia Can Learn from New Zealand (Quarterly Essay 80) – and correspondence from Quarterly Essay 81.

The High Road is Laura Tingle’s fourth Quarterly Essay, making her possibly the series most frequent contributor. Great Expectations (QE 46 2012) dealt with Australian expectations of government, Political Amnesia (QE 60 2016) with failing institutional memory, and Follow the Leader (QE 71 2018) with political leadership in the modern world (links are to my blog posts). The High Road presents an abridged comparative chronology of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand: both began as colonies of England, and both were cut adrift when the UK joined the EU, and they have taken very different, though parallel paths since then, while for the most part doing their best to ignore each other.

The essay begins with the stark contrast between Jacinda Ahern’s decisive response to the Covid crisis and Scott Morrison prevarication and ambiguity, and goes on to make broader comparisons between the two leaders that are all unflattering to Morrison. But when the essay goes back to sketch the histories of the two nations, the comparisons don’t always favour Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Aotearoa/New Zealand doesn’t have a written constitution. It does have the Treaty of Waitangi, which laid the basis for a mutually respectful relationship between Māori and Pākehā. The treaty was largely ignored by settler society until the second half of last century, but it has been since taken seriously and provided a basis for major advances in Māori status and conditions, and for compensation for past injustices. Compare this to Malcolm Turnbull’s offhand dismissal of the call for a makaratta and a Voice to Parliament in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. In Aotearoa/New Zealand politicians of all stripes speak of ‘honour’ in relation to the Treaty, a word we will wait some time to her in the Austraian Parliament.

Neo-liberalism has come like a plague to both countries. It hit Aotearoa/New Zealand harder. Because there is only one house in their Parliament, and there are no states, a Prime Minister with a majority can override opposition to an economic program, which is what happened with ‘Rogernomics’ – a ‘deregulatory frenzy’ in the 1980s, which has made New Zealand ‘a stellar example for those wanting less government, less tax and more markets ever since’, and has also brought about a huge amount of human suffering. On this side of the Tasman, when Hawke and Keating set out with similar aims they had to compromise and set up a certain level of protection for the vulnerable.

On the other hand, because Aotearoa/ New Zealand has an electoral system that makes it less likely than in Australia that any one party will have a clear majority, and though Jacinda Ahern has one currently she chooses to work collaboratively in the manner to which she has been accustomed. Their electoral system means that parties that appeal to the centre are more likely to gain power – unlike in Australia, where the major parties (especially the LNP?) can be held captive by their extreme elements.

Laura Tingle’s starting point is that most Australians are fairly ignorant about the history of our most similar near neighbour. She’s certainly right about me, and I’m less ignorant for having read the essay.

The correspondence in the following Quarterly Essay, Alan Finkel’s Getting to Zero – from historians and journalists from both sides of the Tasman, economists, lawyers and politicians – largely amplifies the thesis of this one, with some minor disagreements and several pointed anecdotes. Historian Frank Bongiorno, for instance, reminds us of the underarm bowl by Australian Trevor Chappell in a 1981 cricket match, saying this ‘ugly’ tactic was ‘the emblematic event in the trans-Tasman relationship’ of his childhood, even after New Zealand took a stand against US nuclear weapons and Australia remained supine. The most telling pieces of correspondence are from First Nations writers.

In particular, Bain Attwood from Monash University and Miranda Johnson from the University of Otago argue ‘that relations between white settlers and indigenous people in Australia and New Zealand did not actually follow a significantly different course after their beginnings’, that in both cases indigenous people lost their resources or autonomy or both. As to the difference in the degree to which each country has sought to address historical injustice:

Rather than simply attributing this to the presence or absence of normative, moral, legal, philosophical and political forces in the governments, as Tingle does, it makes more sense to take note of the role played by material factors – for example, the fact that Māori are a much larger minority in New Zealand than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are in Australia or that there was less post-war non-British migration to New Zealand than to Australia. Unforeseen consequences of government policies and practices must also be taken into account. For example, the New Zealand Labour government in 1985 had no inkling that granting the Waitangi Tribunal the authority to hear cases about historical breaches of the treaty dating back to 1840 would lead to a veritable sort of claims and the compensation of many Māori iwi (tribes).

In her reply to the correspondence, Tingle focuses on the Covid pandemic and the difficulty of landing ‘a definitive portrait of my fleet-footed and shape-shifting subject, Australia’s prime minister. Someone said journalism is the first rough draft of history. Laura Tingle is a top-ranking political journalist, and this essay is an excellent draft of significant history.


The High Road is the eighth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Jenny Blackford’s Fil and Harry

Jenny Blackford, with illustrations by Kristin Devine, Fil and Harry (Christmas Press 2021)

Christmas Press is a small, Armidale-based publishing house set up about seven years ago, initially intending to publish ‘beautiful picture books for children, featuring traditional tales — folk tales, fairy tales, legends, myths — retold by well-known authors and stunningly illustrated in classic styles that reflect the cultures the stories come from’. Since then their list has expanded, and in 2018 they began to publish chapter books/junior fiction. The world of Australian children’s literature is all the richer for their existence.

In the chapter book Fil and Harry, Fil has to negotiate the perilous world of primary school relationships, deal with an oblivious older brother, resist an over-zealous quasi-stepmother named Elspeth, and cope with life in general. Then her cat Harry starts talking to her. He not only talks, but he lends a sympathetic ear (not something I would expect of a cat, but I suppose I’m more of a dog person). And then he intervenes in ways that are definitely catlike – accidentally on purpose making life hard for those who deserve it and seemingly effortlessly make things go better for the afflicted.

The pencil drawings by Kristin Devine that are scattered through the text add depth to the tale’s sweet warmth. I especially like the double spread of Fil’s empty room with light and breeze billowing the curtains.

It’s a quiet, companionable tale that is just the wrong age for any of my young friends and relatives, so I get to enjoy it just for myself.


Fil and Harry is the seventh book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021. My copy of the book is a gift from the author. Full disclosure: when I was editor of The School Magazine we accepted a short story, ‘Barry’, that was published in the magazine in May 2006. Since then the cat’s name has changed and the story has grown longer and deeper to become this chapter book..

Jennifer Maiden’s Cuckold and the Vampires

Jennifer Maiden, The Cuckold and the Vampires: An essay on some aspects of conservative manipulation of art and literature, including experimental, and the conservatives’ creation of conflict (Quemar Press 2020)

This essay opens with a story about the great Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez:

When Márquez realised that the new avant-garde periodical that was serialising his novel was a project of the CIA, he wrote to his friend, the editor, that he was withdrawing the work and felt like a ‘cuckold’. *

Hence the cuckold in the essay’s title. The titular vampires come from a traditional tale in which a visitor to a village suspects the presence of a vampire, only to discover that all the villagers are vampires. For Márquez, as Maiden spells it out, the ‘betrayal was not confined to that particular incident, but continued to pervade his sense of hope and his sense of self-trust for the rest of his life’.

That opening does three things. First, it provides a striking and incontestable example of reactionary political forces exerting influence and having a destructive effect on creative enterprise. It’s one of many in the essay. Others include the funding of Australia’s Quadrant and the promotion of abstract expressionist art during the Cold War. The body of the essay gives many examples of less tangible kinds of manipulation as well, including the CIA’s Cord Meyer’s injunction to ‘court the compatible left’ – that is, to win leftist and liberal artists and writers over as propagators of the CIA’s positions.

Second, the opening provides a gloss on one of Maiden’s poems, in this case ‘What if all the village were vampires?’ from The Espionage Act (Quemar 2020, my blog post here). It’s one of many such glosses that I expect will make the essay indispensable to scholars of Maiden’s poetry. Several of Maiden’s poems are quoted in part or in full in the body of the essay..

And third, in the manner of its telling, it helps to define the tone and the ideal readership of the essay. Márquez appears without personal names or any orientating descriptors. We are expected to know who Márquez is, or rather which Márquez is meant – the Wikipedia disambiguation entry for ‘Márquez’ lists hundreds of people. It’s an essay for people who are reasonably well read in modern literature and, given that the first page mentions, in passing, the United Fruit massacre, Simón Bolivar and Fidel Castro, they are also reasonably well informed about Latin American (and by implication other) struggles against capitalism.

The essay that follows ranges widely, and sometimes wildly, over the cultural landscape and over the centuries. It covers personal experiences that writers generally don’t talk about in public: books pulped without the author’s permission, outrageous copyright arrangements, duplicity on the part of critics. Many of the stories are told without naming names, but in most of these cases the anonymity is skin deep. There are plenty of AustLit anecdotes, including a personal spin on well known ones such as A D Hope’s famous dismissal of Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, and direct reports of Maiden’s own experience. There are excursions into literary criticism – including of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Henry James. The essay takes issue with some strands of feminism, going back to fifteenth century France for an example of a proto-feminist whose writings served the interests of the ruling class, and is troubled by conservative patronage’s current ‘predilection for ostentatiously supporting Indigenous and Women’s art, often both together’.

One of the essay’s key points is the need to look beyond the ‘microcosm’ to the ‘macrocosm’. The microcosm is the detail of interpersonal relations; the macrocosm is the broad political forces behind the personal interactions. For example, when talking about the early death from substance abuse of John Forbes, an outstanding Australian poet whom Maiden classifies as of the left, she rejects the romantic notion of the self-destructive poet:

The suicidal depression in substance addiction of some left-wing artists … seems to me clearly related to their internalisation of right-wing social pressures to succeed, and an inability to disentangle those pressures from the valuation of their art – and, indeed, their lives. It’s a lethal business. The nature of competition and criticism in capitalist art has the characteristics of a battlefield, and drugs can seem the only method to tolerate it. There appears to the artist no issue of long-term survival, only a short-term negotiation and acceptance of the microcosm. Drugs provide the conflicting comforts of temporary transcendence, tunnel-vision and indifference all at once. They are a short-cut to the creation of the type of intoxicated persona that the Right Wing insists is the hallmark of art. And they also destroy the artist’s own critical faculty, making the artist more dependent on external right-wing critical criteria.

(pages 36–37)

That phrase, ‘It’s a lethal business’, recurs often. The microcosm–macrocosm shift is crucial, Maiden argues, when we look at conflict among artists and writers. How much of it is encouraged, if not confected, by the forces of reaction in order to defang creativity? The essay sails close to just that sort of conflict at times, though even when Maiden is describing how a particular artist or art movement has been used by the right-wing, she generally makes it clear that it’s not the artist or the movement she is criticising.

I doubt if anyone will read this book nodding agreement all the way. I was perplexed by the argument that only right-wingers invoke Marx any more, and though I’m interested to learn that the term ‘conspiracy theory’ was first developed by the right to dismiss concerns abut the assassination of John F Kennedy, I can’t agree that the term isn’t appropriate for, say, Pizzagate and the Great Replacement.

But for anyone who agrees with Jennifer Maiden’s contention that writers and readers who think of themselves as ‘non-political’ are very likely to be conservative or reactionary, this essay is a lively and challenging read. For anyone interested in her poetry and/or the circumstances in which poets have worked and been published in Australia over the last half century, it’s richly informative.


A small gripe: I was desperate for some white space as I read The Cuckold and the Vampires. I need an indent or a half-line space between long paragraphs. I need white space to mark a new phase of an essay-argument. If poetry is quoted at length, I need the actual line breaks rather than slashes to show where they ought to be. My eyes need these occasional rests, and my (ageing) brain works better when my eyes are rested.


The Cuckold and the Vampires is the sixth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Bitter Root One and Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Proust Progress Report 20: Getting to the point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristen Lang’s Earth Dwellers

Kristen Lang, Earth Dwellers (Giramondo 2021)

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

For the wombats and the slime moulds ...

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

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

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

(page 62)

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

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

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

Her squat-bodied
walk
crumbles under her –

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

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

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

________ even
half
of her gaze

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


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

Jeff Lemire’s Ascender Vol Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

You're just in time?

Time? Time for what?

Time to save the universe

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

Colum McCann’s Apeirogon

Colum McCann, Apeirogon (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Page 229)

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

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

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

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

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

2021 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist

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

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

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize

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

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

Multicultural NSW Award

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

Awards that don’t have shortlists

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

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

.

Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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