Lisa Bellear, Aboriginal Country

Lisa Bellear, Aboriginal Country (UWA Publishing 2018)

Lisa Bellear was a Melbourne activist, photographer, broadcaster and poet who died aged just 45 in 2006. She had one book of poetry published in her lifetime (Dreaming In Urban Areas (UQP, 1996)). Aboriginal Country, a second book which a number of poems from the first, has been edited posthumously by Melbourne poet (among other things) Jen Jewel Brown, with an ‘About the Author’ by Susan K. Martin of La Trobe University. That and other introductory material sketches Bellear’s life story – her adoption as a baby by a white family after being virtually stolen by a hospital, her rediscovery of her true Aboriginal family in her twenties, and then her years as participant in Melbourne’s cultural life and Indigenous activism. So the book is framed as a kind of memorial to an inspiring individual.

I’m coming at the book from a different angle. I’ve read it in NAIDOC Week, as part of Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZLitLovers, so I want to talk a little about this year’s NAIDOC theme, and about recent Aboriginal poetry.

The theme is ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’ You probably already know that that’s shorthand for the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which for a fleeting moment this week the Morrison government seemed to be taking seriously. Just as a reminder, here are the relevant paragraphs from the Statement:

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
       Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
       We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

(You can read the full Statement here.)

As NAIDOC Week theme, ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’ invites reflection and action at many levels besides those that involve government action. Among other things, they imply an invitation to non-Indigenous Australians to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, to be open to their truths.

And we’re living in a time when a rich variety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices can be heard by anyone who cares to listen – in the mainstream print and broadcast media, on social media (have a look at @IndigenousX), in brilliant films and novels – and in poetry. Here’s a brief (well, as brief as I could make it) rundown of some of the excellent poets that I’ve come across (and mostly blogged about: click on the links for my blog posts).

  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal (who like Lisa Bellair came from Minjerribah / Stradbroke Island) carried the burden of being first – the first Aboriginal person to have a book of poetry published in English, and she produced two – We Are Going (1964) and The Dawn Is at Hand (1966).
  • Kevin Gilbert, like Oodgeroo, was many things besides being a poet. His first book of poetry, End of Dream-time (1971), which also carries some of the burden of being ‘first’, the felt obligation to speak on behalf of all Aboriginal people, is a striking lesson in what can go wrong when well-meaning non-Indigenous people overstep. His second collection, People Are Legends, partly corrected the damage done by the first. He also wrote a charming book of poetry for children, Child’s Dreaming (1992).
  • Lionel Fogarty is described on the Australian Poetry Library (APL) website as ‘a poet who has opened up the new space of black Australian post-surrealist writing and done much to reformulate our understanding of poetic discourse and its roles in both black and white communities’. His concern is definitely not to put white readers at ease. ‘White man will never really fully interpret what a black man is thinking when he is writing.’ If you can live with that, I recommend his work.
  • Ali Colby Eckermann once said in an interview, ‘I want to use my poetry to educate Australians, to overcome their innate fear of Aboriginal people.’ If you think that implies didacticism or talking down, I recommend her slim verse novel Ruby Moonlight, which is just wonderful.
  • Samuel Wagan Watson is another excellent poet from south-east Queensland. I didn’t blog about his prize-winning Smoke Encrypted Whispers, but I remember feeling that I was meeting a new generation: his Aboriginality is no less significant, but a lot of the poetry is about life and relationships among those who had come of age in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Brisbane. (I don’t think SWW mentions Joh, but it’s a way of naming that cultural moment.)
  • Evelyn Araluen, as far as I know, doesn’t have a book out yet, but I’ve read poems by her and heard her read a couple of times. She does weird, vengeful mash-ups of May Gibbs. At a recent Sydney Poetry Lounge evening she read, among other things, a terrific piece lampooning awkward and/or perfunctory Acknowledgements of Country and a long, philosophical reflection on the effects of colonisation, which I look forward to seeing in print.

I’ve also read terrific poems by Peter Minter, Steven Oliver, Lorna Munro, Ellen van Neerven, Maya Hodge, Anita Heiss and probably others. If you know of any that I’ve missed, please add them in the comments.

Aboriginal Country is part of that extraordinarily rich conversation. My main response in reading it is to wish I could have seen her read them live, each one in its moment – as for instance ‘Dear Mr Prime Minister (of Australia)’, written in June 1993, wishing Paul Keating luck with ‘Mabo’, and signing off:

If you need support, like to talk.
Yours sincerely,
A. Citizen
(Noonuccal)

Or the ten starkly confronting poems that were performed by Lisa Bellear as part of a multimedia event as part of Melbourne’s Centenary of Federation celebrations. Here’s the opening of ‘Federation Statement’:

In 1901 the new Federation of Australia deliberately excluded
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – why?

Always was, always will be Aboriginal country.

That’s necessary speech, words that needed to be said then, need to be repeated, and still need to be heard. A lot of the poetry here is of that sort – what Jen Jewel Brown’s Editor’s Note calls ‘straight-talking, sparse yet dramatically alive words’: poems dealing with domestic violence, colonising history, war in the former Yugoslavia, everyday racism, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, almost always in a way that feels public, even if not for actual performance. There are moments of humour, as in the brief ‘Home’ which celebrates, if that’s the word, the greyness of Melbourne; and of domesticity, as in ‘Writer’s Block’.

The poems that stand out for me are dramatic monologues in the mouths of historical figures, some based on photographs. As my regular readers know, I generally choose one poem to quote and discuss in some detail. So here’s ‘Construct Me’ (click to enlarge):

This makes me think of Vernon Ah Kee’s drawings of his ancestors. Beginning from photos taken with and for a coloniser’s gaze, he creates lovingly detailed, large-scale drawings of formidable people, no longer objects but challenging subjects. Here, the speaker in the first section is an Aboriginal woman being posed for a studio photograph. As Lisa Bellear was a photographer, I think it’s safe to assume these lines are underpinned by deep consideration of the relationship between photographer and subject. The woman addresses the photographer (who I’ll assume is male):

This is your language your culture
This is your naming your ideals
of who I am supposed to
be, represent.

She is aware that she is being objectified, cast in the photographer’s narrative without regard for who she actually is. But she doesn’t submit:

Am I allowed to
mourn.
I am still able to feel the
kangaroo and possum skin
Inside I will always run free.

The next ten lines deal directly with the details of the shoot. She expresses a completely rational failure to understand the studio. And then the photographer speaks, giving her instructions, warning her of the flash, and then reprimanding her for not following his instructions.

And in the last seven lines the woman speaks again, this time transcending the detail of her situation. Now she addresses not just the photographer but us, in the future. She now takes on a representative role, not as a specimen, but now as a spokesperson – a Voice. We may never come to know her individual name, but her ”lations’, who are ‘a big mob’ have made themselves more clearly known to the colonisers.

For our future and our
survival, we must be
remembered.

This lays out, so plainly and simply, the ambivalence in those photos: whatever the motive for taking them – as novelty, as anthropological record, perhaps as Victorian erotica – they can now function as a record of the people who were here at the time, they can be a means to ensuring that the people are remembered.

For this poem to have its full impact, it needs to be read aloud, in two voices, paying attention to the line breaks – over and again, there is a break just before a key word (‘to / be’, ‘to / mourn’, ‘the / kangaroo’, ‘the / trees’, all the way down to ‘we must be / remembered’.

Like many of the poems in this book, this one doesn’t invite the reader to enjoy it for clever rhymes or striking images. It’s in very plain language, ‘straight-talking’, as Jen Jewel Brown puts it. It challenges us to join the poet in doing the work of changing the way we look at those photos, and by extension the way we imagine the history of this country.

Aboriginal Country is the 26th book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve read it this week as part of Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZLitLovers.

Ruby Reads (13)

When I started writing about books I’ve met thanks to my granddaughter Ruby, I hesitated to include more than one book by a given author. But there are authors who turn up again and again, so here are a couple of books by repeat authors. But first, some read-alouds from Rhyme Time at the library.

Allie Busby, Feeding Time (Just Like Me!) (Childs Play Intl Ltd 2018)

This is a very simple book, with very simple illustrations, and flaps. It worked beautifully with under-twos at the library. The ‘just like me’ of the title evidently indicates a series it belongs to, and it’s also a refrain, as one lifted flap after another reveals the food an animal eats, and that food is also one that humans eat. The illustrations aren’t in the same class as Jim Arnosky’s Man Gave Names to All the Animals but the book’s sweet, unstrained assertion of human commonality with other animals is much more the kind of thing I’d want small children to hear.

Penny Dale, Ten in the bed (Walker Books 1990)

While Rhyme Time is primarily an event for small children, it’s also, something rare these days, a place where adults can enjoy singing together. One old thespian attends irregularly and behaves as I would like to – joining in the songs with unembarrassed pleasure and beaming appreciation of the librarian’s performance and of the children’s sometimes disruptive enthusiasm. This book lifted most of us to his level. The richly coloured illustrations are full of little jokes, and the text rings changes on the familiar song (each ‘one’ who rolls out is a different toy).

Doctor Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go (1990)

I blogged about The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham in pre-grandfatherdom days (the blog post is here). Both of them are still going strong as far as our family is concerned.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go is the last Dr Seuss book published in his lifetime. It’s weirdly abstract both in its geometric illustrations and its non-specific text, but it’s got the characteristic verbal energy and visual quirkiness that keep his books interesting (for me at least).

Doctor Seuss (text) and George Booth (illustrator), Wacky Wednesday (1974)

Originally written over the name Theo LeSieg, this has clearly been welcomed into the general Dr Seuss canon. It’s meant for readers older that 18 and a two-thirds months, but Ruby requests it regularly. It’s essentially a series of spreads in which the reader is invited to find out what’s wrong with the illustrations. The text provides a slender narrative thread and tells the reader how many wacky things they can find on each spread. It has no appeal for me at all, and I can’t tell what Ruby enjoys in it, given that her sense of what’s ‘normal’ is (I believe) still developing – why is it odd that one of the girls on the cover image has no legs but not odd that three identical girls, identically clothed, are walking and gesturing in unison? Such questions are purely academic.

Julia Donaldson (text) and Rebecca Cobb (illustrator), The Paper Dolls (Macmillan Children’s Books 2012)

I’m please to say that Ruby’s tastes and mine sometimes coincide. This book is an example, though I don’t know what Ruby finds interesting in it. A little girl has a chain of five paper dolls – Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie and Jim with two noses and Jo with the bow – who have a string of adventures. Happily, the adventures involve a gigantic crocodile, thereby meeting one of our current preoccupations. If only they’d met a kookaburra it would have been a perfect book.

There are more books, and there will be more blog posts about them.

Journal Blitz 2

I still have nearly a year’s worth of subscribed journals on my TBR shelf. Here some gleanings from a second catch-up binge.

Andrew Galan and David Stavanger (guest editors) plus Toby Fitch (Big Bent editor), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 8 Number 2: Spoken

This issue of APJ is in two parts: ‘Spoken’ comprises 42 poems intended primarily for performance – ‘Spoken Word’ creations; and ‘Big Bent Poetry’ is 19 poems commissioned to be read at a series of LGBTQIA+ events at literary festivals in 2018. Sound recordings of both sections are accessible at the Australian Poetry home page, australianpoetry.org.

The Big Bent poems may have been commissioned for performance, but they are mostly ‘page poems’, compressed, elegant, needing to be taken slowly; the Spoken poems are definitely ‘stage poems’, with declamatory rhythms and big gestures, one of them actually including stage directions.

I’m a long way from being a Spoken Word aficionado, but I love Bankstown Poetry Slam and was pleased to recognise a number of its stars here. Sara Saleh’s ‘InshAllah’ offers a multitude of meanings for that expression, of which my favourite is, ‘InshaAllah is the answer / when there are still questions but no answers to give.’ Ahmad Al Rady has a group of three short, tantalisingly oblique poems (on rain: ‘wet bullets crave the warmth of flesh’). In Omar Musa’s ‘Christchurch’, that earthquake-ravaged city is a setting for a break-up poem (‘I don’t believe in miracles any more, just bridges – some you walk across, some you jump from’).

There are strong Aboriginal voices, including Lorna Munro, whose ‘cop it sweet’ evokes the ravages of time on her inner city Aboriginal community, and Steven Oliver of Black Comedy fame, with a brilliant list poem, ‘Diversified Identity’.

Other poems that stand out for me are Emilie Zoey Baker’s ‘Hey, Mary Shelley’, in which the speaker imagines herself inhabiting Shelley’s body ‘like a flexible ghost’; Emily Crocker’s ‘the refrigerator technician’, a breakup, or near-breakup, poem full of sharp domestic metaphors; Tim Evans’s ‘Poem Interrupted by’, in which the speaker answers a phone call from the Abyss (this is the one with stage directions); and the anthem-like ‘Forget’ by the late and much-missed Candy Royale. The section ends with a photograph of a splendid graffiti mural at the Newtown hub featuring Candy Royale with a halo made up of the words, loving instead of hating, living instead of waiting.

Coming to this issue late means that I’ve actually read a couple of the Big Bent poems in books published in the meantime. It was a pleasure to re-encounter Tricia Dearborn’s ‘Petting’ and Kate Lilley’s ‘Pastoral’. Of the others, I particularly warmed to joanne burns’s shit-stirring in ‘a query or two’, which includes:

is there a point to getting grumpy
if you're addressed as 'sir' by
a sushi seller or a supermarketeer –
better than being addressed as nothing
or no one service is better for the sirs
of this world.

There’s also ‘(weevils)’ by Pam Brown (I don’t understand the title, but it’s a terrific poem); ‘my human’ by Quinn Eades (he’s the poet who appears in both sections – ‘my human’ is spoken by a dog); ‘A Song of Love’ by Omar Sakr; and ‘Bathers’ by Zenobia Frost (a longish prose poem that takes a Rupert Bunny painting as its starting point). There’s a lot of excellence to choose from.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 232 (Spring 2018)

First thing you notice about this Overland is the stunning collages by guest artist Bella Li, especially the front and back covers – a great waterfall among skyscrapers, and oceanside apartment blocks bursting into flower. Bella Li’s artist’s statement can be read on the journal’s website, here. (Most of the contents of this issue can be read on the website. The titles here link to them.)

As always there are excellent columns by Alison Croggon (‘On memory‘ – ‘The human capacity for delusion isn’t so much a bug as a feature’), Giovanni Tiso (‘On remembering to back-up grandpa‘ – a touch of dystopian technofuture) and Tony Birch (‘On Kes‘ – the role of books and an imagined falcon in his childhood, plus a sweet present-day harking back).

Overland always includes the results of at least one literary competition. This time it’s the VU Short Story Prize and the PEN Mildura Indigenous Writers Award. The winner and runners-up for the former are all terrific: in How to disappear into yourself (in 8 steps) by Katerina Gibson the narrator juggles an internship, a paid job, motherhood, a possible new relationship, and cultural complexity, and the story stays lucid; in Dear Ophelia by Erik Garkain a trans man who works in a morgue speaks to a trans woman whose corpse he tends – it’s a little teachy, but I just now many of us need teaching; Nothing in the night by Ashleigh Synnott is a short, gripping, surreal piece which Bella Li’s collage illo suggests is set in a dystopian future, though I’m agnostic about that. Her eyes by Maya Hodge, winner of the PEN Mildura prize, takes that moment when you look into a baby’s eyes and understand something profound.

I’m always grateful for Overland‘s poetry section, currently edited by Toby Fitch. This issue has nine poems, of which the two that speak most directly to me are Peripheral drift by Zenobia Frost (who also got a guernsey in Big Bent Poetry, above), which begins:

Turns out you can still pash in a graveyard
at 28, though by now my fear of spooks
has faded into a more realistic fear of people

and Patternicity by Shey Marque, a terrific evocation of a tiny sandstorm that includes the wonderful word ‘apoidean’.

Of the articles, the ones I have been talking about compulsively are The bird you are holding by Ashleigh Synnott (who also appears as one of the VU Prize runners-up) and Against apologies by Joanna Horton. Each of them makes a case for keeping in mind our common humanity, or at least our common struggles. Among other things, Synnott provides brief literature survey of the concept of ‘precarity’, and Horton, while agreeing that talk of ‘privilege’ is useful, argues that apologising for one’s privilege is actually buying into neoliberal individualism:

We desperately need a politics that frames a comfortable, stable life, one as free from oppression as possible, as a right to be fought for, not a privilege to be denounced.

‘Making the desert bloom’ by Barbara Bloch is a trenchant criticism of the Jewish National Fund’s activities in the Negev/Naqab desert. Like Chris Graham’s ‘So much like home‘ in the previous issue, she draws parallels between the treatment of the Palestinians and colonialism in Australia, which chimes with my sense that Israel is not a special rogue case, but part of a planet-wide pattern.

I’ll just mention finally that I was delighted to read ‘Everything that is courageous & beautiful‘ in which Nell Butler argues that Paul Gallico should be brought back from obscurity – ‘from the dead’, she says. The Snow Goose, the book and the record of Herbert Marshall’s reading, was one of the joys of my childhood.


David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Michelle Hamadache (guest editor), Southerly Vol 77 No 3 2017: Mixed Messages

Southerly is a literary journal. I expect culture warriors of the right would say it was infected by the Gay-Marxist-feminist agenda, but it’s a broad church, with no avowed political leanings like Overland (or for that matter Quadrant, which I rarely read). David Brooks, retiring co-editor, has come out as seriously vegan, as has John Kinsella, who has a poem and a story i this issue. Yet Debra Adelaide’s story, ‘Festive Cooking for the Whole Family’, makes a cheerful mockery of vegans, among others, as her Christmas hostess wrestles with the complex dietary and other demands of a large family gathering.

David Brooks’s article ‘Seven Gazes’ (for which I broke my rule not to read anything that mentions Derrida in the first sentence) wrestles with the challenge of moving outside the human bubble to understand what is happening in the Gaze (his capitalisation) of ‘non-human animals’, and if he is aware that there’s something potentially risible in leaving the door of his house open so the sheep can drop in, he gives no sign of it; John Kinsella’s ‘Roaming the Campsite’, a sharp short story told from the perspective of a neglected child, doesn’t push any belief system, and his poem ‘Graphology Soulaplexus 36: loss’, despite its hi-falutin title, is a straightforward and beautiful elegy.

One pleasant surprise is ‘Poetic Fire’, an article written by Thea Astley when she was a school student, reproduced here because Cheryl Taylor has an article about Astley’s novels that refers to it, and the editors have kindly made it immediately accessible. In these days when schoolchildren are playing a major role in fighting for action on climate change, it’s good to have another reminder not to patronise the young. (I broke another rule, not to read Eng Lit scholarly articles about books I haven’t read, and read Charyl Taylor’s article: her use of the school-student essay is deeply respectful.)

Among other excellent things are ‘Fresh Food People’ a short story by Nazrin Mahoutchi about a small, diverse group of migrants in a food preparation business. I broke another rule (not to read excerpts) and read Peter Boyle’s ‘Excerpts from Enfolded in the wings of a Great Darkness‘, a tantalising seven pages from a long poem in progress:

who picks among
the clothes left
by those stripped bare
for mourning

Who rinses their hands in
water that can no longer
cleanse

Who goes to hear
the hymns of forgiveness
but clutches in one hand
the prayer beads of vengeance

S K Kelen’s ‘More Words: Uses for a Father’, a joyous list poem that does what the title says, speaks to my condition as a new grandfather, though ‘cricket bat whack kick / box new fun’ isn’t on our agenda just yet.

And that’s all from me. Thanks for persisting to the end. I expect to do a ‘Journal Blitz 3’ post, but not for a little while.

Nadia Wheatley, Her Mother’s Daughter

Nadia Wheatley, Her Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir (Text 2018)

When Raimond Gaita wrote about his parents in Romulus My Father (1998), he brought his finely honed philosophical mind to the task. In Biff Ward’s long experience as a feminist activist permeates her exploration of her parents’ story, In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin 2014). The parts of Rozanna Lilley’s Do Oysters Get Bored? (UWA Publishing 2018) that deal with her famously tell-all parents can focus on her own experience, with their lives pretty much reduced to back story. Lee Whitmore, filmmaker, told the story of her grandmother in a sweeping visual drama, the comic Ada Louise: A life imagined (Susan Lane Studio 2016).

Nadia Wheatley is a historian: her The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (HarperCollins Australia 2002) has been described as ‘one of the greatest Australian biographies’. She is also a children’s writer: her collaboration with Donna Rawlins, My Place (Walker Books 1988) was an instant classic. Her Mother’s Daughter is a work of history, and some of its key moments are told from a child’s point of view.

Neen Wheatley, nee Watkin, died in October 1958, when her only daughter Nadia was nine years old. Nadia had clear memories of her as a loving mother who became unhappy and sick, caught for too long in a painful relationship with her husband John. Though Nadia loved her mother and feared her father, she grew up being told she was like her father, and was told once, when she took a political stand that her mother’s relatives disapproved of, that her mother would have hated her. The book, as its title suggests, is an act of reclaiming her allegiance to her mother, and her deep affinity with her.

It’s a work of history. At any given moment, the reader knows the source of the story that’s being told: Nadia’s own childhood memories of her parents; things that were said about them by their family members and the family Nadia lived with after her mother’s death; interviews with women who were Neen’s friends before she married (‘the Girls’); interviews with Neen’s family, including her much loved youngest brother, whom Nadia didn’t meet until he was 89; interviews with John’s surviving relatives; Neen’s wartime correspondence, and a detailed journal of her time working for the UNRRA after the war; official records of the displaced persons camps in Germany where John and Neen had positions of great responsibility, and where they met and fell in love; Neen’s medical records from her final years.

This historical discipline is at the service of a passionate quest to reclaim her mother from oblivion. When Wheatley discovers that Neen, whom she had been told was bitterly anti-Communist, used to go to shows at the left-wing New Theatre when young, her joy at the discovery is only partly that of a historian finding evidence of a counter-narrative; it’s also the joy of getting her mother back. Likewise, when she finds evidence that her father behaved unethically during his early years as a doctor in England, it comes as confirmation of what she knows of him from the domestic experience.

The book is in four sections with self-explanatory titles.: ‘Neen’, ‘Nina and John’, ‘Nina, John and Nadia’, and ‘Nadia’. Wheatley’s craft as a writer for children shines in the third part and in a brief prologue. In both of these the young Nadia has conversations with both her parents separately, and is used as a pawn in her father’s relentless undermining of her mother. The little girl’s passionate attachment to her mother, her helpless yielding to her father’s manipulations, her bewilderment at her mother’s death are all captured with great poignancy. The father’s repeated question when he is showing her hideous images of human suffering, ‘Do you understand, Nadia?’ is as horrific as any fairytale witch’s incantation.

I found this book deeply affecting. I learned a lot about the role Australians played in post-war Europe. I was reminded how resistant to evidence sexist assumptions can be – in this case in the medical profession. I remembered my own enjoyment of the Tintookies, a puppet show that I saw in North Queensland and Nadia in Sydney. I had my eyes opened to just how inexplicably vile adults can be to small children. I am in awe of the discipline that could wrangle such pain and loss and love into such an effective narrative.

Her Mother’s Daughter is the twenty-fifth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Book Group and Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions

Josephine Wilson, Extinctions (UWA Publishing 2016)

Before the meeting: Extinctions won the 2017 Miles Franklin Award, and has been widely well received. I hated it.

I realised how much I was hating it when on page 16 the main character, grumpy and defensive seventyish white man Frederick Lothian, describes a piece of knitting as ‘abandoned in medias res‘: my inner pedant came out all guns blazing. That’s syntactically incorrect, it shouted: in medias res doesn’t mean ‘in the middle of things’, as Frederick (who has been studying Latin) and presumably the author think, but ‘into the middle of things’ – you can’t abandon something into something. I was being unfair: it’s a genuinely trivial matter and anyhow English usage has long since left the Latin behind. If I’d been enjoying the book, even moderately, I wouldn’t have noticed.

Out of respect for the Book Group, the Miles Franklin judges (though we shouldn’t forget The Hand That Signed the Paper), and otherwise trustworthy bloggers (see here for Whispering Gums, here for ANZ LitLovers, and here for The Resident Judge of Port Phillip), I persisted.

There are a lovely couple of sentences on page 164:

Some young lads were tossing a Frisbee, diving after it and landing heavily in the sand. They came up laughing and dusting off their legs, A thin, stringy boy with a head of dark hair and a little nub of fluff under his lip leapt sideways and missed. He met the ground not as you would meet an adversary – hardened and eager to hurt – but like a member of the family who had been gone just a little too long: a quick embrace, an easier release.

And in the final movement there’s a scene of genuine power in which a father slaps his tiny son.

I mention those moments for two reasons: first to prove that I did read on, and second to demonstrate that I wasn’t committed to hating the book. But committed or not, I did hate it. I really I don’t want to spend time spelling out why, though a number of my friends have put up with rants and readings-aloud. enough to say that it seemed to me at one stage that you could pick a passage at random and I’d hate something in the content or the expression. If you want to know more about the book, I recommend any of the blogs I’ve linked to above. They’re not written by defensive and grumpy old white men and may be more dependable than mine.

At the meeting: I arrived intending to keep my mouth shut because there’s nothing worse than having someone spraying vitriol at a book you’ve just read and loved, and I was trying to be open to the possibility that the book is actually OK, but just sparked/triggered something in me. (Another chap from the book had told me a couple of weeks before the meeting that he too had hated the book – it had made him unaccountably angry. Being morally superior to me, he reread it. I was looking forward to what he had to say at the meeting.)

We did spend an unusual amount of time discussing the food (which was excellent – everyone had bought something), the recent election result, and the rights and wrongs of a Sydney multi-millionaire sporting celebrity who broke a contractual undertaking not to speak ill of LGBTQI people and lost his job because of it. But we also had a spirited, amiable and enlightening conversation about the book.

I didn’t succeed in keeping my mouth shut for long, and my friend who had been made unaccountably angry didn’t say much more than that the book didn’t make him angry the second time. A couple of people had enjoyed it a lot (though one who had really loved it couldn’t be there, alas). No one hated it as much as I did, and I did get called a grumpy old man in a tone that suggested I identified defensively with Frederick (a charge I don’t absolutely deny).

The architects and modernist design aficionados among us enjoyed the presence of those elements, including the illustrations scattered throughout. No one could tell me what these photos added, except that they pleasantly broke up the pages of text. Clearly, though, the book had stuck a chord in some, as a number of members spoke in a heartfelt way of how adoption, old-people’s homes, work-family balance had figured in their lives. Oddly, I felt that the plot tensions were satisfactorily resolved in the final stages, whereas some people who liked the book were left dissatisfied. I was the only one who read out a passage – the one quoted above – though one chap read out a number of phrases that he considered beautifully turned (I didn’t, but there’s no point arguing about such things).

Extinctions is the twenty-fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy was a library book.

Literal erasure

I’ve been walking past this rubbish bin outside the Marrickville Metro for a couple of weeks. It just occurred to me that the attack on this tiny, neat graffiti is an example of literal erasure of First Nations peoples in history. For what it’s worth:

Ruby Reads (12): Ladybird, Alison Lester & Dylan

On the weekend I went to a family gathering – not a reunion, but a first-time gathering of the descendants of three Shaw brothers who came to Australia from Yorkshire in the 1860s and 70s. The event itself was fun and interesting, with at least one revelation that led to much hilarity, but what’s relevant to this blog is that I stayed with a niece, mother of two small girls. Here’s a) a book I read while stickybeaking on her bookshelves, and b) two books that were requested at bedtime. You’ll be able to tell which is which.

Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris, How it Works: The Mum (Michael Joseph 2016)

This is one of those books that sit on the front counters of bookshops inviting you to buy them as gifts. It’s a parody of a Little Golden Book (or Ladybird Book in the US UK (see Robert Day’s comment) edition as pictured here), using illustrations from 1960s children’s books and affecting a childlike tone in the text, but with an adult sting in the tail. This one is funny rather than cynical, wry rather than bitter. My niece’s favourite page is the one where the mum has an interview for a job but can’t get the theme tune from The Octonauts out of her head. Mine is the last page, where the mum rides her bike to work after an exhausting night and when she hears other mothers speak of their children’s exemplary behaviour is fortunately too tired to kill them.

At the end, there’s a sweet acknowledgement of the pleasure the authors derived from the original books, which reads as a sincere tribute rather than a legal requirement. The artists are listed, but I didn’t make a note of their names.

Alison Lester, Are We There Yet? (Viking 2005)

A family of five go on a trip around Australia in 32 pages. The refrain ‘Are we there yet?’ is irregular enough not to be annoying, but frequent enough that my seven year old great-niece could join me in saying it each time.

Regular readers will know that my main contact with children’s books these days is thanks to my 18 month old granddaughter. This book is a reminder of past reading pleasures and a sweet harbinger of things to come. Alison Lester’s images are completely beguiling.

Bob Dylan (lyrics), Jim Arnosky (images), Man Gave Names to All the Animals (Sterling 1999)

This is a rare thing, a picture book with Bob Dylan lyrics as the text. The song is from the 1979 album Slow Train Coming, from BD’s born-again Christian era. It was hard to tell if my young relatives (who were not only sleepy but also slightly anxious at being read to by a virtual stranger) enjoyed it very much. But the illustrations are gorgeous, every page crowded with splendid animals, many more than are mentioned in the song. The book comes with a CD attached – our copy was from the library, and the CD-less.

I may be a feminist Climate Crisis prig, but front and centre for me was the title’s erasure of female humans and its assertion of human separateness from ‘all the animals’, both of which made it hard for me to love the book or the song.

Are We There Yet? is the twenty-third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Journal Blitz

I just realised with something like horror that my To Be Read shelf contains at least a year’s worth of unread journals. So here goes with what I intend to be the first of several catch-up posts, each following a catch-up reading binge.

Gig Ryan (guest editor), Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 8, Issue 1 (2018)

In her Foreword to this issue of APJ, guest editor Gig Ryan, herself a formidable poet, writes:

No poems here can be straitjacketed entirely into any one category, as each poem, being its own summation, is also necessarily an experiment, an exploration, kicking towards the impossible.

The same is true of the journal as a whole. It’s not a directory, a survey or a sampler; there are no thematically labelled sections, or indicators of hierarchy. It reads like a mildly chaotic conversation among more than fifty word users, which the reader is invited to enter.

There are many excellent poems, some by poets I already know and love, some by people who are new to me. I’ll just mention one that has stuck with me: Andy Jackson’s ‘No Lament’, which is a response to Judith Beveridge’s sonnet, ‘Quasimodo’s Lament’. The latter poem looks at Quasimodo (‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’) from the point of view of an able-bodied person, the former from that of someone with a physical ‘deformity’. Jackson’s poem begins with the first word of the equivalent line in the Beveridge’s. It’s not a calling out, but a ‘departure’, and the effect is to open up a profound dialogue between the two points of view. Here are the first four lines of each:

From Judith Beveridge’s poem:

Crazed carillonneur, will you ever stop hauling
yourself into the cathedral’s dim vaults?
Will you ever stop imagining Esmeralda’s hands
running along the canted bones of your spine
(from 'Quasimodo's Lament', Meanjin 2017, on the web here)

From Andy Jackson’s ‘No Lament’:

Crazed? – only the mob in us deserves that word.
Your self, your body, calm and attentive at the rope,
will always draw out those strong and slanted notes
running across every imperfect surface.

There are half a dozen essays, including an interview by Matthew Hall with the editors of Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems1980–2017 (re.press 2017), which is surely of interest to anyone who cares about contemporary Aboriginal poetry. There’s also an essay by Duncan Hose on John Forbes, marking the 20th anniversary of his death, which includes some close reading; and a discussion of rhyme by Dennis Haskell.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 230 (Autumn 2018)

I read this Overland selectively, skipping articles that looked at first blush to be about where the universities are getting it wrong, or arguing that, say, the marriage equality Yes movement wasn’t radical enough. So who knows what I have missed?

Here are some wonderful things I didn’t miss:

In ‘On Jack Charles‘, Tony Birch writes that for Aboriginal people, ‘sovereignty – an imposed colonial concept – is a complex and contradictory notion’, and as a way to understanding what Aboriginal sovereignty might mean quotes Jack Charles as saying that ‘he could not walk by a person in need – any person in need – as an Aboriginal man claiming the right to Country’. It’s not often you stumble across such profundity.

I wouldn’t want to skip the regular columns by Alison Croggon (On seeing in this issue starts from her extreme myopia and goes to surprising places) and Giovanni Tiso (On writing while foreign: ‘the effortless travel of our writings across the global marketplace of late capitalism is the grotesque mirror image of the hardening of the boundaries between nations and people’).

Overland always includes the result of a literary competition. In this one, it’s the Nakata Brophy Prize for young Indigenous writers. The first prize, ‘haunted house‘ by Raelee Lancaster, counterposes two traditions (European an Indigenous) of ghost stories in a way that creates plummeting depths beneath an apparently simple surface.

There are other excellent poems, including Allotment #10, by Laurie Duggan, an addition to one of his long-running series.

Decades ago, a flatmate of mine had a poster on his wall that compared the situation of Aboriginal people living in remote communities with that of Palestinians. ‘So much like home‘ by Chris Graham spells out the parallels: things have not improved markedly for either group. ‘Israel,’ Graham writes, ‘ has built a blunt, overt system of apartheid; Australia has built a polite, covert system of apartheid.’

Of the four short stories, the two that most claimed my attention both dealt with the ethical questions that arise when you mistakenly give something you have no right to. Baggage claim by Paddy O’Reilly and Tea ceremony by Michelle Aung Thin both this murky area, the former with youthful corruptibility in its sights, the latter with something more nuanced but no less grim.


David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Michelle Hamadache & Christopher Cyrill (guest editors), Southerly Vol 77 No 2 2017: The Long Apprenticeship

Southerly is the journal of the English Association, Sydney, which means it’s formally tied to EngLit academia. Given that, and the title of this issue it’s no surprise that there are a number of essays and fictions here about the long haul of learning to write, or just the long haul of life:

  • Desmond O’Grady on Muriel Spark’s nurturing times in Tuscany as a young woman
  • Elizabeth Hanscombe on how her writing career has been spent exploring events from the past that ‘appear to have a beginning and an end’ (‘They do not’)
  • Carol Lefevre on the nature writer J A Baker and his influence on her own career, quoting Richard Jefferies somewhere on the way, ‘The earth is all in all to me, but I am nothing to the earth: it is bitter to know this before you are dead’
  • James Bedford’s touching memoir of his father, with beautifully deployed family snapshots/

There are works from people at the start of their creative careers. The striking cover is a detail from My Contemporary Tribe, created by Phoebe Martyr when she was a high school student in 2016 (you can see the whole work here). There are three short stories by students at the Sydney Story Factory.

There’s a glorious wealth of poetry and short fiction, including some in translation. George Toseki’s ‘Finger Bun’, in which baklava is deployed to great effect as a peacemaker among factory workers from a range of ethnic backgrounds, gets my guernsey for the most fun. Invidious though it is, I’ll mention just one poem, joanne burns’s ‘lemon aid’ for the fabulous word comatoastie.

Of the reviews, I’d pick Lachlan Brown’s of Melanie Cheng, Australia Day (2017), which places the book in the context of ‘the contemporary succession of engaging and innovative collections of short stories by Australian writers from diverse backgrounds’.

The most challenging article for me is John Kinsella’s ‘Reading and (non) Compliance: Re-approaching the Text’, which – to attempt a crude summary – urges EngLit teachers to always incorporate creative writing into any teaching of poetry, by encouraging what he calls non-compliant reading. Not being part of the EngLit academy, I can’t tell whether his proposal is as radical as he appears to be claiming, or commonplace, or way out in the top paddock. One paragraph, though, came to me like a clarion call, an urgent challenge for me as a blogger about texts. I’ll give it the last word in this blog post:

A text is a living entity and should be teated as existing contingently and contiguously within and with a vulnerable ecology that is under threat, a biosphere that is collapsing due in no small part to human behaviours – especially corporate and state exploitations of the fragile, remaining ‘natural’ habitats. No text, whatever it is, can be read outside this context of damage.

Ruby Reads (11): Caterpillars, butterflies and lavatory humour

Last week I in bed with a fever and had the great pleasure of hearing in the next rook the Emerging Artist and the Granddaughter enjoy Rosie’s Walk together, maybe ten times in a row. So much squeaking and screaming and sheer exuberance! (Note to the Ramsey Centre: please consider Rosie’s Walk for your curriculum. It is one of the great achievements of Western Civilisation.) But that book has had its moment in this blog. Here are some new books, all of which were read to us at the library’s Rhyme Time:

Eric Carle, Sleep Tight Very Hungry Caterpillar (Puffin 2018)
Eric Carle, Where Is The Very Hungry Caterpillar? (The World of Eric Carle 2020)

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, it turns out, isn’t so much a book as a commercial phenomenon. These books, read to us on separate occasions, have a comfortingly familiar feel. Sadly, though, the existence of these and (I gather from the internet) other sequels/spin-offs somehow takes the shne off the original book (my blog post here).

Petr Horáček, Butterfly, Butterfly (Walker Books 2012)

Though the cover of this book announces that it is a ‘pop-up book of colour’, I was surprised and delighted by its only pop-up spread. Lucy sees a butterfly in the garden one day, and then it is gone. She spends most of the book discovering other colourful creatures, and in the end, failing to find the butterfly again, lies down and waits. Then, in the book’s final spread, there’s a wonderfully theatrical moment. You can see it for yourself on YouTube (here)

Stephanie Blake, Poo Bum (Gecko Press 2013)

The librarian prefaced her reading of this by saying it was for the parents and grandparents rather than the children. It’s a scatological variation on the theme of Maurice Sendak’s sublime Pierre (my blog post here): the little rabbit replies ‘Poo bum’ to every conversational opening. After surviving a terrible event, he (or she) undergoes a miraculous transformation, conversing with courtesy and a rich vocabulary. There’s a lamentable relapse at the end. The librarian closed the book and sighed, ‘I love a bit of lavatorial humour.’

I was relieved to note that it’s a New Zealand title, so I don’t have to include it in my list of books read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews (Part One)

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words (1000 BCE to 1492) (Vintage 2014)

Some decades ago, I borrowed a book called The History of the Jews from a friend, and was disappointed to find that it was little more than a smoothing out of the Biblical stories. As far as its author was concerned, it seemed, you didn’t need to go past the Hebrew Bible (the ‘Old Testament’) to get the history up to the beginning of the current era.

Simon Schama’s book is the one I was hoping for back then. The Hebrew Bible, he writes, is not primarily history, but

the imprint of the Jewish mind, the picture of its imagined origins and ancestry; it is the epic of the YHWH treaty-covenant with Israel, the single formless God moving through history, as well as the original treasure of its spiritual imagination.

(page 7)

Schama’s story doesn’t begin with Abraham leaving Ur, or even with Moses leading his people from Egypt. Schama isn’t confident that the exodus from Egypt even happened. It begins with the documented beginning of ordinary Jews, the earliest Jewish city that archaeologists have been able to reconstruct, on the island of Elephantine in Egypt, in the early 5th century BCE, hundreds of years after the Biblical account of the exodus. And although that city was a military outpost – Jewish soldiers employed by the Syrian empire – the book begins not with a battle or any grand scheme, but with a letter from a father to his soldier son.

Though the book’s title promises ‘The Story’, Schama insists from the beginning that there’s more than one story: the Biblical story and the archaeological story; Jerusalemite stories and stories of communities in exile; stories of those who integrate with their non-Jewish neighbours – Babylonian, Egyptian, Christian, Muslim – and of those who insist on rigorous separateness; stories of brilliant intellectual and spiritual achievement and stories of unimaginable horror (and this book ends in 1492).

I spent my first two decades in an intensely Catholic environment, so the account of Christianity’s transformation from a Jewish sect to a demonically anti-Jewish institution is particularly gripping to me. Cherie R Brown and Amy Leos-Urbel’s Anti-Semitism asserts that religion is not the cause of anti-semitism, but has been used as a tool to foment it. I think that makes sense, but reading how John Chrysostom, revered father of the church, preached vile slander and murderous injunctions against Jews (evidently thinking it was necessary because a lot of Christians in the 380s happily participated in Jewish festivals), tests the proposition. And my childhood image of St Francis preaching to the birds must now be accompanied by that of his Franciscan friars torturing and murdering men, women and children who refused to renounce Judaism, and many who had renounced it but continued to eat their customary food.

But the terrible history of humiliation and massacre is not the main story here. Again and again, Schama gives us stories of brilliant survival. The Talmud and the mishnah – tumultuous documents filled with wisdom, argument and disputation – grew in a state of exile. And before them, the Hebrew Bible itself was an extraordinary creation. A roll call of the people in this book who did great things would be very long: administrators, generals, poets – why haven’t I ever heard of Shmuel ibn Naghrela or Yehuda Halevi?

One small warning: I’m pretty knowledgable about Biblical stuff, have a smattering of mediaeval history, and some knowledge of current Judaic feasts. There were times when I found it hard to keep my bearings in the tumult of this story. So it may not a good place to start. If you don’t know who Moses is, or you’ve never heard of Purim, you might need something more straightforward, and move on to this when you’re ready.

Speaking with Paul Holdengräber at the 2019 Sydney Writers’ Festival, Simon Schama spoke of the heroism of the displaced. I don’t think the phrase occurs in this book, but it could have. His main subject at the SWF was the second volume of this story. You can hear that wonderfully entertaining conversation by clicking here, and my blog report on it here. He is now girding his loins for the third volume, which brings us through the twentieth century up to the present.