Books read on the road

I recently went on a ten-day road trip to the Mungo National Park by way of a number of country towns. Knowing there’d be plenty of time to read, I packed poetry. The slim volumes didn’t take up much space, but they were guaranteed to provide plenty of nourishment.

Here are the three books I read, in order of publication. As you’ll see, they don’t have a lot in common.


Oscar Schwartz, The Honeymoon Stage (Giramondo 2017)

In a talk in May 2015 at TEDxYouth@Sydney Oscar Schwartz asked, ‘Can a Computer write Poetry?’ It’s an interesting talk that makes me feel as if I belong to a past era.

I wonder if some of the poems in The Honeymoon Stage are computer generated, challenging readers to guess which are and which are not, as in the game Schwartz discusses in the talk, ‘Bot or Not’. Probably not: they mostly cohere, and have a discernible narrative or line of argument that doesn’t seem (yet) to be within the skill set of computer poem-generators.

Mostly the poems have a surrealist edge, as in ‘i sat on lungs’, in which the narrator realises that the chair he is sitting on is actually a pair of lungs, or ‘what side of the bed does your clone sleep on?’, whose title is almost enough. There are a couple of long poems. ‘how to write an ebook of poetry’ starts out as a deadpan account of the process, but takes a turn at about the two-thirds mark:

die

get buried

decompose

become diffuse among various organic materials
on earth

be there as a collection of diffuse organic materials
when humanity ends

The other long poem, ‘should i watch game of thrones?’ similarly starts with a list of reasonable pros and cons then goes off on fantasy tangents.

The poems are universally light, witty, even quirky, and largely – to my aged mind – inconsequential. The book was a pleasant travel read.


Gerald Murnane, Green Shadows and other poems (Giramondo 2019)

In 2018 the New York Times Magazine ran a headline about Gerald Murnane, ‘Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?‘ He’s a giant of Australian letters – a giant who has been largely unknown to me. I may have attempted one of his novels, The Plains, and given up on it. Recently I read his Collected Short Fiction, which I loved.

Though Murnane began his writing career as a poet, as far as I know none of his early poems have been collected. All of those in Green Shadows, his first book of poetry and possibly his last book ever, were written in his late 70s.

The poems are shot through with a curmudgeonly iconoclasm. ‘Crap-books’, for example, begins:

Here's a list of some of the crap-
books that I forced myself to read
when I was still a nervous young chap
who supposed that every overseas

writer knew more than I. I'll start
with Anna Karenina – utterly unreadable.

In ‘Political Philosophy’, he puts the case against progressive activism. In ‘Non-travelling’, he disparages knowledge acquired by travel as:

bes with my a___skin++__g the countless trashy
recollections of barely known people and places

Along with the curmudgeonliness, though, there’s an unapologetic and unsparing self-portrait of a man who, if he had belonged to a later generation, might be telling the world about his diagnosis of autism. There are awkward encounters with women, childhood recollections, odes to Victorian districts, reflections on his earlier writings, especially his early plans as a poet, some short poems in Hungarian with English translations. He pays homage to Marcel Proust, Henry Handel Richardson, William Carlos Williams, Lesbia Harford and John Clare among others.

I confess that on first reading I didn’t engage much. The book felt like a doodling PS to a long career, a collection of extras for fans of the novels. But the poems grew on me in subsequent readings.

What prompted me to go back for subsequent readings was ‘A Cistercian life’, which sadly is too long to quote in full here. It begins with the young Murnane reading Thomas Merton’s Elected Silence, and being attracted to the austere contemplative life that book describes. It tells of Murnane’s later discovery that Merton was ‘full of himself’, hardly ever observing the Cistercian rule; and his further disillusion when his son, after spending a week at a Cistercian monastery, reports that the monks, ‘once famed for their silence’, pumped their guest for information about TV shows, no longer did manual labour, and went on annual holidays. The poem’s last three stanzas describe the spartan conditions of Murnane’s current life: no radio, TV, telephone, or computer, the bare minimum of furniture. The poem ends:

I've made no vow of silence but I haven't
spoken since yesterday when I called at the store.

I last took a holiday back in the nineteen-seventies,
for my young sons' sake. Through my only window I see
mostly wall, but the view from each end of my street
is of countryside, level and seemingly empty.

How you read a poem depends on what you bring to it, and I brought a lot to this one. I too was enchanted by Thomas Merton as a teenager, and briefly tried to do the contemplative thing. My mother’s beloved youngest sister joined the Carmelites, an order of nuns with similar rules to the Cistercians, and I treasure letters she wrote to me. One of my old Catholic teachers, a lovely man, now lives in a yurt in the middle of a cow paddock and sees as few people as possible, spending most of his time in silence. I don’t aspire to such a life, but I respect it as a spiritual discipline. With these lines, I saw Murnane’s portrayal of himself in a different light, not so much a contrarian curmudgeon as a self-deprecating man of discipline. The force of those final words was amplified by the circumstances I read them in: I was staying in the Shearers’ Quarters at Lake Mungo, where the landscape could hardly be more level or more seemingly empty, yet so rich with profound meaning.


Eunice Andrada, TAKE CARE: New Poems (Giramondo 2021)

In my blog post about Eunice Andrada’s first book, Flood Damages (Giramondo 2018), I began, ‘There’s a lot of pain in these poems.’ I can say the same about the this book, which incidentally has been shortlisted for the 2022 Stella Prize and the Kenneth Slessor Prize in the 2022 Nsw Premier’s Literary Awards.

Central to the book is ‘Comfort Sequence’, in which there is little comfort. It begins with a prose poem that starts, ‘Another statue dedicated to ‘comfort women’ who were enslaved and raped in wartime has been removed in the Philippines.’ Much of the text on this page is obscured/replaced by white space in the shape of such a statue. The sequence sets out to counter that erasure, coming at it from many angles – dissection of pertinent language, conversations with a woman who was there, aphorisms, paraphrases of Filipino news sources – culminating in a horrific vision of rape culture:

A rapist teaches me how to drive.
A rapist decides what I do with my body
after rape. A rapist on trial doesn't believe
he's a rapist. A rapist doesn't like being called
a rapist. A rapist raping doesn't believe in rape,
its perversion of simpler ideas like cold seedless
grapes, eggs ripe for hatching, nape of beast
for slaughter. A rapist tells me to be careful
of what I say.

From one point of view, this sequence is balanced by ‘Vengeance Sequence’. Here’s one of its 15 short poems:

Filipino women stop working.
Empires shut down in a tantrum,
refusing to care for themselves.
We do not go back to work.

In Andrada’s poetry, rape is situated as intimately bound up with racism, militarism, nationalism, colonialism and other forms of exploitation. As this little poem exemplifies, resistance/vengeance can be cheerful, life-affirming and solidaristic.

The book’s title, TAKE CARE (the shouting capitals are part of it), refers to the Tagalog word ingat. In the poem, ‘Take Care’ (which doesn’t share the shouting capitals), the speaker wakes from night terrors in Jerusalem, and is befriended by some Filipina women the next day. They have dinner together, and the end of the evening sees ‘the night’s dispersal marked by chimes / of ingat’:

of machinery. They tell me to ingat
with the men, the checkpoints, the soldiers.

Take care, take care, take care.

In my temporary room, I let myself rest,
believing I could be safe.

Solidarity with other women, particularly Filipina women, is a place of possible safety. By implication, the book, calling out ingat / take care to its readers, is offering something of the kind in a world whose danger and injustice it does not shrink from.

Andrada is a fine performer of her own poetry. Giramondo has uploaded this video of her reading ‘Kundiman’, a very short poem that beautifully positions her writing in relation to the world of warfare and extraction:


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for complimentary copies of all three books.

Adam Aitken’s Revenants

Adam Aitken, Revenants (Giramondo 2022)

The poems in Revenants trace the geographic shifts in the poet’s life – there’s a narrative thread, not so much autobiographical as autobio-geographical. As Aitken says in a note on the Giramondo website, the book begins:

with my father’s description of his flat in Hong Kong in the 1950s. I then explore my own experiences in Hawai’i and Malaysia, where I worked in 2010. A few poems recall inner city Sydney in the eighties. By the end of the book the reader enters the world of a village in France where I have lived recently.

The places are encountered through a number of lenses: family history (drawing on some of the same letters as Aitken’s 2016 book about his parents’ youth, One Hundred Letters Home), military and political history (as in a brace of found poems based on a Malay phrasebook for British colonial administrators), art (ranging from Javanese artist Raden Saleh (1811–1880) and Claude Monet to Hawai’i Five-O), literature (Somerset Maugham, Stendhal, William Carlos Williams, John Berryman), and of course direct personal experience – childhood memories (including ‘Class Portrait’, on a school photo taken when Aitken was eight or nine), scenes from inner city life in the 1980s, traveller’s tales with some overlap to the 2011 chapbook Tonto’s Revenge, scenes from rural France in a similar vein to the poems in Archipelago, place-influenced dreams, and more. [The links in this paragraph are to my relevant blog posts.]

When I blog about a book of poetry, I try to talk about one poem in some detail. I’d love to walk you through the wonderful ‘Notes on the River’, a poem in 14 parts about the Tonlé Sap River in Cambodia that is rich with vivid snapshots of river life. But that is far too long for a blog post.

‘Martial Sarit Cleans Up Bangkok, 1959’ suits my purposes. It’s short, just 22 lines:

The poem can be enjoyed even if, like me, you know virtually nothing about Thai history. It’s in three parts. The first two stanzas offer images of westerners living comfortably and possibly corruptly in an Asian environment. The next four stanzas convey the event named in the poem’s title. The final two stanzas resolve the relationship between the first two parts: newspaper censorship means the people in the first two stanzas can remain unaware of what is happening around them. It’s a deft and unsettling evocation of the relationship between West and East, and more specifically between expats/tourists/farangs and locals. The poem is remarkable for its calm restraint: no adverbs, no emotive adjectives, no editorialising. It makes me think of Matthew Arnold’s notion that the aim of the writer is to see life steadily and see it whole.

Having responded to the poem from a position of ignorance, I read around it – as many of Aitken’s poems gently invite one to do.

Martial Sarit Cleans Up Bangkok, 1959

The title, as expected, refers to an actual episode in Thai history. Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat staged a coup in 1957 supported by the US military, became Prime Minister in 1959, and held that position until his death in 1963. Ironically, my main source of information about the ‘clean-up’ is the English-language newspaper named later in the poem, the Bangkok Post. Its website has a timeline, which features Sarit’s banning of opium in July 1959 as a key historical event, and quotes him: ‘The day marks a new era in Thailand’s social history. From this day, we can proudly claim that we are a civilised people.’ The timeline links to a photo of a huge pile of opium pipes being smashed by men in uniform, in preparation for being bonfired. (Incidentally, the title includes a quiet, almost invisible pun on Marshall/martial.)

At a corner table at the Hoi Tien Lao
my father dines
with a better class of ladies
who use spoon and fork

The opening stanza situates the poet in relation to the historical event. This isn’t a moment chosen at random, but part of Aitken’s ongoing poetic exploration of his family history. His father was a farang, we know from elsewhere that his mother is Thai, and that he was born in 1960, a year after the action of this poem. This scene may not be from his parents’ courtship, but it could be. The present tense (‘dines’ and ‘use’) signals that the poem’s point of view is right there in the midst of things, not in some remote future.

I found an article describing the life of the farangs in Bangkok in the mid 1950s that spells out the elements so deftly evoked in the poem’s opening lines. (The article’s nostalgic history makes an interesting contrast to the poem’s cool immediacy.) The Hoi Tien Lao was one of the restaurants they frequented in Chinatown, with a nightclub above it, and not all the Thai ladies they associated with were ‘a better class’, if you understand that as referring to morality. Anyhow, the fourth line of the stanza undermines that reading of ‘better’: the ladies are a better class because they have adopted western table manners – a white supremacist viewpoint is invoked with sly irony.

Club members hold court
and a French count is flogging US Army
surplus penicillin.

These lines sketch the privileged, opportunistic world of European and US (and Australian) expats, echoing any number of stories of black markets in antibiotics in postwar Europe and Asia – The Third Man comes to my mind.

From now to the end of the poem, there are no full sentences. The effect is of a series of stills or film clips, rather than a sustained narrative.

In Chinatown
the addicts rounded up,
led away enchained,
their pipes bonfired.

The scene shifts to the events referred to in the title. This crackdown on addicts was what gained the headlines. Not as extreme as Rodrigo Duterte’s more recent encouragement of Filipinos to kill addicts, this round-up could be seen as a benign act. The poem quietly begs to differ with its brutal verbs, ’rounded up’ and ‘enchained’.

Children running through the streets
naked no more.

Squatting to eat banned.
Calligraphy in Chinese
banned.
Bare breasts banned.

From what I can tell from my limited research, Sarit’s ‘cleaning-up’ project was intended to make Bangkok a more modern, ‘clean’ city. No one could object to children being clothed, and for a country that has been dubbed ‘the brothel of Asia’, surely the banning of bare breasts is a good thing? But the repetition of the word ‘banned’, and its standing on a line to itself, draw attention to the means of making these changes. Why ban squatting to eat, or calligraphy in Chinese? More in sorrow than in anger, the poem laments the imposition of order, perhaps by force as in the chaining of addicts, and with it the partial elimination of a local culture, an enforced turn towards the West, as the ‘better class of ladies’ have already done.

For weeks on end
more white space
in the Bangkok Post

The Bangkok Post was, and may still be, the main English-language newspaper in Thailand. One imagines westerners in their hotel rooms, flipping through the newspaper, noticing blank spots, and wondering more or less idly what has been censored. Perhaps Aitken’s father mentioned doing just that in his letters home.

as if none of this
had ever happened.

The final couplet can be read simply as tying a neat bow to finish off the poem. Rather than one more image, it presents a kind of summarising abstraction. And its syntax moves away from present tense to place the events, and their erasure, firmly in the past, implying that now, at least in principle, the full story can be told.

What makes the poem hit home for me is the personal resonance in the last lines. It’s not just that the ‘clean-up’ events were invisible the English-speakers in Bangkok back then. They have been invisible in the received version of the poet’s family story. The poem results from a probing of that story. The apparent neatness of the conclusion actually poses a question: what to do with the knowledge that one’s parent/forebear was on the wrong side of history, or at best an oblivious bystander?

My own paternal great-grandfather came to Australia from Yorkshire in the 1870s and set about farming sugar in south-east Queensland. I’ve found quite a lot about him on Trove. It’s very likely that indentured South Sea Islanders worked on his farm, but so far I’ve seen nothing but white space about that in the newspapers of the time. In ways I can’t articulate, this poem helps me to face what that says about my own place the world.


I am grateful to the Giramondo Publishing Company for my copy of this excellent book.

Ruby Reads 30: Billie B Brown

Sally Rippin (writer) and Aki Fukuoka (illustrator), Billie B Brown: The Bad Butterfly (Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing 2010) [Nº 1]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Perfect Present (2010) [Nº 7]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Birthday Mix-up (2011) [Nº 10]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Deep End (2012) [Nº 17]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Missing Tooth (2020) [Nº 19]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Honey Bees (2020) [Nº 23]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Baby Bird (2021) [Nº 24]

I used to be fairly knowledgeable about children’s literature, but that was a while ago. Until two months ago I hadn’t heard of Australia’s top-selling female author Sally Rippin or her Billie B Brown series, which Goodreads says has sold more than 4.5 million copies in 14 languages.

On advice from a salesperson at Gleebooks, Ruby’s local bricks and mortar bookshop, we bought four titles, then another three a couple of weeks later.

They’re chapter books, intended mainly for six-year-old readers but Ruby, who is still 4, loves them. It’s living evidence that children often enjoy books meant for readers who are older than themselves.

In each book, Billie B Brown – the middle B stands for something different every time – meets an age-appropriate challenge. In book Nº 1, The Bad Butterfly, she and her best friend, Jack from next door, go to ballet classes and discover that Jack excels at the dainty butterfly dance while Billie does better as a stomping troll – and (spoiler alert) they tell the teacher that Billie will dance a boy’s part (a troll) and Jack a girl’s (a butterfly). This is done quietly, without flag-waving or defiance, just two young people solving a problem, and only incidentally evoking a sigh of relief from the adult reader who was bristling at the dance school’s gender stereotyping.

And so it goes. In The Perfect Present, Billie (the B is for Bursting) is excited then disappointed about Christmas; in The Birthday Mix-up, she has a party and it looks as if no one is coming; she is painfully anxious about swimming in the deep end of the pool; she loses a tooth, but not completely according to plan; she learns about bee-sting allergy, and is distraught about an abandoned baby bird. The story generally goes how you would expect: the guests arrive; the tooth fairy delivers; the baby bird is OK; relationships with other children are realistically fraught, and reassuringly resolved. But there’s nothing stale about the tellings, and Aki Fukuoka’s manga-ish drawings add to the freshness. Here’s her full-page drawing that ends The Honey Bees (which she discusses on YouTube, here):

It’s uncanny how many of Ruby’s concerns are taken up explicitly in these books – birthdays, Christmas, the danger posed by bees, friendships, swimming, ballerinas, letters and numbers, little brothers, and more. I doubt if Billie would have been quite as much appeal to either of my sons. But Sally Rippin and Aki Fukuoka have another series, Hey Jack! Maybe that will still be there when my other grandchild is thirsty for chapter books.

PS: In his memoir Tell Me Why, Archie Roach calls his grandchildren grandies. I haven’t seen the word in a dictionary, but I love it, and I’m using it. As Ruby’s little brother is just beginning to enjoy being read to, I’m changing the name of this series of posts to Reading with the grandies.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist

The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were first presented in 1979 when Neville Wran was Premier, and his ten successors have kept them up. I’ve been following the awards since Bob Carr’s day – eight premiers ago – and even been to some award night dinners, and a couple of the recent more parsimonious events. This year’s shortlist has been announced, and can be read on the State Library website with some clicking back and forth. As a public service to my handfuls of readers, here’s the list on one screen (links take you direct to the judges’ comments on Library’s website, plus in a very few cases to my blog posts). It’s a huge reading list. Please give your pick in the comments.

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

Highly commended

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

Highly commended

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry

Highly commended

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature

  • Philip Bunting, Me, Microbes and I (Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing)
  • Peter Carnavas, My Brother Ben (University of Queensland Press)
  • Christopher Cheng, Stephen Michael King, Bear and Rat (Penguin Random House Australia)
  • Karen Foxlee, Dragon Skin (Allen & Unwin)
  • Morris Gleitzman, Always (Penguin Random House Australia)
  • Kirli Saunders, Bindi (Magabala Books)

Highly commended

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature

Highly commended

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting

  • Kodie Bedford, Cursed! (Belvoir Street Theatre) – my blogpost here
  • James Elazzi, Queen Fatima (National Theatre of Parramatta/Australian Plays Transform)
  • Eliaas Jamieson Brown, Green Park (Griffin Theatre Company)
  • Finegan Kruckemeyer, Hibernation (State Theatre Company of South Australia/Currency Press)
  • Kirsty Marillier, Orange Thrower (Griffin Theatre Company and National Theatre of Parramatta/Currency Press)
  • Ian Michael, Chris Isaacs, York (Black Swan State Theatre Company)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting

Multicultural NSW Award

Highly commended

Indigenous Writers’ Prize

Highly commended

Thee’s no shortlist for the People’s Choice Award, the Book of the Year, or the possible surprise of the evening, the Special Award

The Iliad: Progress report 4

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998), beginning Book 10 to Book 12 line 42

As I continue my slow read of the Iliad, I keep being shocked by the intensely physical descriptions of the fighting. The warriors are surely meant to be admired, but it’s hard to imagine anyone reading without revulsion the accounts of spears penetrating just above the nipple, heads and arms severed, the ground littered with corpses, clothing drenched in blood. There’s one gruesome moment when Odysseus and Diomedes extract information from a Trojan spy then kill him in cold blood, while Homer lets us know he was a bit of a wannabe anyhow. It could be straight out of The Sopranos.

I’m still surprised each time by the way an individual’s death on the battlefield is followed by elegiac lines about his peacetime life war and the people who will now be left grieving. I’m still taken aback each time the narrative slows down to dwell on the splendour of this hero’s armour, or the luxurious appointments of that one’s tent – Nestor, for example, has an ornate ceremonial mug that only a very strong man can lift unaided. The luxury feels a bit Trump-like to me, though I doubt that’s how it felt to the original audiences.

Mostly I’m in awe of the way, amid the back and forth of the war and the squabbling of the gods, the main characters are clearly drawn, and the narrative arc is clear. Achilles has withdrawn from the battle in a rage, leaving the Greeks (called the Achaeans in this translation) at a disadvantage while the great Trojan warrior Hector dominates the battlefield. Achilles refuses the increasingly desperate pleas of his countrymen. Now, at the end of Book 11, Nestor proposes to Achilles’ close companion Patroclus that he, Patroclus, re-enters the battle wearing Achilles’ armour. This would terrify the Trojans by giving he appearance that Achilles was back, and Patroclus himself would be able to do a lot of damage as he would be fresh to the battle. Patroclus hasn’t yet conveyed the proposal to Achilles and is busy tending a wounded man, but we now see that all those descriptions of armour weren’t just a bit of colour, but laid grounds for a major plot development.

Now, at the start of Book 12, there’s a passage foreshadowing the end of the war, when Hector will be killed, Troy stormed in the tenth year of the war and the Achaeans sail home triumphant. Then the gods Poseidon and Apollo will divert all the rivers of the region to wash over the great rampart that the Achaeans had built to defend their ships. And all traces of the city of Troy and the presence of its attackers will be wiped away:

So, in the years to come Poseidon and god Apollo
would set all things to rights once more.

This is surely a classic midpoint, an image of the end of the story coming immediately after the moment when the tide of the story, if not of the battle, turns.

The Reckoning by Jess Hill

Jess Hill, The Reckoning: How #MeToo is changing Australia (Quarterly Essay 84)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 85

Given the dominance of the 24-hour news cycle and a federal government that seems to expect us not to remember anything that happened before last Tuesday, we can be grateful to the Quarterly Essay team for bringing us a history of the #MeToo movement in Australia. Jess Hill, author of the monumental account of domestic abuse, See What You Made Me Do (my blog post at this link), was an obvious choice to write that history.

She opens with a brief account of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s press conference in March 2021, at which he began by calling ‘sincerely’ for an end to mistreatment of women in Parliament House, and then quickly descended into veiled and unfounded accusations against a woman journalist who had exposed the things he was deploring. This is an emblematic moment: political spin, Hill says, has no power against the rage unleashed by #MeToo.

The history follows, and it’s more complex and interesting than most of us remember, with a regular interplay between gesture and substance pretty much as foreshadowed in that opening scene.

It begins with Tarana Burke, who started a movement – not a hashtag – called ‘me too.’ in the USA 2005. It was ‘an activist group promoting solidarity, healing, education and community’ among Black women who had been sexually assaulted or harassed. #MeToo the hashtag burst on the world twelve years later on 14 October 2017, when actor and activist Alyssa Milano tweeted: ‘If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.’ The response to the tweet, with the revelations about Harvey Weinstein as background, was explosive. Milano did recognise Burke’s earlier work, but Jess Hill tells us that the distinction between the two movements was obscured:

The cultural revolution triggered by #MeToo was, at least in its initial phase, not in line with Burke’s vision of healing and structural change: it was about rage and retribution.

(Page 10)

The essay reminds us that impetus had been building before the Weinstein case. It goes into some detail about cases ranging from the Boston Globe‘s revelations about child sex abuse in the Catholic Church (as in the movie Spotlight) in the early 2000s to the 2016 case of Chanel Miller, whose rapist received a two month sentence because the judge feared for his career prospects when her victim impact statement, published online, had made it vividly clear that he had damaged much more than career prospects for her. The election of Donald Trump after boasting about sexually assaulting women completed the tinder pile. No wonder #MeToo exploded in 2017 and, as Jess Hill says, ‘powerful men across the United States started dropping like flies’.

In Australia, ‘extraordinary energy and heat [was] generated in the first twenty-four hours of #MeToo’. Here a small number of high-profile predators, most prominently Don Burke, were exposed by painstaking work by journalists including Kate McClymont and Lorna Knowles. But the building momentum was savagely undermined when The Daily Telegraph went public with a complaint against an actor without seeking permission of the complainant. When the actor sued for defamation and won, thanks partly to Australia’s ‘monstrous’ defamation laws, but mainly to the unethical behaviour of the Daily Telegraph, #MeToo faltered.

In 2018, the #MeToo movement rolled on in many parts of the world. In Australia its main front became the organisation NOW Australia, with Tracy Spicer as ‘talking head of choice’. This fizzled out: not only did NOW Australia present as ‘glaringly white and middle class’ (the phrase is from Darug woman and writer Laura La Rosa), but it lacked grassroots consultation, and ‘was wedging a collectivist movement into the prism of corporate feminism’ (that’s Jess Hill’s phrasing). So in spite of the massive impact that #MeToo had, and continues to have, on individual lives, it stalled as an organised movement.

Worse, in Australia most of the women whose stories went public did not give their consent: Hill gives four examples in some detail. In each of these cases the revelation brought unwanted negative attention on the women, described in one case as ‘not only brutalising, but dehumanising’, with the result that they could easily be seen by other women as warnings not to come forward.

Just the same, it seemed that Malcolm Turnbull’s government was responding. In mid 2018, Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer, initiated a national enquiry into sexual harassment, headed by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins. Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education, was preparing to announce a taskforce to oversee how universities responded to complaints of sexual harassment and assault. The struggle for , a whole other arena of struggle .

Then Scott Morrison became Prime Minister, and Dan Tehan became Minister for Education: the universities task force was shelved. The national enquiry went ahead, but its report, Respect@Work, delivered in March 2020, was shelved by the government. Hill’s discussion of the report ends:

Respect@Work found the safety laws did impose a duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment.
Clearly, this wasn’t enough. Why shouldn’t employers have a responsibility to protect their workers from it under the Sex Discrimination Act as well? That’s what Respect @Work is asking the government to legislate. It is simple – and it’s revolutionary.

(Page 79)

The essay traces the impact of #MeToo in the private sector, the finance services sector, and the legal profession. The latter was ricked by The International Bar Association’s report, Us Too?, which named Oceania as the worst region in the world for bullying and sexual harassment. Then former High Court Judge Dyson Heydon was revealed as a serial sexual harasser of young female associates. Instead of speaking of him as a ‘bad apple’, Chief Justice Susan Kiefel did what would have been unlikely a couple of years earlier, and apologised to the complainants on behalf of the High Court.

The movement had a massive resurgence in early 2021 brought about by the rape allegations against Christian Porter (which, Hill is careful to note, he denies), Grace Tame’s time as Australian of the Year, and Brittany Higgins’s story of rape in Parliament House. It’s a masterly telling of all three stories, including the dedicated work of journalists including Nina Funnell, Louise Milligan and Samantha Maiden, and the inadequate-to-hostile response of Scott Morrison, his government, and his allies in the press.

A final section is titled ‘Men’. Hill asks, ‘Is there a backlash against #MeToo fomenting among young men?’ and offers some chilling evidence that it may be so, including the existence of ‘well-oiled grooming machines capitalising on algorithms and social media platforms to radicalise young men into hatred of women’.

She also cites men who are energetic supporters of #MeToo and do powerful educational work among young men. She offers an interesting account of the conditioning that turns ‘those vulnerable, loving little boys’ into perpetrators of sexual violence, abuse and harassment. She revisits some of the analysis in See What You Made Me Do, and acknowledges that her husband, psychotherapist David Hollier, helped in the writing of this chapter. I found it quite wonderful, not least in its discussion of ‘the Australian virtue of mateship’, which includes this:

The thing #MeToo demands we confront is that mateship isn’t just about loyalty: it is also about protection, impunity and, following its perpetration, the erasure of sexual violence.

(Page 114)

Given that sections of the media are currently making much of the ‘mean girls’ trope in federal politics, in a fairly transparent attempt to claim an equivalency with the allegations of sexual misbehaviour and alleged criminality elsewhere in our parliaments, this essay is extremely timely. There is no equivalency.


The correspondents in Quarterly Essay 85, Not Drowning, Waving by Sarah Krasnostein, mostly enlarge on elements of Jess Hill’s essay. Journalists Hannah Ryan and Gina Rushton’s short essay seems to be there mainly to point out that they broke a number of important news stories, and to lend their weight to Hill’s negative account of Tracy Spicer’s moment in the limelight. Amber Schultz, and separately Sara Dowse, pick up on party-political dimension, easy to do given Hill’s account of the Morrison government’s failure to raise to the occasion. (Sara Dowse has a beautiful paragraph listing the gains women have made since the Whitlam years.) Kieren Pender, who has led the International Bar Association’s efforts to address sexual harassment in the legal profession, picks up on the essay’s implication that focusing on the big-name offenders has limited effectiveness:

In individual workplaces, and in civil and criminal law, clear accountability mechanisms exist for serious forms of sexual harassment (even if too many workplaces still wish to conceal rather than address incidents). But what of the grey areas – the sexual joke in the elevator, the possibly suggestive text from a boss to their staff member, the colleague leaning in for an unreciprocated kiss at after-work drinks? In these contexts, right and wrong are not always as clearly distinguished – subtle cues, power dynamics and subjective interpretation can be everything.
     It is in these contexts that the million Australian perpetrators can mainly be found – not committing Weinstein-esque behaviour, but making inappropriate comments, or being ‘too friendly’.

(Quarterly Essay 85, page 137)

Journalist and novelist Malcolm Knox speaks for many men when he says that his ‘instinctive response, in the face of white-hot female rage, is silence and submission’. He rejects that instinct, and joind Jess Hill’s implied challenge to us men to stop being too passive around ‘our Christian Porters’. Nareen Young, Darug woman and writer who is quoted in the essay, stresses the importance of the Respect@Work report, and writes that

there are so many issues we need to track and continue to fight for collectively. And that’s long after the mainstream media band moves on, or white corporate feminists who claim ‘the movement’ as their own, then gate-keep and co-opt it for their own ends (activism is collective, not part of anyone’s ‘brand’), lose interest.

(Quarterly Essay 85, page 144)

Uncharacteristically, there’s a response from a culture warrior. Janet Albrechtsen appreciates the ‘excellent timeline’ and ‘sensible analysis of the need to focus on the long game of embedding cultural change’. She says some stuff that leads Jess Hill in her reply to wonder if she read the whole essay.

And the correspondence ends where the essay began, with Scott Morrison. Some time this year we will see if women are sufficiently disgusted with this government to change their vote. ‘How many women? we’ll have the answer by the time the next quarterly Essay is published.’

Archie Roach’s Tell Me Why

Archie Roach, Tell Me Why: The story of my life and my music (Simon & Schuster 2019)

This book. It’s exactly what you’d expect of a memoir by Archie Roach, whose song ‘Took the Children Away’ became a kind of anthem for the Stolen Generations. It’s a warm, generous account of a life well lived, as a member of the Stolen Generations who went in search of his lost family, and having found them struggled with addiction to alcohol, won the love of a remarkable woman, and became an internationally celebrated singer-songwriter and respected Aboriginal elder and activist.

The telling doesn’t minimise the systemic racism he has faced or the destruction it has brought on him and the people around him, culminating in the deaths of many loved ones, especially the great love of his life, Ruby Hunter. The book’s title bewildered rage at the cruelty of colonialism and racism.

But the book focuses on the goodness, kindness and resilience of Aboriginal people, as well as the kindness that he has encountered from others all through his life – from his much-loved foster parents and an occasional exceptional police officer, all the way through to singer-songwriter Paul Kelly and British actor Pete Postlethwaite.

There’s not a lot of laugh-out-loud humour, but the book is far from unrelentingly grim. To give you a small taste, here’s a passage that comes when Archie has gone to Melbourne to spend time with his family, leaving Ruby pregnant in Adelaide, and has stayed longer than he intended, hitting the grog. Horse is his oldest brother:

‘Tell me about this little woman of yours,’ Horse said, surprising me.
I told him about her – she wasn’t tall but had flowing dark hair, and big cheeks that matched the deepest brown eyes you’d ever seen. I told Horse she was the most beautiful girl.
‘Is that her behind you?’ he asked.
I turned. It was. She had her hands on her hips. It wasn’t good. If looks could kill, I’d be a dead man.

{Page 145)

Each chapter of the book begins with the lyrics of a song, and we are told the origin stories of some songs. This is wonderful for someone like me who has a limited knowledge of Archie Roach’s music, and I was glad to discover that there’s a companion album with the same title, with eighteen songs from the whole range of his extraordinary career. It’s now on my phone.

Amanda Lohrey’s Vertigo

Amanda Lohrey, Vertigo (Black Inc 2009)

Gertloveday recommended this book in a comment on my blog post about Amanda Lohrey’s more recent book The Labyrinth. They were worth reading together, she said, ‘as fire plays a part in each book’. She could have added that both books have a major narrative strand dealing with a lost son. They’re both set in the town of Garra Nalla, and each of them describes itself on the title page as ‘A Pastoral’.

Gertloveday was right. The books make a good double feature. They have no characters in common, unless you count Garra Nalla itself as a character, but each of them entails a retreat from the city to live in a small seaside community with the aim of healing, and in each of them the dangerous rip at Garra Nalla is a symbolic warning to the reader that this is no Eden. And they are both relatively short. Vertigo has just 140 pages.

In Vertigo, thirty-somethings Luke and Anna leave the city partly because of her asthma, partly because of his generalised discontent. They are accompanied by ‘the boy’, who acts like a normal four or five year old child, but is somehow insubstantial. The details of the couple’s new life are fleshed out: the relationships with various neighbours, the discovery of bird life, the threats to the environment posed by corporate take-over of a nearby property. Though Lohrey’s writing is fresh and clear, the first two thirds of the book offer little more than a blow-by-blow account of an uneventful move to a new place. Anna watches news about the invasion of Iraq on CNN, and Luke reads (with us reading over his shoulder) excerpts from The Land that is Desolate by Sir Frederick Treves, a real 1913 travel diary about Palestine left by the house’s previous owner. It’s not dull, but only the mild mystery of the boy’s silent, intermittent presence creates a forward impetus. Anna ruminates near the end of the second of the book’s three parts:

So what is this pointless dance that they are engaged in, this dance where they whirl together in an endless circle, locked in the illusion that they are going somewhere, that what they do has meaning beyond their own day-to-day survival? At any moment they could disappear from this place and nothing would change, nothing of consequence, so vast is the land and so small are they. And the thought of this brings on a rush of vertigo, a dizzying sense of disorientation, as if she is about to fall, but that when she falls she will be weightless. She has lost her roots, her anchorage to the earth; she might float away into the blue of the sky and never be heard from again.

(Page 85)

Then in the third part all hell breaks loose in the form of natural disaster, vividly described. An acknowledgement of Henry Lawson in an end note acknowledges that the description is part of an Australian tradition; and the apocalyptic quality of the writing gives it astonishing relevance to events that were to take place more than a decade after the book was written. The peril facing all the characters is real, and as with the book’s less dramatic moments it feels as if it was taken from life. It also precipitates a resolution to issues that have been more or less unstated, and we realise that, like The Labyrinth, this is a book about grief.

One more point of comparison between the two books. I complained that The Labyrinth lacked illustrations. Tiny photographs by Lorraine Biggs are scattered through Vertigo. They appear to be images of the coastal landscape – sadly, in the trade paperback edition I read they a bit smudgy.

So, many thanks to gertloveday. The next time I visit the south coast, Amanda Lohrey’s imagining of it will be with me.

Joe Sacco’s Palestine

Joe Sacco, Palestine (1993–1996, Jonathan Cape 2003)

If, like me, you quail at the thought of reading Amnesty International’s recent report, Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians, subtitled Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity (downloadable as a PDF at this link), you may find the information easier to absorb in comic-book form. Joe Sacco’s Palestine is one of the classics of comics journalism, aka graphic non-fiction.

Sacco spent two months in Israel’s Occupied Territories – Gaza and the West Bank – in the northern winter of 1991–1992, during the first intifada. He produced a series of comics about the experience, which were collected into a single volume in 2001, with an introductory essay by Edward Said. This London edition came two years later. More than 20 years after publication, and 30 years after the events he recounts, the specifics of the situation in Israel and Palestine have changed but the book is still urgently relevant.

Edward Said’s introduction speaks of his childhood love of comics and how this book brought that love together with his lifelong advocacy of the Palestinian people. Here’s part of his description of the book:

As we also live in a media-saturated world in which a huge preponderance of the world’s news images are controlled and diffused by a handful of men sitting in places like London and New York, a stream of comic-book images and words, assertively etched, at times grotesquely emphatic and distended to match the extreme situations they depict, provide a remarkable antidote. In Joe Sacco’s world there are no smooth-talking announcers and presenters, no unctuous narrative of Israeli triumphs, democracy, achievements, no assumed and re-confirmed representations – all of them disconnected from any historical or social source, from any lived reality – of Palestinians as rock-throwing, rejectionist, and fundamentalist villains whose main purpose is to make life difficult for the peace-loving, persecuted Israelis. What we get instead is seen through the eyes and persona of a modest-looking ubiquitous crew-cut young American man who appears to have wandered into an unfamiliar, inhospitable world of military occupation, arbitrary arrest, harrowing experiences of houses demolished and land expropriated, torture (‘moderate physical pressure’) and sheer brute force generously, if cruelly, applied … at whose mercy Palestinians live on a daily, indeed hourly basis.

Page iii

I’d only add that Sacco doesn’t portray the Palestinians as saintly victims. At times he recoils from an antisemitic remark (he doesn’t correct his informants when they talk of ‘the Jews’, but his own narrative refers meticulously to ‘Israeli soldiers’, ‘the Israeli government’ and so on), and you feel how strongly he hopes the voices of despair are wrong. He’s also unsparing of himself as the visiting US comic-making journalist who wants to see real suffering because that’s what he needs to make his comic dramatic. He squirms for a whole page when he colludes with sexism. And he manages to find glimmers of humour, mainly in the endless cups of tea he has to drink in order to hear people’s stories.

Here’s a page, sadly without an image of gawky and bespectacled Sacco himself, to give you an idea:

Sacco returned to Gaza in 2002–2003 to investigate a massacre that happened in 1956. The resulting book, Footnotes on Gaza (2009) is almost as hefty as Palestine and definitely worth reading alongside it (my blog post at this link).

Curdella Forbes’s Tall History of Sugar

Curdella Forbes, A Tall History of Sugar (©2019, Canongate 2020)

My father was a sugar farmer in North Queensland, on Mamu Country. My childhood was full of the sights, sounds, smells and language of sugar, but nowhere was that world reflected in the books I read or movies I saw. So now I seize greedily any movie, novel or poem that touches on it, from Summer of the Seventeenth Doll to A Girl in Australia (Bello onesto emigrato Australia sposerebbe compaesana illibata), a 1971 film starring Claudia Cardinale that sank without trace. Sugar Cane Alley (Euzhan Palcy 1983), set in Martinique, was the first film I saw that showed sugar farming from a non-settler point of view. (The analysis of colonisation in I Walked with a Zombie (1942) had gone over my head in the 70s.) Jean Devanny’s social-realist novel Sugar Heaven (1936) broadened my understanding of the history of my own town, my own family. If a book mentions bagasse (we used to call it megass), meaning the great flakes of ash that fill the sky during ‘the season’, I am wide open for whatever else it sends my way.

A Tall History of Sugar isn’t obviously about sugar at all, but it’s set mainly in Jamaica, beginning in 1958, four years before Jamaican independence, and its characters live in a world dominated by the colonial sugar industry. They suffer a number of wounds and afflictions that are somewhat magically caused by sugar. And there is bagasse (though I’m surprised to find on rereading this extract that the word itself isn’t there):

The cane is burning. Soot from fires twenty miles away floats through windows and doorways, soiling chenille bedspreads and the pristine white of lace doilies artfully strewn on tables. (Doilies are always
made in white, even during cane-crop time.)

To the children, the soot flies like charred paper planes, or rat bats, birds of ill omen. Tumela women cover the beds with rags and remove the doilies, hiding the precious delicate things in cupboards until the cane is fully reaped. They put newspaper over the dressing tables. The newspaper will soil the tables black, but you won’t see the stain unless you wipe the table with a clean cloth or put something clean on the surface.

Sometimes people close their windows, but the soot seeps between the jambs and slats. And it is hard to be so confined, in a place where nobody locks a door, even at night, except in fear of things that
are not human.

(Page 99)

I don’t remember doilies or fear of things that are not human, but I recognise the rest in my bone-marrow, including the unlocked doors.

When the main male character first arrives in London, there’s a wonderful description of the colonised gaze, including this:

Covent Garden Mayfair Shepherds Bush Notting Hill Tyburn Tree Victoria Station Waterloo Trafalgar Square the River Thames. Everywhere was strange yet nowhere was strange, because he had seen it all before, in the books he had read at school, almost all of them from England, and then at last a few that were still from England but written by people from the place where he was from and these had opened like a light to him that first year he and Arrienne went to university …

Sometimes he had the strange sensation that he was leaking, not body fluids but ink, printer’s ink, that had made his skin porous over many years of exposure; he was poisoned in his bloodstream by other people’s words written down, and he couldn’t tell what the outcome would be, except that because of such words a foreign place had become more familiar to him than any place should be that he had never been.

(Page 177)

Another of the book’s charms is its use of Jamaican patois. Early on, Curdella Forbes dutifully translates non–West Indian speech, sometimes hilariously. For example, here an old woman comments to the mother of the book’s main male character, a child born with rare, and in this world uncanny, physical differences:

Miss Hildreth fell into the habit of prophesying his future. ‘Him gwine have a hard time, Rachel. Dat skin an dat hair gwine mek him way in dis world hard-hard. Hard travail. Mi si it. Ehn-hn.’ This unresolved body in which history has made ructions will make his pilgrimage difficult. This is what I have seen.

(Page 45)

But what’s the book about, you ask. Well, it’s the story of Moshe, a boy ‘born without skin’, found in bushes in a basket made of reeds, and big, dark-skinned Arrienne, exactly a year older, who becomes his protector from his first day at school. They are so close as children they communicate without speech. Their bond is deeper than romantic love, though there are some awkward sex scenes (awkward for them but not for the reader – Curdella Forbes’ telling is never less than brilliantly alive). They go on very different life courses: she to political activism at home in Jamaica, he to artistic success in Britain, but the bond endures. Their story plays out in the aftermath of the sugar plantations and slavery, manifesting in magic-realist wounds that bring torment when harvesting season begins, in characters’ engagement in the politics of post-independence Jamaica, in Moshe’s visit to Bristol where the slaver Edward Colston is celebrated as a great philanthropist.

I loved it.