Tag Archives: Alexis Wright

Alexis Wright’s Tracker

Alexis Wright, Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth (Giramondo 2017)

This is a book of yarns. I’ll start this blog post with one of them.

In the mid 1990s at the Gulf of Carpentaria, Murrandoo Yanner was involved in negotiations with Ian Williams, the general manager of a major mining company. Recently introduced Native Title legislation required that the mining company negotiate with traditional owners about plans for a zinc mine. One of the issues under discussion was the proposed mine’s proximity to sacred sites in the Lawn Hills–Boodjamulla National Park. The Queensland Premier, Wayne Goss, had given assurances about the National Park, but word was that he had reneged. Just before Yanner’s scheduled meeting with Williams, Tracker Tilmouth suggested a strategy for using the meeting, where there would be no government representative, to influence the government. Here’s Yanner’s account of what happened:

So we go through hours of negotiations and I hear [Tracker] suddenly cough, bloody when I least expected it – it was in something interesting that I wanted to listen to, so I go, Ian, by the way, what happened with Lawn Hills National Park? Do you know if Goss has gazetted it yet? There was a big silence, and things were going so well and Williams did not want to tell me, and then he said, Actually he made a decision not to. And Tracker, I was still trying to get him to play bad cop but he had me play it, and when Williams tells me that I jump up and I bang the table. Tracker made me do all this, and bang the table. He had said: Make it bloody genuine or they won’t believe you. They have seen a lot of blokes put acts on. So I bang the table and say, Fucking ridiculous, you can’t trust you bastards. I told you, Tracker, you can’t trust these bastards. I go outside and Tracker told me the next part later. I jump in my car and do big figure eights and spinning gravel, and off I go swearing. Ian Williams shits himself and the mob too because everything was going so great, and he says, Oh! Well! Shit what are we going to do? Tracker says, This is what you do. State parliament was sitting that day and he says, Ring Gossy now, get him out of parliament for a second. Boom, boom, boom.

And bugger me, there is a historical fact. If you go to the transcript or Hansard or whatever of the state parliament, you’ll see it was gazetted that afternoon, late afternoon, that day. That very day Goss got pulled out of parliament, got spoken to on the phone from Burketown by Ian Williams, and went straight back into parliament and gazetted it after publicly saying he wouldn’t. And I was blown away, not just the fact that it was done, but the fact that they really do run the state government at times, and that his mad trick worked.

(Pages 207–208)

If that doesn’t grab your attention, then you’d probably be impervious to the charms of this book.

Tracker Tilmouth was a member of the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children. The picture that emerges from this book is of a big thinker, a man of entrepreneurial spirit, committed to the project of establishing economic independence to the Aboriginal peoples of central and northern. He was a significant figure in the history of the Central Land Council, and enormously influential beyond there. He came close to standing for the Australian Senate as a member of the ALP, and had friendly and mutually respectful relationships with Bob Katter. His sense of humour was legendary, and not always diplomatic (when he met Jenny Macklin for the first time shortly after she had failed to end the Intervention in the Northern Territory, he called her ‘Genocide Jenny’), but he was a frequent presence in Parliament House in Canberra, and regularly visited the United Nations in New York. He could rub people up the wrong way, and the book doesn’t completely dispel the charges of misogyny, but the overwhelming impression created here is that he was a great Australian.

The book includes a photo of the front page of Murdoch’s NT News for 13 March 2015: a photo of the man himself with the huge headline ‘TERRITORY FAREWELLS ‘TRACKER” and nothing else except a line across the bottom about football.

Alexis Wright has done a brilliant job of capturing dozens of voices (all chosen by Tracker himself) and organising them: Tracker’s own voice, the voices of his brothers, of Aboriginal people who worked with him or benefited from his wisdom, of whitefellas who fell under his sway, of politicians, pastoralists, mine managers. There are some glaring absences – people whose names occur often, but whose stories would probably take a very different hue. I’ll mention only Tony Abbott, but not all these absences are whitefellas.

Having learned to be suspicious of hagiographies, I asked a friend who had lived in the Northern Territory for decades what he thought of the book. He hadn’t read it, but he said, ‘I know some whitefellas who worked with him, and they worshipped him.’

The result is not a biography: the first chapter gives wonderful accounts of his childhood on Croker Island Mission, where his ‘house mother’ Lois Bartram read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country to the children, but, though his wife Kathy is mentioned often, she remains hardly more than a name – there is no account of how they met or of their wedding. What we do get is a compelling mosaic portrait.

Alexis Wright’s own voice is heard only in her Introduction, that is if you leave aside the couple of instances where one of her questions makes it onto the page. Some people have found the introduction hard going; at least one person I know gave up on the book part way through it. I think the reason is that Wright struggles to justify her decision not to write a conventional biography, and to somehow summarise something that the book itself demonstrates cannot be easily summarised.

The book’s longest section (more than 150 pages), ‘The Vision Splendid’, is dominated by the voice of Tracker himself spelling out his analysis of the situation of Aboriginal peoples, arguing about priorities, lamenting the lack of unity among Aboriginal leadership (while being harsh about other Aboriginal leaders), mapping out future directions. I imagine it would repay careful rereading, but it assumes so much prior knowledge (and my ignorance was only partly countered by Alexis Wright’s occasional footnotes) and spins off in so many directions – like the rest of the book, it captures the feel of the spoken word, of a mind that is thinking, revising, repeating, contradicting itself as it goes – that it is hard to follow.

But that’s not even a complaint. I became increasingly aware of my own whiteness as I read this extraordinarily generous, multifaceted book – at times hilarious, at times tragic, at times profound. As a whitefella, my response is overwhelmingly to be grateful.

Added later: I recommend Kathy Gollan’s review at Newtown Review of Books, which gives a much fuller sense of the book than my blog post, and uses quotation brilliantly.

Tracker is the first book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am very grateful to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 2

My Friday at the Festival was a long day. Also wet. Anticipating queues, I arrived early for my first event, and turned out to be one of three people sheltering under the long marquee for a good half hour. Sadly, attendance was pretty sparse for an excellent session:

10 am: Australia in Verse
As is often the case, this event’s title was irrelevant. With poetry events at the SWF, it’s the who that counts rather than the what.

Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckerman were in conversation with Ivor Indyk. Jennifer Maiden’s name was in the program but back trouble kept her away, that and her wish that the two Indigenous poets should have the floor. I was sorry not to see her, but it was wonderful that we got so much of the two who were there.

The poets spoke about their backgrounds. Sam’s south-east Queensland childhood was full of story-tellers, writers and artists, solidly Aboriginal though not in denial about European heritage as well. He described himself as a child of popular culture. Ali’s mother was taken from her family when very young; Ali herself was taken; and she relinquished her own baby son. Their paths to becoming poets were vastly different, as is their poetry.

Both read a number of poems, and spoke about what their poetry meant to them. Ivor Indyk was wonderful in the chair. When Sam said something about his early poems being well received, Ivor said that was because they were good: ‘And I’ll say what was good about them in a minute.’

There was a lot of laughter, and some tears.

And on to:

11.30: Writers on Writers: Rilke
I know very little about Rilke. I read his Letters to a Young Poet when I was a young non-poet, and I love this passage from Etty Hillesum‘s diaries, written on her way to Auschwitz, which makes me want to know more:

I always return to Rilke.
It is strange to think that someone so frail did most of his writing within protective castle walls, would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live. […] In peaceful times and under favourable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions, a response they are unable to formulate for themselves, since all their energies are taken up in looking after the bare necessities.

So I was interested.

There was a lot to absorb. All four panelists knew an awful lot about Rilke, which they were enthusiastic to share: much more than could possibly fit into an hour. Luke Fischer, enthusiastic young scholar–poet, fell over his own words as he gave us three trains of thought at once. Lesley Chamberlain, a learned Englishwoman in jeans, made sure we knew how to pronounce Brancusi properly. Peter Morgan, from Sydney University’s German department, was in the chair and had interesting things to say about translating Rilke. Elder poet Robert Gray seemed to rise every now and then from the depths of abstract thought to make a brief contribution. It was fascinating theatre, and pretty good as an impressionistic introduction to a poet who, they said, sits at the beginning of modernism.

Not that it was like a fish and chip shop, but I had three takeaways:

  • Rilke is the one who ended a short poem describing an ancient sculpture with a phrase that seemed to come from nowhere and go everywhere, ‘You must change your life.’
  • He regarded his letters as part of his literary output. (This was a relief, because if the Letters to a Young Poet were dashed off there’s no hope for the rest of us.)
  • Something that came up in response to a question at the very end, that seems relevant to to Etty Hillesum quote is Rilke’s concept of the reversal. As far as I could understand, the idea is that if you set out to experience any pain and painful emotion fully rather than numbing them out or seeking distraction from them, then at some point a reversal happens, and the pain is in some way transcended.

Time for lunch, in what was now a beautiful sunny day by the Harbour, and then:

1.30: The World in Three Poets

3 poets

This was a wonderful session. Kate Fagan (not pictured), herself no mean poet, did an amazing job of introducing poets Ben Okri, David Malouf and Les Murray. That is, she said just a few extraordinarily well crafted words about each of them, leaving most of the hour for them to read to us, followed by a short question time. It was an almost overwhelming combination of talents.

The woman sitting next to me said she was there mainly for Ben Okri – she’d read some of his novels (‘if you can call them novels’) and hoped that hearing him read in person would help to understand them. As if he’d heard her, his final reading was from his current novel, which he introduced by saying that his novels had often been described as poetic. My transitory companion was pleased.

Les Murray read nothing from his most recent book, which of course was because he had a whole session on that book – Waiting for the Past – the next day. What he did read was marvellous. And when David Malouf read, Les was a picture of concentration – as if he was in training for an Olympic event in Listening to Poetry.

David began with his ‘Seven Last Word of the Emperor Hadrian’. Heard in the context of the previous day’s session on the classics, this revealed itself more clearly: the speaker, anticipating death, bids a tender farewell to his soul, the reverse of what we would expect in the Judaeo-Christian mindset, and there is something deeply moving about that.

All three of these extraordinary poets shone in the question time.

3  pm: Australia’s Oldest Stories: Indigenous Storytelling with Glen Miller
It’s 51 years since Jacaranda Press published a children’s book, The Legends of Moonie Jarl by Moonie Jarl (Wilf Reeves) and Wandi (Olga Miller), which has been described as the first book written by Aboriginal people. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation have re-published it this year. Glen Miller, nephew and son respectively of the authors, talked to Lydia Miller about his own very interesting life – as very young worker in the coal mines, public servant, cultural tourism entrepreneur, and now as elder and activist in the Maryborough Aboriginal community – and about the origins of the book as he remembered them. He was very good value, but I can’t have been the only person in the audience who was hanging out to be read to. Eventually, he did read us one story – almost apologetically, as if an audience full of adults wouldn’t want to be read a children’s story. There were no complaints.

It being Friday, I was joined by the Art Student for:

4.30: The Big Read
The Big Read is where a big theatre full of people, mainly adults, sits back to be read to. This event used to be for ninety minutes, but it’s sadly been cut back to just an hour, and that hour has to accommodate the presentation of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Awards.

This year the awards presentation featured some unscheduled theatre. The set-up has always been a little awkward, as one by one the young novelists stand silently off to the side of the stage while their novels are described, and then again while the others have their turns. This year, the first recipient, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, clearly feeling the awkwardness acutely, sat down in a spare chair while his book (The Tribe) was being described. When he was shepherded away from that chair after receiving his award, he looked around and saw that there wasn’t a chair (Beatles reference intended), so sat on the floor. His successors – Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ellen van Neerven and Omar Musa (Alice Pung, the fifth recipient, was in Melbourne with a small baby) – each made the decision to join him. Linda Morris from the SMH said it was like a sit-in. Perhaps next year there will be chairs, and the young novelists may even have a moment each at the microphone.

On to the show itself: Camilla Nelson read from Alice Pung’s book; Kate Grenville read from One Life, a kind of biography of her mother; Steven Carroll read an extended passage about a guitar from his novel, Forever Young; Damian Barr gave us a snippet of Glaswegian childhood from his memoir Maggie and Me. Annette Shun Wah was as always a warm and charming host.

It’s probably telling that when we went to Gleebooks on our way to dinner to buy Damian Barr’s book it was sold out. After a dinner up the hill at the Hero of Waterloo, we uncharacteristically returned to the Festival for an evening session:

8.00 Drafts Unleashed + Slam
MCd by Miles Merrill, mover and shaker on the Australian spoken word scene, this featured an open mic plus a number of featured guests, all of whom were invited to read something completely new. Benjamin Law read us the opening scene of the TV series currently in production based on his memoir The Family Law. He did the voices and the accents, and it was a wondrous thing to see this slight, mild man transformed before our eyes into a big, loud, wildly inappropriate woman. The rest was fun too, but we were weary and left before the show was over, walking back to Circular Quay through the spectacle and crush of the Vivid festival.

Best of 2014 in 3 lists

List 1. Movies (with links to the movies’ IMDb pages):

The Art Student and I gave each of the 50+ movies we saw in 2014 a score out of 5. There was a respectable number of 4s and 4.5s. Here are the seven with a combined score of 9.5 or more, in no particular order:

17_dDisruption (Kelly Nyks & Jared P. Scott): we broke our tacit rule about not including movies we saw on the small screen for this one. It’s a brilliant presentation of the situation we face, made in preparation for the Climate Mobilisation in August, but still powerful and useful.

17_bhBoyhood (Richard Linklater). This does miraculous things with filming in real time. The actors actually age as the characters do. Towards the end, someone says, ‘I thought there’d be more,’ and we feel her pain.

17_L Locke (Steven Knight). Another film that does wonders with real time. One man drives in a car through the night, and is spellbinding. The spell is greatly helped by the beauty of Tom Hardy’s voice.

14_CCCharlie’s Country, Rolf De Heer’s brilliant collaboration with David Gulpilil is just superb. That it to some extent reflects Gulpilil’s own story gives it a depth of feeling.

12y12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen). Nothing much needs to be said, except that this is a wonderful movie.

17_c4We saw Citizen Four (Laura Poitras) as part of the DOC NYC film festival. It’s a stunning documentary that plays out like a thriller, complete with grim comic relief, about Edward Snowden’s revelations of government surveillance.

tgsNick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which we also saw as part of DOC NYC, makes a mockery of most fiction movies about serial killers, and peels back the cover from race relations in the US.

Our worst movie
This prize has to go to the only film we walked out of: Woody Allen’s shouty, silly, predictable and unfunny Magic by Moonlight. (To be quite honest, the Art Student predicted the reveal; I just didn’t care.)

List 2. Books

The Art Student’s best five (with comments taken from my notes of a chat about them):

144477963XSiri Hustvedt, The Blazing World: The Art Student particularly loved how convincingly this novel describes the artworks created by its protagonist. [We heard Siri Hustvedt read from The Blazing World to about 30 people in Brooklyn last month. She read beautifully and answered questions generously. Memorably, she told us had found Kierkegaard to be great fun since she first read him as a teenager.]

1400066026Alan Furst, The Spies of Warsaw: a novel of espionage in eastern Europe in the 1930s. Strong on atmosphere and suspense, it manages to tell its story without contriving a catastrophe.

Helen Garner, This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial (Text 2014)Helen Garner, This House of Grief: Everyone who likes this book seems to give different reasons. The Art Student liked its tight, almost domestic focus on its characters.

1594486344James McBride, The Good Lord Bird: a novel about John Brown, the anti-slavery activist, from an African-American point of view.

0316322407Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: a fabulous, fabulous book that combines a History 101 of the Peshawar Valley with an account of two extraordinary people, Malala and her father.

I’m not going to list a best five books, but here are six that delighted, challenged and enlightened me, or did that thing of putting into words things I dimly felt or perceived. The images link to my blog entries.

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)

0702250139

David Malouf, Earth Hour (UQP 2014)

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

0571274161

Alice Oswald, Memorial: An excavation of the Iliad (Faber & Faber 2011)

0855757795

Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian nation (Aboriginal Studies Press 2011)

0805057404

Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza (1996, English translation @Metropolitan Books 1999; Owl Books 2000)

A note on gender and diversity: The Art Student announced proudly that she had read more books by women than by men (as she usually does). I read 25 by women and 32 by men. Up against recent Viva statistics on literary journals on reviews by women or about women writers, I’m doing pretty well. I’ve read 6 books in translation, from Chinese, Japanese, Bengali and Hebrew.

List 3. Best ‘Me Fail I Fly!’–related headline:

5ip

Onward to 2015!

Southerly 74/1

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 74 No 1 2014: Forward Thinking: Utopia and Apocalypse

southerly741If I read  the editorials in journals at all, I generally leave them until last, so I read without regard for any theme. I did read enough of this Southerly‘s editorial to gather that it was anticipating the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, but in the rest of the journal I mostly registered mentions of Utopia or utopianism as peripheral to what I found interesting. Some of my highlights:

  • Rozanna Lilley’s memoir, ‘The Little Prince, and other vehicles’, would be wonderful reading whatever her parentage: it’s very funny on the subject of inter-generational bad driving and builds to bitter-sweet reflections on her relationship with her father. But as Lilley’s parents were Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley (a fact coyly avoided in the Editorial and Notes on Contributors, but explicit in the memoir itself), it makes a substantial addition to the lore about that magnificent couple. For example, the passing mention that Rozanna had hidden her father’s rifle away from him in his erratic old age is particularly chilling in the light of Merv’s book, Gatton Man, which argues plausibly that Merv’s father was a serial killer, and convincingly that he was capable of murder.
  •  ‘Exile on Uranium Street: The Australian Nuclear Blues’, by Robin Gerster, author of the brilliant Travels in Atomic Sunshine about the Australian occupying force in Hiroshima after the bomb, is a sprinting survey of Australian responses to the nuclear age. Wilfred Burchett’s famous report from Hiroshima, Neville Shute’s novel On the Beach and Stanley Kramer’s film of it have overshadowed other responses, from Helen Caldicott’s activism to protests about Maralinga’s murderous tests. This essay fills out the picture in a way that makes one hope there’s a book on the way. It has a disconcertingly jaunty self-deprecating tone, but occasionally moves in for the kill, as when it challenges our current complacency about nuclear weapons: ‘There is no cause for panic, then – unless one ponders the possibilities.’
  • ‘And in our room too’ by Liesl Nunns starts from the experience of being woken by an earthquake in the middle of a storm in Wellington, New Zealand, and ruminates interestingly about the unexpected, weaving together stories of Maori gods and taniwha, personal experience, and scientific data in true essayist style. I am uneasy about her telling Maori stories in a way that makes them sound like Greek myths, but they powerfully evoke the instability of that part of the world, as does her recurring phrase, It never occurred to me that this could happen.
  • A number of pieces deal with individual mortality. Nicolette Stasko’s poem ‘Circus Act’ deals with the stark unreality of death in a hospice. Susan Midalia’s short story ‘The hook’, in which a woman goes travelling alone two years after her partner’s death, captures the way grief persists but life eventually begins to reassert itself.
  • As always, there’s a satisfying range of poetry. Apart from ‘Circus Act’, I most enjoyed Andy Jackson’s pantoum ‘Double-helix’, Margaret Bradstock’s ‘The Marriage (1823–1850)’ (another of her fragments of colonial history) and Ben Walter’s ‘Joseph Hooker’s Hands’. Geoff Page’s review of books by Tim Thorne and Chris Wallace-Crabbe made me want to read them both.
  • I skipped much of the scholarly content (Southerly is, after all, a scholarly journal), but Jessica White’s ‘Fluid Worlds: Reflecting Climate Change in The Swan Book and The Sunlit Zone‘ was worth persevering with for its interesting insights about Alexis Wright’s work. Danny Anwar’s ‘The Island called Utopia in Patrick White’s The Tree of Man‘ may do the same for Patrick White, but the near-impenetrable technical language proved too daunting for me. My prize for impenetrability goes, though, to A J Carruthers’ review of Melinda Bufton’s Girlery, which isn’t so much densely technical as splendidly uncommunicative, not to mention disdainful of the need for consistent punctuation or the workings of the French language, as in this snippet (because I can’t make WordPress show non-itals in quotes, words that should be in italics appear here as red):

Think of Girlery as a sociostylistic and amorous liaison with girlish grammar. Around each coquine clause the female reader eyes the book, “Hitherto unwritten”, knowingly participating in a kind of ‘quixotica,’ an erotics of reading where “a little grin does that thing only read in books / Plays on our lips / Tout les deux” (27).

Someone in these pages talks about the role of the creative writer in helping us to bring our minds to bear on frightening or otherwise potentially numbing realities. It’s important work, and this Southerly is part of it.

Alexis Wright’s Swan Book

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)

1sbA friend of mine, an activist whom I admire hugely, says that when he can’t sleep at night he generally does one of three things: he plays a computer game, reads a novel, or does some work. None of the three is satisfactory, he says, but at least if he does work, then his sleeplessness has been productive. If he spends an hour or two doing either of the others, nothing has changed at the end of that time.

I’m fairly sure that when he speaks so lightly of novels he’s not thinking of The Swan Book or books like it (if there are any). It would be hard to read this book and not feel that something had changed.

As my blogging time is severely limited these days, I give you a heroic attempt at describing the set-up, lifted from an impeccable source – thanks, Will:

Wright’s opening chapter chronicles a post-apocalyptic world where climate change has sent everything mad, where people have been driven from their homelands, forced to seek refuge without knowing a destination, carrying along with them, as they mass upon the oceans seeking a new home, the history of the world’s cultures. That history becomes layered and overlapped, interpenetrating, elements commingled. Wagner jostles the Bible in a radioactive landscape of water and ice, monkeys and swans. Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, leading this exodus from a drowned world, comes to Australia.

There is a marshy swamp, where she settles, in and amidst the rusted hulls of naval vessels cast up to rot in Army-run camps of an intervention, under a sky filled with swans, sometimes. Sometimes, instead, there are helicopters shining searchlights onto the jetsam of Aboriginal people confined there. There, Aunty Bella Donna takes under her wing the girl Oblivia. Oblivion Ethylene, to credit her fully, is a sly spry spink spank sprint of a thing (a characterization I’ve taken not from Wright, but from Finnegans Wake) pulled out from the depths of a eucalyptus tree where she hid after being raped by a pack of petrol sniffers.

That, as Will goes on to say, is just the beginning. There’s the Harbour Master, who is probably Aboriginal and may or may not be a ghost for most of the book, along with his well-dressed monkey. And there’s Warren Finch, a kind of Aboriginal Barack Obama cranked up to eleven, and brolgas, and owls, and rats, and a weird building full of fountains and cats. Oblivia becomes the First Lady of whatnot, she becomes the swan lady, she takes part in a great exodus from a dying city (Sydney perhaps) across a land devastated by climate change.

The book doesn’t lend itself to a quick synopsis. It moves like a dream: the identities of places, people and other living things are unstable. For instance, Oblivia, who has married Warren Finch, sees herself on television accompanying him on state occasions. Since we know, or think we know, that she hasn’t left the house where he dumped her immediately after the wedding, we assume she is seeing an imposter, or perhaps a robotic creation of some kind – it is after all the future. But Oblivia doesn’t share that assumption: as far as she is concerned she must have been there. Are we to read this as Oblivia having a tenuous grasp on reality? Perhaps. Or perhaps we’re the ones who don’t understand how this world works. The narrator doesn’t really care one way or another.

The narrative voice is merciless to the reader’s desire for certainty. In other ways, too, it’s constantly unsettling. As a recovering proofreader, I bristled at a couple of glaring errors: someone etched out a living, graffiti was sprawled on a rusted keel. But by the time I came to a character reigning in an impulse, I realised that in all likelihood the author had staved off any editorial intervention: these occasional errors, along with the frequent grammatical slippages, mangled cliches and apparently random quotes featuring swans, aren’t a bug, but a feature. Likewise the occasional impossibility, such as the tiny Oblivia picking up an adult swan and carrying it some distance tucked under one arm. The reader isn’t so much being told a story as being drawn into a vast dream. And dreams don’t care about proofreading or footnotes or logical consistency.

It’s an almost incredibly rich book. There’s satire (‘closing the gap’ is still a slogan, but its meaning has changed to sinister effect),  astute observation (the scene where Oblivia meets a white family is a deeply uncomfortable lesson about cultural sensitivity), erudition (lots of science and history to do with black and white swans), science fiction (a grim dystopian future), and at its heart a devastating non-love story.

awwbadge_2014The Swan Book is the third book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Overland 205

Jeff Sparrow, editor Overland 205, Summer 2011

Someone in the offline world told me recently he was reading a book called The Left Isn’t Always Right. It must be one of the least controversial book titles of all time: how could ‘the Left’ be always right when lefties are forever fiercely, even violently disagreeing with each other? I mean, hadn’t the author heard of Trotsky? This issue of Overland continues in that fine tradition (of debate, I mean, not of violence). And although recent comments on this blog have described it as increasingly right wing, I think it does a nice job of bringing to bear a perspective that challenges the view that all can be well in a capitalist society.

It kicks off with Swedish scholar Mattias Gardell’s ‘Terror in the Norwegian woods‘, which places the recent killing spree in Norway in the context of the return of fascism to Europe. He moves well beyond the easy but still telling point that when the news of the killings broke, many pundits pronounced that it was the work of Muslim terrorists, but when the identity and beliefs of the killer were discovered, the same pundits said it was clearly the work of a lone madman, and not in any way connected to their hate speech – he moves beyond that point to a chilling account of the increasingly vocal and co-ordinated anti-Muslim movement in Europe and in the US, which would be an oddity if it weren’t for their influence on political leaders.

Next, Robert Bollard’s ‘ Who was Bet B?‘, tells the story of his own discovery of Aboriginal ancestry, and explores its implications. Among other things it provides a multidimensional, nuanced context to the brutish attacks on ‘light skinned Aborigines’ we’ve been hearing a bit about recently.

Xavier Rizos’s ‘Will the market save us?‘ could well be subtitled ‘The carbon tax for dummies’, and I mean that in a good way.

Brad Nguyen’s ‘Morality begone!‘ does a neat job of exposing the inadequacy of moral outrage as a tool for understanding, especially in relation to events like the riots in London in August last year. He doesn’t argue that morality has no place, but that relationships of power needs to be taken into account. ‘We can all agree,’ he writes, ‘that events such as 9/11 are the results of acts of evil. But why shouldn’t we let ourselves locate such events within the totality of global capitalism?’ He goes on, ‘If you so much as mention [US] imperialism, you open yourself up to charges of justifying the atrocities of 9/11.’ In a fabulous twist, he invokes Jesus, with a challenging reading of the injunction to turn the other cheek. (This isn’t the journal’s only surprise for those who confuse secularism with hostility to religion: Peter Slezak’s ‘Silence resembling stupidity‘ argues forcibly that the anti-Islamic stance of the ‘new atheists’ – Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins – actually plays into the hands of  those who would wage neo-imperialist and -colonialist wars.)

There are a couple of debates – Stephanie Convery and Katrina Fox on PETA’s use of pornography in its animal rights activism, Ali Alizadeh and Robert Lukins on Australian Poetry, the new peak industry body for poetry. The poetry one, as you might expect, is the more heated (‘Robert Lukins’ is … devoid of almost any substance with which to engage,’ says Alizadeh, unfairly in my view). The animal rights one has the higher moral tone (‘Let’s get our priorities right,’ says Fox, arguing that we shouldn’t object to PETA’s obnoxiousness when other people do much worse things – I guess you can tell where I stand on that one). And there’s a profound panel discussion about language and politics in Indigenous writing, featuring John Bradley, Kim Scott and Marie Munkara.

There are stories and poems, notably an excerpt from Alexis Wright’s forthcoming novel, Eileen Chong’s ‘Mary: A Fiction‘, and Angela Smith’s ‘Jennifer Maiden woke up in The Lodge‘, which I persist in seeing as a tribute to Jennifer Maiden rather than an attack.

Notice all those links! The thing about Overland  is that most of its content is online, and the Overland blog has follow-up interviews and discussions. This interview with Robert Bollard is a fine example. Still, reading it in hard copy has its pleasures, not least of which is the sense of righteousness that comes from sending money their way.

Overland 202

Jeff Sparrow, editor, Overland 202, Autumn 2011

I have one major complaint about this issue of Overland: it won’t be read by enough people. It gets classified, correctly, as of the left, and so there’s an assumption that only people who identify as left-wing should read it. It gets marginalised, when item after item in it deserves the widest readership and engagement. Rather than saying too much, here are a couple of excerpts.

From Guy Rundle’s ‘Open-eyed conspiracy his time doth take‘, a look at the theory and practice (‘praxis’) of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks:

In Assange’s model, the failure of the anti-globalisation movement to challenge the governmental conspiracies that emerged post-September 11 resulted from the very dispersal that they celebrated […] WikiLeaks, in that respect, represents a dialectical development: recognition that a counter-conspiracy,  to  be effective, must decisively reject openness  in favour of an ultra-conspiracy. […]
WikiLeaks’ massive category-shifting leaking is not intended to dissolve governance but to uncouple governance and conspiracy, to make it impossible for governments to fall back on conspiracy as a mode of action.

From Rjurik Davidson ‘s ‘Imagining New Worlds‘ on ‘New Wave’ science fiction of the 1960s and after:

The New Wave [demonstrates] that approaching culture politically (in the broad sense of the term) does not necessarily result in the production of dour and didactic texts. On the contrary, political interventions underpin many of the greatest formal
 revolutions, the most experimental and original work.

From Bob Gosford’s ‘They took our culture – now there is no law‘, one of three pieces on the Northern Territory under the Intervention:

[A] Northern Territory judge who in 2009 considered the effect of the changes to the Emergency Response Act 2007 noted that: ‘the precise mischief that [the section] is intended to remedy is unclear’. He went on to argue that because the legislation precluded consideration of a range of previously acceptable and relevant issues, it ‘distorts [the] well established sentencing principle of proportionality, and may result in … disproportionate sentences’.

From Alexis Wright’s ‘Talking About Tomorrow‘, an open letter to Bob Brown and Rachel Stewart:

I cannot believe that the Intervention can be  justified  when   families  are  leaving their
traditional lands – the lands where they have lived and that they have taken care of for tens of thousands of years – unable to endure the heaviness of government controls over their lives. They are becoming the new gypsies, vilified by residents of Australian towns and cities opposed to having them as neighbours.

She goes on to argue that ‘the only way forward is through treaty-making with individual nations and regions in northern Australia. in particular in the Northern Territory ‘.

From Patricia Gillespie’s ‘[In]Dignity‘, which is largely a graphic account of her elderly mother’s experience with the health system:

From a medical perspective, the treatment for her congestive heart failure – the reason for her admission to hospital – was a success. She was no longer ‘dying’ or ‘drowning’ in fluid. But Marie inherited […] problems such as vitamin deficiencies, suicide ideation, muscular weakness and mobility issues, chronic rash, a bleeding tongue, bedsores and ulcers, which made a mockery of the notion ‘do no harm’.

There are eight wonderful pages of images and pensées from Sean Tan. There’s poetry, including K A Nelson’s ‘Chorus of Crows‘ (winner of the 2010 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and another angle on the NT Intervention) and  Jennifer Compton’s sweet celebration of the quotidian, ‘I Came Home with the Shopping‘.

Almost teh whole lot is up on line. Have a look.

SWF: Inside the Westside Writers Group

One of my highlights from last year’s Sydney Writers Festival was a staged reading in Bankstown Town Hall by members of the Westside Writers Group. Naturally, we trekked west in the rain to see what they were putting on this year.

A big room in Bankstown Youth Development Headquarters had been set up with a couple of sofas, cushions, a standard lamp and a coffee table for the group and seats for the audience in the rest of the room. They proceeded to have a meeting like the ones they’ve been having every fortnight for years: each member of the group read a piece she or he had been working on – some brand new, some reworkings or extensions of things the group had heard before.

It was a risky idea, and could have failed in any number of ways. But it was great. All the writers have been trained in reading to an audience, and as their mode of working is to read to each other rather than circulating printed copies of their work, they have all become skilled listeners. So we were treated to a lovely range of readings, and then some tender but forthright exploration of what made each one tick and where it could be improved. Luke Carman and Michael Mohammad Ahmad were the stand-outs for me, the former with another of his strangely surreal monologues/stories, the latter with a vignette (a word evidently much discussed by the group) of life in a small ethnic community in the western suburbs. Nothing was dull: sestinas by Lachlan Brown, other poems by Fiona Wright, Lina Jabbir and Rebecca Landon, stories by Susie Ahmad, Sam Hogg, Felicity Castagna and Peter Polites (the dark-haired man on the couch in the pic, shaven headed and unrecognisable on the night), and video in the making from Bilal Reda. All this with the delicate, respectful probing and prompting of Ivor Indyk, resident literary guru.

And you know, from where I was sitting none of these young writers seemed at all fazed by having an audience of roughly fifty people watching and listening from the shadows as they exposed the fruits of their imagination to one another’s critical gaze.

Later addition: I can’t believe I forgot to mention that Alexis Wright was there as a special guest, putting her two cents worth into the discussion and reading what may end up as the start of her next book. When she’d finished her reading – an unsettling piece involving a personification of drought, a young woman carrying a not-quite dead swan in her arms – Ivor Indyk challenged the group: ‘Anyone want to take on a Miles Franklin winner?’

Luke Carman audio

One of my highlights of last year’s Sydney Writers Festival was Alleyway Honour in the Bankstown Town Hall. Some of the same people who made it so brilliant will be in the prosaically named Inside the Westside Writers Group this year at Bankstown on 18 May. I hope Michael Mohammed Ahmad will read again. And Alexis Wright will be there as a special guest.

But my reason for blogging is to let you know that Luke Carman, whose readings at Alleyway Honour were a thrill and a delight, having had a couple of pieces in the latest Heat, has now, thanks to Penguin Plays Rough and FBi Radio, turned up in audio on the internet. You can hear him with just one click.