I’m coming to this book late, but it’s a book that will remain fresh for a long time yet.
It contains 52 essays from First Nations people of Australia. The range of contributors is huge: people from all parts of Australia, urban and remote, from Cape York to the Western Australian wheat belt; some who are household names, some who should be, and some who live quiet lives far from the limelight; people who were strongly connected to culture and community as children and people who discovered they were Aboriginal only in adulthood; old (several contributors were born the same year as me, 1947) and young (one was 13 at the time of publication); sports stars, poets, novelists, classical musicians, prisoners.
Anita Heiss writes in her introduction:
There is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia, but this anthology is an attempt to showcase as many of the diverse voices, experiences and stories together as possible.
The attempt succeeds admirably.
I was struck by the sheer number of almost identical incidents in which someone challenges a young person’s Aboriginal identity. Here’s one of them, as told by Keira Jenkins, a Gamilaroi woman from Moree in New South Wales:
I was six years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor in my checked dress, which was slightly too long for me, looking eagerly up at Miss Brown – at least I think that was her name – the first time I had a blow to my sense of identity. We were learning about Aboriginal people and I piped up very proudly.
‘I’m Aboriginal.’ I waved my hand in the air.
‘No, you’re not,’ my friend Alison said. ‘You’re too white to be Aboriginal.’
I don’t remember what happened after that; I just remember feeling ashamed.
The challenger isn’t always another child. Sometimes it’s an adult in authority, sometimes even another Aboriginal person, but the confident refusal to accept that a child with fair skin can be Aboriginal occurs again and again in almost exactly the same words, never without impact on the child. No wonder Andrew Bolt was taken to court over his 2009 slur against ‘light-skinned people who identified as Aboriginal’ (news story here if you don’t know about that): the people bringing the case must have been desperately sick of that pernicious stuff.
The sameness of attacks stands in striking contrast to the tremendous variety of the life stories. I loved reading how eleven-year-old Miranda Tapsell refused to go to an event as Scary Spice just because Scary Spice was brown like her, and risked the ire of her non-Indigenous friend by going as their shared favourite, Baby Spice; how Adam Goodes disobeyed a teacher on a zoo excursion and stared at a gorilla; how Karen Davis, a Mamu–Kuku Yalanji woman who grew up n Far North Queensland in the 1970s and 80s sang songs on long car trips with her family pretty much the way I did with mine in the 1950s.
Some of the stories defy belief. William Russell, who describes himself as ‘a black, fair ex-serviceman with PTSD, blind and with a severe hearing impediment, and a long list of other physical problems from military service’, is a case in point. He tells of a time when his mother, with a babe in arms and four-year-old WIlliam by her side, faced a crowd of drunk, angry white men in the tiny town in Victoria where they had just come to live as the only Aboriginal family. Her grandfather stepped out of the shadows to save the day, naked ‘as always’, painted up in ochre and kaolin, and discharging a shotgun. This was in the 1950s. Hm!
There are tragic stories of the damage done by of colonisation to individuals and communities,featuring alcoholism and addiction; diabetes and diagnoses of mental illness; family violence and dysfunction; premature death. And there are stories of heroic resilience. Tony Birch’s story of his father is a beautifully told study in reversing fortunes. After years of violence and anger, followed by years of medication, electric shock treatment and institutionalisation, he ‘is saved’:
The Aboriginal community of Fitzroy gather around and care for him: men and women who had known him when he was a kid, during the years before any of them were ravaged by the force of racism and exclusion. He moves to the countryside and begins working with young blackfellas in schools. The experience is life-changing, for both my father and his family. I discover, a little to my own surprise, that I love him.
My copy of Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is a loan from my Book(-lending) Club. I consider it belongs in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021: it’s edited by a woman, and more than half the contributors are also women. So I’m counting it as the eleventh book I’ve read for the challenge.
Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (University of Queensland Press 2021)
This is a formidable book. I’d heard Evelyn Araluen read some of its poems, which she always does with a slight, dangerous smile, and was looking forward to reading them. The smile is mostly still in evidence, but the danger doesn’t feel slight. What’s endangered is any hope of emerging with Australian settler colonialist assumptions intact, or at least untroubled. In the book’s generous notes, Araluen spells out her understanding
that the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.
What looks like an elegantly designed slim volume of poems is actually a piece of incendiary resistance to colonial attempts at genocide and erasure, from May Gibbs’s cute bush creatures to perfunctory or self-serving acknowledgements of country, by way of a whole gallery of settler-Australian poets and poetic tropes. There are rage-fuelled mash-ups taken from widely read, familiar texts; poems whose ideal readers have PhDs in critical theory or contemporary poetics; and longer prose poems that could just as easily be categorised as essays and short stories. There are poems that turn their gaze away from the colonisers and dwell on family and the natural world.
In her conversation with Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers’ Festival My blog post is at this link), Araluen said. ‘This is not a cancel culture book.’ And that’s an important point to make. ‘For the parents’, one of the longer pieces, is in part an expression of gratitude and appreciation for her parents who read May Gibbs to her and her siblings, which when she first ‘discovered theory’ she thought meant they were ‘losing to the settlers’:
While my siblings and I consumed those stories, we were
never taught to settle for them. My parents ever pretended
these books could truly know country or culture or
me – but they had both come from circumstances in which
literacy and the access it affords was never a given. They just
wanted me to be able to read.
The acts of resistance in this book are not rants against an easily demonised foe. They involve the poet’s own inner wrestles, and bring a finely tuned, disciplined intelligence to bear on issues that lie at the heart of Australian culture. The book isn’t an easy read, especially for old white men, but it’s not hostile. Speaking as an old white man I felt it as a bracing invitation and a forthright offer of guidance and even help.
Added later: There’s an excellent discussion of Dropbear by Jeanine Leane in Sydney Review of Books, at this link. Here’s a taste:
Dropbear is blunt, biting and beautifully crafted. Although it is those things, it is more than the sum of those things. It’s a radical and timely affront to the history, the myths, the gossip and the stereotypes that still confront us all as the Country’s First Peoples.
As I’m writing this blog post, allegations of men in the Australian Parliament abusing women currently and historically are dominating the news cycle, and the frighteningly inadequate responses of the powerful are on display. It’s a very difficult time for women who have survived abuse, and probably not a good time for them to read this book, which isn’t about the kind of abuse that’s in the news, but, well, I imagine it’s close enough to make the unbearable climate even worse. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, in happier times and without a personal history of abuse, but when I reached the acknowledgements at the end and read Jess Hill’s appreciation for her male soulmate who had backed her in the arduous four years of writing, and her delight in her witty and charismatic two-year-old daughter, I almost wept. It was like emerging from a vision of hell to be reminded that fresh air and sunshine exist, that there are decent men and happy little girls in the world.
But let me say right up front that although it gives many detailed accounts of hideous violence and abusive behaviour, this is not a book that wallows in the horrible. Hard as it is to read – and, I imagine, immeasurably harder to research and write – it’s a serious, level-headed attempt to anatomise the phenomenon of domestic abuse, to understand the perpetrators and the victims, to give an account of the way police, the courts and lawmakers have dealt with the issue, and to cast about for examples of more effective measures. In a prefatory note, Hill explains that she did her best to ‘flip’ the usual journalist–source power imbalance: where she told a survivor’s story (and there are many) as far as possible the subject/source of the story had a chance to read a draft, and suggest changes and, especially, deletions. One chapter begins with a couple of paragraphs acknowledging an extraordinary woman whose story was central to that chapter, but had to be withdrawn at the last minute because of major safety concerns.
The first chapter. ‘The Perpetrator’s Handbook’, describes the remarkable similarity of the techniques used by domestic abusers, across all locations, cultures and social status. ‘It’s like you go to abuse school,’ one reformed abuser told Hill. ‘They all do it.’ Stunningly, the suite of techniques was identified by a scholar seeking to understand how US prisoners of North Korea during the Korean War had their spirits broken. In the 1950s there was talk of ‘brainwashing’, a semi-mystical process. Now it is understood to have been coercive control, a term that is explored at length in this book. The Korean War researcher, Albert Biderman,
established that three primary elements were at the heart of coercive control: dependency, debility and dread. To achieve this effect, the captors used eight techniques: isolation, monopolisation of perception, induced debility or exhaustion, cultivation of anxiety and despair, alternation of punishment and reward, demonstrations of omnipotence, degradation and the enforcement of trivial demands. Biderman’s ‘Chart of Coercion’ showed that acts of cruelty that appeared at first to be isolated were actually intricately connected. It was only when these acts were seen together that the full picture of coercive control became clear.
Physical violence isn’t a necessary part of the system. Hill’s prefatory note says that as she came to understand her subject, she had to go back and change most references to ‘domestic violence’ in her text to ‘domestic abuse’. It’s not uncommon, she says, for an abuser’s first act of physical violence to result in the victim’s death.
The techniques are virtually universal, but perpetrators do exist on a spectrum. ‘It can be hard to pinpoint where garden-variety fighting ends and domestic abuse begins,’ Hill writes, but actual abusers fall into two types: insecure reactors, ‘who don’t completely subordinate their partners, but use emotional or physical violence to gain power in the relationship’; and coercive controllers, who ‘micromanage the lives of their victims, prevent them from seeing friends and family, track their movements and force them to obey a unique set of rules’.
Chapter 2, ‘The Underground’, discusses the dark and extensive world of women who are abused, behind closed doors and hidden in plain sight. It addresses the question, ‘Why do women stay in abusive relationships?’, or rather gives a brief history of victim-blaming answers that have been given given until alarmingly recently, then discusses structural and psychological difficulties in the way of leaving, and many modes of resistance.
Chapter 3 to 5 address the key question: not ‘Why does she choose to stay?’ but ‘Why does he choose to abuse her again?’ In these chapters, Jess Hill never falls into all-men-are-bastards rhetoric. Some men do monstrous things, but it’s important not to simply dismiss them as monsters. To understand everything may not mean to forgive everything. It certainly doesn’t mean anything is to be minimised. But to understand is an important step on the way to putting things right. Hill describes research that categorises coercive controllers as either cold, calculating ‘cobras’ or morbidly jealous, paranoid ‘pit bulls’, with a third type of violent man, the ‘family-only batterer’, who can be just as dangerous but needs different responses. It’s not always easy to tell which category a particular man belongs to, and there’s plenty of slippage between the categories, but the distinctions are useful – there can be no one-size-fits-all response to domestic abuse. Two superb chapters deal respectively with shame, which when linked to a sense of entitlement lies at the base of much male violence, and patriarchy, the overarching system that permeates cultures, and inhabits the minds of perpetrators, victims, responders and bystanders alike.
I’ve lived in a number of all-male environments – boarding schools and religious communities. I’ve participated in many men’s groups and workshops where we grapple with masculinity, sexism and male domination. I love my all-male book group. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a woman writing with such force and clarity, and also compassion, about male conditioning and its potential for disaster. If you’re interested but the prospect of reading all 371 pages of this book is too daunting, I recommend these three chapters.
The bone-chilling chapter 6, ‘Children’, includes a discussion of complex PTSD (which Rick Morton has just written a book about) and the ever-present tragic possibility that a son will follow in his abusive father’s footsteps. Chapter 7, on women who use violence, points to the key difference that without the backing of patriarchy and male conditioning, they are unlikely to have their partners living in fear for their lives. Chapter 8, ‘State of Emergency’, discusses the resources available to a woman trying to escape a dangerously abusive situation:
Women don’t just leave domestic abuse – they journey away from it, step by step. There is no straight path out – it’s a game of snakes and letters, and women can slip back underground just when they’re about to escape. This means that any potential escape route needs attention and support.
Speaking of these resources – police, refuges, the law, the health system – Hill says, ‘Often, the stories with the worst endings are not blockbuster horror stories, but catalogues of negligence, laziness and procedural error.’
Possibly the most distressing chapter of all is Chapter 9, which deals with the Family Court of Australia. Its title, ‘Through the Looking Glass’, tells you a lot about it. Contrary to the much lobbied argument that fathers are badly done by in the family law system, Hill argues that it is the other way around. The use of untrained ‘single experts’ to make judgements about custody, the invocation of the discredited Parental Alienation Syndrome by which a mother is held to be responsible if children are frightened of their father, and a general discounting of women’s and children’s voices make for a hideous mess. If anything the stories here of women and children being betrayed by the law are even more horrifying than the stories of actual abuse.
Since the book was published the Family Court of Australia has been abolished as a freestanding institution, and merged with the Federal Circuit Court. Sadly, it seems likely that this will only make things worse, because it will continue the erosion of resources from family law that has been steadily happening since John Howard’s prime ministership.
The penultimate chapter, ‘Dadirri’, deals with the way intergenerational trauma and grief from colonisation and genocidal policies – including the widespread disruption of families by child removals – put a rocket under issues of domestic abuse for First Nations people. The notion that violence against women is ‘cultural’ is given short and convincing shrift. Hill argues, with evidence, that domestic abuse was more prevalent and tolerated to a greater extent in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England than in pre-invasion Australia. There are stories of powerful initiatives taken. For example, Indigenous women in the remote community of Yungngora in the central Kimberley made it happen that disruptive behaviour would result in expulsion from the community for three months after three warnings: ‘In twelve months, domestic violence went from six per week to none‘ (page 334).
The final chapter, ‘Fixing It’, manages to be convincingly, if guardedly, upbeat. ‘Social problems often seem insurmountable,’ Hill writes, ‘until they’re not.’ She makes the obvious point that more funding is needed by emergency services, and is scathing about the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children: it has no clear targets, and tackles domestic violence as an attitude problem’:
The mission to transform attitudes to gender inequality and violence is laudable, and will no doubt produce important cultural changes. But as a primary strategy for reducing domestic abuse, it is horribly inadequate. Why do we accept that it will take decades – possibly generations – to reduce domestic abuse? Why isn’t long-term prevention work paired with a relentless focus on doing everything possible to reduce violence today? Why do successive governments insist that reducing domestic abuse is a matter of changing attitudes – or, at best, parking the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff? How on earth did public officials decide that surveying community attitudes was the best way to measure whether their strategy to reduce violence was working?
There are places where initiatives have had substantial success in reducing domestic abuse. The High Point Initiative in North Carolina, which you can read about here, has been amazingly effective. It has clear goals, and has police cooperating with service providers to call out perpetrators publicly and make public the severe consequences of future offences. And promising things are happening in Bourke in New South Wales, where a community led program brings services together, with daily check-ins, and cooperates with the police, whose commitment to deal with domestic violence has been organised as Operation Solidarity. Without a big government spend, stunning results have been achieved:
Across the Darling River Local Area Command, domestic homicides dropped from seven in 2015–2016 … to zero for the following 18 months. By 2018, the repeat victimisation rate – which was twice the state average – was also down by a third. Victims have greater trust in police: the number who cooperated with police to pursue legal action is up, from an average of 68 per cent in 2016 to 85 per cent in 2018. And even with this increased legal action, at 75 per cent – something which [the Police Superintendent in charge of Bourke police] puts down to the fact that their prosecutor has been trained to properly understand domestic abuse.
See What You Made Me Do won the 2020 Stella Prize and has received a lot of publicity, but my sense is that it hasn’t been widely read. If I’m right, that’s a shame. It’s journalism at its best, bringing people’s stories into the light, making important research available, and demonstrating that it’s possible to think, and to hope, about a seemingly intractable subject.
A TV series his scheduled to be shown on SBS later this year, and there’s a video of Jess Hill talking at an event run by the NSW Agency for Clinical Innovation at this link.
For some time now, Jennifer Maiden has produced new poetry collections almost as regularly as the earth revolves around the sun. Giramondo published five books between 2010 and 2017, handsomely designed by Harry Williamson. Since then Quemar Press, the publishing company created and run by Maiden’s daughter Katharine Margot Toohey, has published a collection of her poetry at the beginning of each year (as well as Selected Poems 2017–2018, a number of novels and two other slim non-poetry books authored or co-authored by Maiden). Biological Necessity is the fourth new collection.
I look forward to each new book in much the way I’ve looked forward to each new season of, say, Call My Agent.
I want to know what happens next in a number of continuing narratives. Maiden’s fictional characters George Jeffreys and Clare Collins continue to turn up in international hotspots – in Biological Necessity, they spend time in Covid quarantine at Darling Harbour, and they talk to Donald Trump by Skype on 2020 election night (in a poem published before the votes were counted). Her versions of real people living and dead continue to chat with each other, at least one person in each chat having just woken up as if a switch has turned them on in the poet’s inner mind – here Eleanor Roosevelt’s ambivalence about Hillary Clinton reaches a kind of peak in her 17th poem; and Gore Vidal continues to hover around Julian Assange. Maiden’s incarnation of the Carina Galaxy as a sixties bombshell, last seen several books ago, makes a repeat appearance.
Surrounding the narratives, a sprawling, multi-faceted conversation has continued over the years, a conversation largely about politics and abuses of power. There are Diary Poems, which usually include ‘Uses of … ‘ in the title: in this book, poems meditate on the uses of biological necessity (Aneurin Bevan said that socialism was a biological necessity), indigo (the colour), Sacha Baron Cohen (for his performance in The Trial of the Chicago 7) and Finnegans Wake. In them, and in Maiden’s poems generally, there’s a quality of heightened chattiness: a subject is announced in the opening lines, and is reflected on; then, sometimes as if distracted by a random association, the poem veers off, and perhaps veers off again, always to interesting places, sometimes to recondite ones such as, in this book, Bolivian elections or Andean mountain cats; those different veerings crisscross one another, and – to mix my metaphors – weave something new. I love this process; it’s like listening to someone’s mind doing the basic work of thinking, meditatively and associatively.
The poems/conversation/meditations generally deal with topics more usually found in op-ed journalism: Julian Assange, Ghislaine Maxwell, Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg, Syria, Covid–19, the CIA, right-wing cultural machinations. But it wouldn’t do them justice to read them as op-eds cut up to look like verse, with an occasional rhyme for good measure. We don’t read them so much to find out what Jennifer Maiden thinks, or to learn about the world (though they often send me searching the web), or to debate a position, but rather to enjoy the carefully-crafted illusion that we are listening to the poet in the act of thinking.
Usually when I write about a book of poetry I focus on a single poem. So hard to choose! ‘After the Volcano’, which revolves around a poem by Martin Johnston that Jennifer Maiden read at a zoom event, which I attended, marking the 30th anniversary of Martin’s death? One of the excellent Covid poems? ‘The Watchchain’, on a family story of a watchchain made from a dead woman’s hair? I ended up choosing ‘A somewhat consistent rule’, because it’s one of the shortest in the book, and can be captured in a single scan. (If you can’t read it easily here, you can find it on page 39 of the pdf sampler from this book on the Quemar website.)
We know from the prose introduction – unusually long and informative for a Jennifer Maiden poem – that this is one of her poems inspired by the travails of Julian Assange, of which the short lyric ‘My Heart Has an Embassy‘ is perhaps the best known. The quote is from Clive Stafford Smith’s official witness statement at the Assange hearing in September 2020, which is available as a PDF at this link (see paragraph 86). It not only announces the poem’s context, but also identifies the ‘rule’ of the title: it could almost stand alone as a found poem. In reading this poem, it’s important to note that the statement was read aloud in court.
I don’t know how this poem would work for a reader unfamiliar with Jennifer Maiden’s work. I read it as part of a web of poems that relate to each other in form and content. The first line places it in a long series of Maiden’s poems that open with someone waking up, all the way back to when it was always George Jeffreys waking up to see George W Bush on television obsessing about Iraq. Specifically, it’s at least the fifth poem, and not the last, in which Gore Vidal wakes up. He is Maiden’s main conduit for engaging with Assange (along with Diana Spencer and Emma Goldman in previous poems). He’s not a completely arbitrary choice: Assange was clutching a book by Vidal when he was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in April 2019, which led to Vidal feeling ‘quite possessive of his reader’ (‘Resistance’, The Espionage Act, page 6).
The next two lines mark a departure in the ‘woke up’ poems. Vidal doesn’t simply snap awake as in these poems previously, but the waking process continues for the whole poem: ‘the world returned to him in bits’, and the lines that follow show us the bits. (As my regular readers know, I’m currently reading À la recherche du temps perdu, and am reminded that Proust’s narrator takes several pages to describe such a bit-by-bit waking up.) Not yet fully awake, Vidal finds a focus in the words of Stafford Smith about the boy
who was no doubt concerned, civic-souled and mild:
not dangerous enough to live, poor child.
It’s worth noticing the deliberate use of rhyme. In ‘mild’ / ‘child’, and later in ‘scorn’ / ‘porn’, ‘joy’ / ‘boy’, and ‘awkwardly, he’ / ‘mystery’, there’s a whiff of, say, Alexander Pope’s classic rhyming couplets:
Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
All but the page prescrib'd, their present state
Maiden’s couplets don’t aspire to that magisterial authority. They don’t scan beautifully like Pope’s, but the rhyme does suggest a connection to that tradition, in which the poet casts a withering eye on hypocrisy and pretension.
The next three lines, in a characteristic Maiden move, invoke insider gossip about public events. I assume that Jennifer Maiden, who lives in Western Sydney, doesn’t have much access to US intelligence agents, so what Vidal remembers hearing is probably as much an invention as the awakening Vidal himself. But it’s plausible, and here the ‘TV’ / ‘conveniently’ rhyme adds a hint of dark comedy.
Vidal’s focus on ‘the words of Stafford Smith’ ends with the chilling general implication that being seen as harmless, far from meaning one will be ignored, might actually be a threat.
Then the poem veers. In nine or ten lines, Vidal pictures, one of the postage-stamp images that he wakes to, the magistrate hearing Assange’s case.
a magistrate showing her luxuries of scorn
at the defence, like something out of porn
he would still quite like to write.
In real life this is Vanessa Baraitser. I found this description by John Pilger:
Her face was a progression of sneers and imperious indifference; she addressed Julian with an arrogance that reminded me of a magistrate presiding over apartheid South Africa’s Race Classification Board …
When [Julian Assange] spoke truth and when his barrister spoke, Baraitser contrived boredom; when the prosecuting barrister spoke, she was attentive. She had nothing to do; it was demonstrably preordained. In the table in front of us were a handful of American officials, whose directions to the prosecutor were carried by his junior; back and forth this young woman went, delivering instructions.
‘Luxuries of scorn’ isn’t too bad a summing-up. ‘Porn’ in the next line isn’t an arbitrary rhyme: it’s Gore Vidal who is seeing these things, and though I don’t know if he write any porn, he was interested in sexuality as much as in politics.
I found the photo of Baraitser poised at an exhibition with a champagne glass as described in the next lines. It’s here if you’re interested, but it doesn’t add a lot. The word image is strong enough. The next lines do a lot of work:
________________________ virginal with joy:
a living dual passport, with the innocence of a boy
trusting that power is too dangerous to die
‘Virginal with joy’ contrasts with Vidal’s associating the magistrate’s manner with porn. The use of passport as a metaphor for two-facedness reminds even those of us who haven’t followed Assange’s trials closely that passports and citizenship have been an issue. The phrase ‘too dangerous to die’ echoes ‘not dangerous enough to live’ from earlier in the poem. The magistrate has dual identities, on the one hand an innocent viewer of art ‘poised at an exhibition’ and on the other an agent of oppression (hinting at one of Maiden’s themes that reactionary forces manipulate art and literature for political ends); innocence and trust are attributed to her, but rendered nastily ironic by the phrase ‘of a boy’, recalling the boy who was killed by forces that the magistrate is at least indirectly abetting.
The next lines – ‘She had rescinded permission …’ – refer to her action that’s on the public record, but the poem is doing more than simply stating the facts. The scare quotes around ‘control’, taken together with ‘remote, are a nod and a wink towards the deadly drones that are the background to the hearing and to the poem. without any big display, the found language of the court is being harnessed to remind us that the courtroom procedures are intimately connected to murder by drone in Afghanistan.
I had trouble parsing the final five lines:
as Stafford Smith said, 'somewhat consistent rule',
from nowhere the slowly-integrating Vidal
had arrived in the public gallery, unreal
as justice, and innocently, awkwardly, he
returned her gaze: a somewhat final mystery.
Once I realised that ‘as Stafford Smith said’ means not, ‘in agreement with Stafford Smith,’ but, ‘at the moment when Stafford Smith was saying,’ the penny dropped. Stafford Smith’s witness statement isn’t a document being recalled here, but the spoken background to the poem’s action. At the beginning, when Gore Vidal ‘was focused by the words of Stafford Smith’, he was waking up, bit by bit, to the sound of Stafford Smith’ evidence, and hearing the story of the boy killed by drones is what makes him fully present ‘from nowhere’. The poem’s action is the imaginary Gore Vidal’s coming to full wakefulness.
‘Unreal as justice’: yes, the poem is saying, this Gore Vidal is imaginary, coming ‘from nowhere’, but so is any justice that Assange will receive in this court. Innocence and awkwardness aren’t words that have often been applied to Gore Vidal, one of last century’s most wickedly sophisticated writers, but even he must experience that first moment of wakefulness as an awkward freshness. His sharp intelligence meets the gaze of the morally compromised magistrate. Vidal becomes fully present, the poem’s perspective on this judge in this trial solidifies, becomes ‘somewhat final’. As for ‘mystery’, it’s a satisfying rhyme for ‘awkwardly, he’, and reminds us that Gore Vidal, like the other people who wake up in Maiden’s poems, isn’t simply a mouthpiece for the poet’s views: there’s a mysterious process by which these imagined figures come from somewhere (‘from nowhere’, perhaps) to help her, and us, think. Not What Would Jesus Do? but what Would Gore Vidal Think?
It’s been a long time since I’ve posted about books read with my granddaughter. Here’s a beginning catch-up.
Dinner with Olivia (Simon & Schuster 2009, based on the TV series, adapted by Emily Sollinger, illustrated by Guy Wolek)
Neither Ruby nor her grandparents knew there was a TV series featuring Olivia, and at first I was wary of this knock-off of Ian Falconer’s wonderful books: as befits children’s TV, the illustration style is a lot cruder than Falconer’s New Yorkish elegance. But it turns out the book is lovely. Olivia goes to her posh friend Francine’s place for dinner. At first she is in awe, and mildly ashamed of the messiness of her own family, especially her little brothers. But once she has experienced the rule-bound life of Francine’s family, not to mention the Brussels sprouts, she – and Francine – realise how excellent it is to slurp spaghetti sauce and occasionally have a meatball bounce to the floor.
Like Alison Lester’s Clive Eats Alligators, this follows a number of children in different activities. This time the children are babies, of a range of ethnicities. Ruby is besotted with her little brother, and with babies in general – at the museum, the exhibit that held her attention was the diorama of baby dinosaurs hatching from their eggs. An added attraction in this book is that one of the babies is named Ruby.
Much loved by Ruby, this mocks the narrator’s baby brother for his comparative helplessness. At least, we assume the baby is male, because that’s what Ruby’s baby brother Charlie is. We first read this before he was born. It has become much more popular since he became a reality. I’m not entirely comfortable with the book’s rampant condescension, but I think Ruby can tell it’s joking, and she particularly likes the last pages, where the big sister looks forward to the time when the baby will be as tall as her and able to play with her.
Ruby’s not so fond of this. I think there’s too much that she doesn’t quite recognise: the cooks in the kitchen, dough rising, New York skysline, naked boy … And the story line is weird. However, we were driving in the car the other day and she started chanting, ‘Milk in the batter! Milk in the Batter!’ So the magic of Sendak is percolating.
We picked this up at the Addison Road markets. Margaret Mahy is one of the great children’s writers, and Ruby has responded to this book appropriately. Like Sendak’s The Sign on Rosie’s Door, it has a brilliant mother who responds intelligently to her child’s fantasies. The difference is that is this case the child’s fantasy, of ‘a big, roaring, yellow, whiskery lion in the meadow’, turns out to be real, and so does the mother’s counter-fantasy of a dragon in a matchbox who will chase the lion away. Not a word out of place, this is irresistible, and – like the Sendak books – a pleasure to read aloud.
Libby Gleeson (writer) and Freya Blackwood (illustrator), Banjo and Ruby Red (Little Hare 2013)
A dog and a chook overcome initial relationship difficulties to become good friends. What’s not to love? We used to visit some urban chickens when Ruby was much smaller (her word for chicken as ‘babook’, but she eventually decided to go with the consensus). She still talks about the family dog who died some time ago – ‘It’s very sad.’ And relationship difficulties seem to be an issue as she spends more time in childcare. Plus, the chook’s name is Ruby Red. I don’t imagine the Australian farm setting is any more familiar to our inner-city girl than Sendak’s New York skyline, but in this case that doesn’t seem to matter.
This book is also a pleasure to read aloud, for the pathos of a scene where Ruby Red is apparently lifeless as much as for the pages where Banjo does a lot of barking and for the way movement can be traced in great arc across the pages in Freya Blackwood’s illustrations
This is my round-up post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.
The challenge was established in 2012 to raise awareness of Australian women’s writing. I signed up in 2013, and it’s probably fair to say that my reading habits have been transformed and my mind enriched. This year, I read a total of 24 books by Australian women writers, well over the goal of ten that I’d set for myself. Here they are, with links to my blog posts:
Five of the books were written by First Nations women. The list doesn’t include journals or anthologies.
Now I’ve signing up for another year, at the Franklin level, which means I aim to read and review 10 books by Australian women in 2021.
On a related topic, I’ve done a quick gender check on books I read this year. Counting comics, but not journals, anthologies or picture books (apart from Tohby Riddle’s sublime The Astronaut’s Cat), I read:
31 by women
32 by men
I read 7 books in translation (one each from Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, Korean, French, Swedish and German), and 3 in their original French. In addition to the five books by First Nations women I read one by a First Nations man.
I’ll do a separate post where the Emerging Artist and I pick our favourite books and movies of the year.
One of the chaps on the Book Group told us that he was a year behind Scott Morrison at school – I think it was Sydney Boys High. We all fell silent, expecting a revealing anecdote, but all he could come up with was a story about a football team to which both he and the current Prime Minister of Australia belonged being left to fend for themselves in the wilds of Bondi Junction, having illegally partaken of alcohol. The worst my friend could say about Scott Morrison was that he was there.
The derisory nickname Scotty from Marketing didn’t come from nowhere: almost everything we know about the Prime Minister has been generated by his personal publicity machine, including his self-bestowed nickname ScoMo and photos of him at prayer, building a cubby for his daughters or working from home in jacket, shorts and thongs. So even more than for other prominent politicians it was a good idea for Black Ink to commission a Quarterly Essay profile. And who better than Katharine Murphy, political editor of Guardian Australia and a member of the Canberra press gallery for more than 20 years?
Murphy does deliver. But intervening events meant that the account of Morrison’s personality and political modus operandi had to shrink to make room for a detailed narrative of the Covid-19 pandemic in Australia and federal and state governments’ responses to it. As a political journalist, Katharine understands in her bones that a week is a long time, and the essay feels as if it is catching the moment by the tail, getting an account down on paper (or screen) even as the moment becomes something else. It makes for fascinating reading, especially from the vantage of several months into the essay’s future, which is when I’ve read it. Even the correspondence in November’s QE 80 was out-of-date before it left the presses (as in a fair bit of conjecture about the findings of the inquiry into Victorian hotel quarantine – none of it, incidentally, to be proved way off course by the actual findings).
So, what does Murphy make of Morrison? She has more access than most of us, and he did grant her an interview even in the midst of the pandemic. She acknowledges that he’s a master of controlling the narrative, in particular the narrative that concerns himself (going on what she calls ‘yes mate’ outings on talkback radio rather than granting interviews), and so she has to dig hard for her own independent observations.
Sadly, my post-it-festooned copy of the essay has disappeared along with the backpack I was carrying it about in, so I can’t quote from the essay with any confidence. One of the telling anecdotes that I recall came from Nick Xenophon, who had worked with Morrison to get some piece of legislation through the parliament. Once the thing was done, Xenophon suggested that they meet to have a cup of coffee or similar social interaction. Morrison rejected the invitation, saying something like, ‘I’m purely transactional, mate.’ Murphy argues that since becoming prime minister he has been learning to be a little more relational – that his disastrous handling of the bushfire disasters a year ago may have been a learning experience for him. Tentatively, she holds out the possibility that the man who forced bushfire survivors to shake his hand may do better next time. He’s a manager, a fixer, rather than an ideologue, and that has been Australia’s good luck, as he was able to cooperate with his ideological enemies in responding to the pandemic. The question, back in August, and again in November when the correspondence was written, was how far could that pragmatic non-ideological approach work before everything snapped back to the old battle lines.
The correspondents in QE 80 include other journalists: David Marr and Philip Coorey basically applaud the essay as necessary and well done; David Kelly is much less optimistic about Morrison’s lack of ideology. There are scholars: Damien Freeman of the Australian Catholic University categorises Murphy as a progressive commentator and says she just doesn’t understand ‘the conservative approach to public life’. Social researcher Hugh Mackay engages elegantly rather than argumentatively, suggesting that Murphy’s passing references to her own sense of local community deepening in small ways during the pandemic might usefully have been given greater prominence, as his research indicates that this has been a more general phenomenon. Celeste Liddle, self-described as ‘an Arrente woman living in Melbourne’, ‘a union organiser, social commentator and activist’, is refreshingly blunt, and complex, in her discussion of the Victorian lockdown, and the relationship between Scott Morrison and Premier Dan Andrews.
In her Reply to Correspondents, Katharine Murphy says that it was her first Quarterly Essay, and she found it ‘desperately hard’, but, she says:
the times are important, and I reported honestly, and shared what I saw. I hope the record stands the test of time.
The essay is a reminder of the crucial role played by serious. responsible journalism. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do. If you found the backpack with my copy in it, feel free to read the essay before you bring it back to me.
I’m not the intended audience for either of these books, but they’re both written, or co-written, by writers whose work I love. One of the writers is my niece. Each of the books is related to its author’s other job: Edwina is a yoga teacher when she’s not writing, and Jennifer Maiden has been employed as Writer in Residence at STARTTS (NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors).
Edwina’s book has a further subtitle on the title page: ‘Practical tools, creative activities and yoga exercises to help you cope with the loss of someone you love’. It announces itself as a self-help book. OK, I’m deeply suspicious of self-help books so, as blood’s not thicker than prejudice, I approached A Guide through Grief with my defences up.
It turns out that, yes, there are plenty of practical tools etcetera. At the end of each chapter there are several suggested activities: journalling and other writing tasks, affirmations à la Louise Hay, rituals with a New Age feel, the promised yoga exercises, and some recipes. Some or all of these may hit just the right note for some readers, and I’ve got nothing against a good recipe for chicken soup, but if that’s all there was to the book my heart would have hardened against it. (Luckily, an introductory ‘How to use this book’ explicitly invites readers to turn up their noses at some exercises, depending on taste.)
But the book is also a memoir. Edwina’s reflections on grief and loss, the need to weep and to stay connected, the importance of facing the reality rather than taking refuge in work or destructive activity of one kind or another, the passage of time – all these are entwined with accounts of personal experience. The book is rooted in her own bereavements: her father died of cancer when she was 14, her younger brother killed himself not long after, her grandmother died a peaceful death in old age, and then, devastatingly, decades later, a baby son died soon after birth. The self-help advice and suggestions have been tested in the laboratory of the writer’s own life, and she shows at least some of her workings.
I had tears in my eyes in many places. Partly this is because three of its four main deaths affected me deeply at the time. (I was ridiculously pleased to read in the paragraph about the impersonal remoteness of her brother’s funeral on page 110: ‘Only my uncle’s speech reflected the true essence of Matty’s personality.’ At least I’d been part of bucking the trend.) It’s also because Edwina can write. I happen to have read this book as I’m making my way, three pages a day, through Proust’s account of bereavement in the sixth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. I’m not suggesting that Edwina Shaw and Marcel Proust are in any way similar writers, but Proust’s description of humans as ‘amphibious creatures who are immersed simultaneously in the past and in present-time reality’, which I read this morning, resonates through Edwina’s accounts of the role of memory in grieving.
The book does an elegant two-step: it evokes one person’s experience of loss and her grieving work, and gives practical suggestions on how the reader can do their own work. I skipped the yoga and I skim-read the affirmations; you might ignore the writing exercises – which I might actually try. I doubt if I’ll ever practise a ‘visualisation’ in which I sit naked on the lap of a mother goddess, but I’ll remember Edwina’s wise aunt who said that ‘for every death there is one hundred hours’ worth of crying’. I love her argument for wrenching funerals from the control of religious institutions and for-profit enterprises. Edwina says in her introduction that this is the book she wishes someone had given her when she was 14. I hope I’d have the moral fibre to give it to someone in that situation: it could save lives.
Workbook Questions is what it says on the lid: 47 pages of carefully-devised questions intended as prompts in writing exercises for ‘Torture and Related Trauma Survivors and for Survivors of Camps and Incarceration’. So the main intended audience is limited – though an opening section of ‘General Questions’ is designed to make the book useful to anyone addressing trauma of any sort, not just torture and incarceration, which is a much broader readership/user base. It turns out that the list of questions is preceded by a 30-page ‘Conversation’ between the authors: Margaret Bennett, former Executive Director of STARTTS with a background in group therapy and counselling, and Jennifer Maiden, poet.
A more conventional presentation might have spelled out a carefully referenced rationale for the questions, probably with each question numbered for easy cross-reference: ‘The reasons for starting out with neutral questions about parents are as follows,’ etcetera.
Although such explanations are covered in the ‘conversation’, it is much more interesting and readable than that. Two women who have worked with each other and know each other well discuss the circumstances that led to this set of questions, the insights they bring from their different experiences and expertise, what they found worked in the groups, the value of writing as opposed to speaking as a way of integrating traumatic experiences, and autobiographical anecdotes.
Maiden and Bennett take turns in speaking/writing, and each turn is printed as a single paragraph. As these paragraphs can run for several pages and cover a range of topics, the reader has to do work that would be done by an editor in a more conventionally presented work, but the work pays off. I imagine that this conversation will be very useful, not only to people working with survivors of torture, trauma and incarceration, but also to to scholars interested in Jennifer Maiden’s poetry, in which these themes appear frequently.
A Guide through Grief and Workbook Questions are the 20th and 21st books I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
November verse 2:
First a paddock, now a quarry.
Ride on sheepback, ride in coal-cart
all the way to– Well I'm sorry,
who knows where? It takes a cold heart
not to quake when science gives notice
not to quail when Trump is POTUS,
not to dump Adani's deal,
not to see shit just got real.
Impervious to rhyme and reason,
evidence and sound advice,
our governments have, for a price –
praise be, and Kyrie eleison –
bent the knee to fossil fuels
like autogenocidal tools.
Judith Brett’s The Coal Curse is in part an update of Guy Pearse’s Quarterly Essay Nº 33, Quarry Vision (here’s a link to my recently-retrieved blog post about that). Much has changed in the decade between the two essays: the climate emergency has become more obviously pressing, community and business support for renewable energy has increased hugely, there’s much more scepticism about the future role of coal and gas in Australia’s economy in business circles (except, of course in the coal and gas industry). Dispiritingly, little has changed in the federal government’s hand in glove relationship with the fossil fuel industry, and the issue has become even more politicised, more enmeshed in culture wars.
This essay, Judith Brett writes in the introductory section, ‘is about the history of Australia as a commodity-exporting nation and its political consequences’:
Economic history is unfashionable nowadays. Economists focus on the modelling and management of the present and historians are more interested in stories and experience, and in uncovering diversity and neglected voices. Economic history is dry and hard to narrativise. But how a country makes its living can explain a lot.
I didn’t find this essay dry at all. Judith Brett writes with wonderful clarity. Every now and then she throws in a wry aside, an amusing factoid or a startling anecdote, but you’re never at risk of getting lost in a welter of detail or a barrage of polemic.
Here’s her argument in brief:
Australia is a trading nation. We have a small population, so exporting enables our companies to grow by reaching larger markets.
There has always been a divide between the export of commodities – wool until the 1950s, minerals since then – and manufactured goods. The first makes a lot more profit but employs many fewer people.
Because minerals export, especially coal and gas recently, is so profitable, it draws resources away from other exports and manufacturing.
With the minerals boom, our manufacturing sector has pretty much collapsed.
World markets for coal are decreasing dramatically as the rest of the world addresses climate change. Australian governments have been successfully captured by the fossil fuels lobby, and have not responded to the challenges of reality, as opposed to many in business and overwhelming public opinion.
Paraphrasing wildly now, if something doesn’t change dramatically soon, we’d better kiss our backsides goodbye.
Actually, Brett isn’t as pessimistic as that. But when she quotes an LNP Senator from Queensland saying what an honour it has been ‘to represent the Australian mining sector’ (page 62), she leaves the reader in no doubt that some politicians forget that they are, as she puts it, ‘our risk managers of last resort’.
As we expect in the Quarterly Essay, the correspondence on The Coal Curse in QE 79 is civil, nuanced and challenging. Andy Lloyd, who worked for Rio Tinto for 23 years, offers the equivalent of a ‘not all men’ argument, which blurs some of the edges of Judith Brett’s argument but makes no substantial difference. The other correspondents tend to emphasise the hopeful elements of the essay, pointing to promising activist strategies, actual developments in the business sector that indicate fossil fuels are heading for oblivion and the Australian government are likely to be left floundering behind the main game.
Stephen Bell, professor of political economy at the University of Queensland, articulates a key question that always lurks behind discussions of this sort:
Who reads this kind of history? Mostly, people already agree that coal is causing environmental devastation and the coal lobby is far too powerful. And almost certainly not those who have drunk the Coal-Aid, unless their aim is to lampoon it and its author, as the Murdoch stable is wont to do. This is the crisis of Australia’s intellectual life: the apparent impossibility of generating a constructive rational dialogue about anything in general, and about coal in particular.
(QE 79 page 128)
Martin Luther King Junior said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ We’d better hope the arc isn’t too long.
In what seems another lifetime, I was professionally immersed for something like 15 years in literature for children of primary school age – the brilliant range of writing arrayed between little children’s picture books and beginners’ chapter books at one end and YA fiction at the other. I haven’t read a lot of it since. The Girl in the Mirror reminds me of what I’m missing.
It’s a time-slip/ghost story: Maddy moves to a new home with her family. As a new girl she has to deal with school-yard politics, and find a way of making herself at home in the new house with its unruly back yard. Her parents, like so many parents in books for this age group – perhaps like so many parents in real life – are oblivious to her struggles, they can’t hear the clattering footsteps of the little-boy ghost on the stairs, and she knows it would be pointless to tell them about Charlotte, the girl from a century earlier, whom she sees in the old-fashioned mirror in her bedroom.
It turns out that Charlotte has problems with a nasty aunt, and that nastiness somehow spills over into the present, threatening the very survival of Maddy’s baby brother. The two girls help each other with their problems, and the ghost of Charlotte’s little brother, already a ghost in her time having died of whooping cough, intervenes cheerfully in Maddy’s life.
With a wonderful lightness of touch, Maddy and Charlotte show each other things about their respective ages: whalebone corsets and skits that end above the knee; the symptoms of whooping cough and the wonders of the Internet.
All that, plus a garden full of poisonous plants, and ominous redback spiders. Which leads me to Fiona McDonald’s illustrations: apart from two full-page ink drawings, most pages have a single tiny redback spider next to the page number. Then at two points in the narrative the illustrations mirror the action, and those spiders multiply and spread up the margins in a delightfully creepy way..
The Girl in the Mirror is the 18th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy of the book is a gift from the author, Full disclosure, in 2009, soon after my tenure as editor came to an end, The School Magazine published a short story, ‘Bertie’, which Jenny Blackford has expanded to become this novel.
A weirdly lit, weirdly shot, weirdly constructed showcase for Bob Dylan doing some weird revisionist versions of some mostly-early songs. Not a pleasant experience, more like a deliberately alienating one.