Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Tara June Winch’s Yield

Tara June Winch, The Yield (Hamish Hamilton 2019)

The Yield won the 2020 Miles Franklin Award, making Tara June Winch the fourth First Nations writer to win it, all of them this century. The Miles Franklin is awarded each year to a novel ‘which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases’. It’s not that ‘phases’ of Australian life that include First Nations people have been comprehensively ignored by other winners, but it’s heartening that Kim Scott (twice), Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko and now Tara June Winch have received this recognition. To echo Tara June Winch in an interview with Stephanie Convery in the Guardian (at this link), ‘It’s just about bloody time, you know?’

Ellen van Neerven, in a review in the Australian Book Review, describes The Yield as a ‘returning novel’. Like Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip it begins with a woman returning to her childhood home on the occasion of a death and re-engaging with her family’s internal politics and its history of dealing with colonisation. In this case a thirty-year-old Wiradjuri woman, August Gondiwindi, comes home after years London to the fictional New South Wales town of Massacre Plains on learning of the death of her grandfather, Poppy Albert. The painful business of picking up the threads of family life in a time of grief, facing the unfinished business that led her to leave in the first place, is made even more gruelling by the discovery that her family home is about to be destroyed by a mining company.

What makes this book stand out is that the way this story is interlaced with two other stories, each told in the first person. Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf writes a long letter to the British Society of Ethnography on 2nd August 1915, and ‘Poppy’ Albert Gondiwindi writes an annotated partial dictionary of the Wiradjuri language. The former, an Author’s Note informs us, is derived from the writings of an actual missionary who founded and ran a mission; the latter draws on the work of Dr Stan Grant Snr and linguist John Rudder, particularly The New Wiradjuri Dictionary.

As the novel progresses, with a chapter for each of these narratives, the three timelines play off against each other. The well-meaning missionary’s account of colonial violence against Wiradjuri people, and his resistance to it, is seen from a different perspective when the present day characters muse about whether he was actually a good man, or whether he was, for all his good intentions, part of the oppressive system. Though Albert tells us in the brief opening chapter what he is trying to do in compiling his dictionary, we only understand his intentions properly when we’re well into August’s timeline, and her hunt for the document becomes a key part of her story.

Contrary to what you might expect, Albert Gondawindi’s dictionary chapters are where the book really takes hold. It’s much more than a list of words and meanings. Through it, Albert (and Tara June) sets out to communicate his cultural perspective on many things, to tell parts of his personal story, and parts of the history of his place. In among the definitions, he tells the terrible story behind the disappearance of August’s much-loved sister, and he tells dark secrets of his own life. He shines through as a brilliant character, and his prose is clear and strong – with none of the awkwardness of Greenleaf’s second-language English (Greenleaf/Grünblatt hailed from what was then Prussia), or the occasional strained lyricism of August’s narrator. He has the novel’s first and last words. Here’s the opening:

I was born on Ngurambang – can you hear it? – Ngu-ram-bang. If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words. Every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language – because that is the way to all time, to time travel!

‘Can you hear it?’ The novel ends, pretty much, ‘Say it!’

The book tells harrowing tales of colonial paternalism, genocidal violence, lateral violence, ruthless capitalism, cultural theft, betrayal: and running through it, every third chapter, is an extraordinary proclamation of survival – a language survives, and with it a world – and a challenge: ‘Can you hear it? Say it.’


The Yield is the fifteenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.


Full disclosure: Opening the book to a map with the word Nurambang written across it in big letters struck a strong chord in me, as the short film I wrote with my son Alex Ryan, which he directed, came to be called Ngurrumbang. You can watch it on Vimeo here.

Ellen van Neerven’s Throat

Ellen van Neerven, Throat (UQP 2020)

This is Ellen van Neerven’s second book of poetry. It picks up the themes of the first book, Comfort Food (my post here), and expands and deepens them wonderfully (and sometimes alarmingly). van Neerven discussed the book with poet Tessa Rose at the virtual Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year. The podcast, which you can access here, spurred me to buy a copy. And I’ve just listened to the inaugural episode of UQP’s podcast series, Extraordinary Voices for Extraordinary Times, where van Neerven chats with Western Sydney poet Eunice Andrada (Soundcloud here). It feels as if they are everywhere. (Gender fluidity features in Throat, and I believe that ‘they’ is van Neerven’s preferred pronoun.)

In the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast, van Neerven reads the long poem ‘Chermy’ – about the Westfield shopping centre, Chermside – and describes its evolution as a social poem for and by her First Nations family in south-east Queensland (it’s on the Overland website, here). Another long poem, ‘The Only Blak Queer in the World’ is a similarly social poem about the poet’s identity as part of the Blak Queer community (you can read it on the SBS site, here). ‘Blak’, by the way, is a word coined by artist Destiny Deacon to signify urban First Nations people in Australia, a coining whose origins you can read about here. These two poems, appearing early in this book, provide a kind of backdrop for much of what follows. I love this from about the midpoint of ‘The Only Blak Queer’:

I hadn't yet been to Mardi Gras.

I saw the white gays and the white gaze I was used to and
then I saw Blak Queers everywhere and every conversation 
was an insight into a Blak Queer past, the street becoming a 
site of multi-time, the past-present beat, the future love, and 
forty years of Blak Queer pride spread into more than sixty 
thousand years of we-have-always-been-here.

My dance joined a big dance. I saw a Wiradjuri/Yorta Yorta 
lesbian couple who had been marching since the beginning, 
who chanted, 'Stop Police Attacks! On Gays, Women and 
Blacks!' in 1978 and they told me off for knowing fuck-all.

Every chant is a line of a continuing poem and I am 
learning the words.

You don’t have to be Blak or Queer to feel the huge joy of finding a community and a history in those lines. And you don’t have to be a 78er to love the humility in the second paragraph and the pride in the last sentence.

The book’s five loose sections all revolve around the lived experience of being Aboriginal/Blak and queer. There are poems commenting on political news, from ‘The Last Apology’ which likens Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations as the apologies of a domestic abuser (‘You want to make up and make out / with the Aboriginal flag / I want you to promise /you won’t do it again’), to ‘Four Truths and a Treaty’, which begins: ‘We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the community. No point pretendin it don’t exist’, or ‘Engaged’, a wry take on the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Some poems turn a challenging eye on white allies. ‘Expert’, for example, begins:

poor me
don't know how it happened
think I got
a non-Indigenous girlfriend
who thinks she's an expert
don't know how she got her expertise
think I'm the first one she's met

Some poems celebrate being part of the community of Aboriginal women and find strength there. There are poems of connection to Country, and poems of travel – solidarity found with Indigenous people elsewhere, and dread at returning to Australia. ‘Questions of Home’ ends:

I brace my self so much on arrival
I forget to breathe.

There are joyful poems about queer relationships. My favourite lines in the whole book (from ‘Pleasure Seeking’):

Tell her ...
go'n, tell her ...
you're not really dating
unless you're dating each other's ancestors

Like Comfort Food, this book features a number of poems responding to works by other artists and writers, including Destiny Deacon ( ‘Portrait of Destiny’), Kerry Reed-Gilbert (‘White Excellence’), Candy Royalle (‘Queens’), Michelle De Kretser (‘Questions of Travel’ and perhaps two other poems), Alice Walker (‘All that is loved (can be saved)’), an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery (‘Body Flow’). In a category of its own is ‘HOMOFOMO’, brief, bitterly hilarious descriptions of eight (imaginary?) queer-themed mainstream movies.

It’s a rich, accessible, many-faceted collection from a strong, challenging and self-questioning voice. I had to use a search engine occasionally, but each time it was rewarding. I laughed a number of times. There is at least one too-much-information moment, but I think my embarrassed averting of the gaze was exactly the response the poet would have expected of me.

There’s so much to respond to but as usual I’ll just pick one poem to talk about in detail. Here’s ‘Call a Spade a Spade’. It wasn’t my first choice, but it kept waving its arms in the air demanding my attention:

Call a Spade a Spade

a heart a heart
a diamond a diamond
a club a club
call in invasion not settlement
call it genocide not colonisation
call it theft not establishment
don't call January 26 Australia Day
don't shy away from telling the truth
do't say 'no worries' say 'I worry'
for the future of our country, our environment
if we fail to listen and to act
don't say 'we're full'
say 'we're open'
call yourself an ally
call yourself a mate

This is one of a number of poems in the book addressed to non-Indigenous/settler readers. At first glance it feels pretty prosaic, even preachy, more Facebook post or Twitter thread than poem (though of course the categories aren’t exclusive). But if you take it slowly, that is if you read it as a poem, it opens out like a fan.

The poem falls into five parts: 1) the title 2) three lines, syntactically dependent on the verb ‘call’ in the title, with the form ‘a x a x’; 2) three lines that repeat that verb, and go ‘ call it x not x’; 3) four sentences starting with ‘don’t’, two of one line each, one of three lines, and the fourth of two lines; 4) two lines, back to the word ‘call’, each with the shape ‘call yourself x’.

The title for a start: it means of course, ‘Speak plainly without euphemism or hi-falutinness’: don’t call a spade an agricultural implement. As the title of a poem by an Indigenous woman, it also evokes a term of racist abuse, and if that were the primary meaning it would be a directive to use racist language. Clearly, in this context, that’s not what the poem is about to do, but the ambiguity hangs about, subliminally posing a question about the effect of racist abuse, and unsettling the white liberal reader (which is the only kind of reader I can speak for).

The first three lines takes us to a third and mercifully harmless meaning of ‘spade’ by enumerating the card suits. But thanks to the charged ambiguity of the title, each of these suit names now resonates with a charge of its own: ‘heart’ – these are people; ‘diamond’ – wealth, greed and the profit motive are major forces in our society; ‘club’ – so is violence.

If you were reading the poem as an instructional text, the next three lines are the core: four examples of language that names the reality without pussyfooting around. The list could have included, say, ‘call it massacre not dispersal’, ‘call it Uluru not Ayer’s Rock’, ‘write Aboriginal not aboriginal’, a seemingly endless stream of injunctions.

The first of the next three lines – lines starting with ‘don’t’ – adds to the list, and locates the poem as part of the current long-running conversation about 26 January, a conversation that ranges from Stan Grant’s Australia Day and the Twitter hashtag #ChangetheDate, and so carries with it a whiff of acrimony, a suggestion perhaps that the poem so far is making demands in the spirit of what is being called ‘cancel culture’, what an open letter to Harpers Magazine signed by 150 luminaries called ‘the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides’: use the language that I am specifying here or … But then, in my reading, there’s a turn away from that tone: ‘don’t shy away from telling the truth’ could still mean ‘my truth’, but it would be a stretch. The remainder of this section moves further away with ‘don’t say”no worries” … don’t say “we’re full”‘. Although the language is still about what the speaker wants us to say or not say, these are no longer instructions on how to clean up our language. The first is an exhortation against complacency; the second quotes a battle of slogans about asylum seekers and gives it tremendous metaphorical power: ‘say “we’re open”‘ surely is an appeal to the reader to open himself up to possibility, to other people’s reality, specifically the reality of Indigenous lives.

And the final couplet brings it home: ‘call yourself an ally / call yourself a mate’. The speaker isn’t calling on us for compliance, but for active allyship (is that a word?), and then, and this is the thing that lodged in my brain and made me go back to the poem, to be a mate, with all the associations of that word. We started out with card games, we stopped off at the problematic national day and what Wikipedia says (here) may be white Australia’s national motto, and we end with mateship. This isn’t about getting the words right or conforming to the current demands of wokeness: it’s an appeal for decency and an implied offer of friendship. An ally can retain a sense of superiority; not a mate.

For me this poem is a lesson in the value of slow reading. Skimmed, there’s not a lot to it that you haven’t heard at a hundred demonstrations. Taken meditatively, it pierces the heart.

Added later: If you’re interested in a review from an Indigenous perspective, there’s ‘On the Power of Being Still’ by Wiradjuri woman Janine Leane in the Sydney Review of Books, link here.


Throat is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


This review is a late contribution to Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers blog.

Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort Food

Ellen van Neerven, Comfort Food (UQP 2016)

tl;dr: This is a terrific book. If you want a proper, thoughtful, well-informed review, you could read ‘Caitlin Mailing Reviews Ellen van Neerven’ in the Cordite Poetry Review, 22 August 2016, link here.

A poem by Ellen van Neerven made headlines late in 2017 when it appeared in the NSW Higher School Certificate exam. That it was there without the poet’s prior knowledge or consent isn’t what made the news – evidently that’s just standard practice. The headlines came from massive social-media trolling by students, all of it disgusting, much of it explicitly racist, and some of it threatening violence.

The poem was ‘Mango’, which appears on page 19 of Comfort Food. I’ve gotta say if that sweet reminiscence from when the writer was eight years old inspires you to make death threats, then you’re not a happy camper. I hope those adolescent cyber-haters have found a way past their exam-triggered, genocide-flavoured rage to seek out this book and sit with it a while.

What they would find is a generous, richly varied collection of short poems in which van Neerven wrangles into words some of what it means to be a particular First Nations person in Australia. van Neerven is a Yugambeh woman from south-east Queensland, living – according to my reading of the poems – in inner-city Melbourne, and that simple statement contains enough complexity for any number of poems.

The book is in six untitled sections of uneven length. Food is a strong motif, from chips to kangaroo tails in a wide range of situations, not all of them comforting or comfortable by a long shot (though the old use of ‘comfort’ to mean ‘strengthening’ is somewhere there). The poems do keep coming back to food, and the effect is to assert the poet’s survival and to remind the reader of what we have in common, even when hard matters of racism and genocide are being canvassed.

If you want a considered review of the whole book, I recommend Caitlin Mailing’s review in the Cordite Poetry Review (link here) or Kylie Thompson’s in Westerly (link here). When I started writing about it I couldn’t get past the first poem, ‘Whole Lot’, so I’m not going to even try.

‘Whole Lot’ is a response to Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s monumental painting Big Yam Dreaming (there’s a photo, and the poem, at this link, but this is a painting that cries out to be seen in person, and the poem differs in minor but significant ways from the one in the book). The poem’s title is taken from the artist’s reply when asked what the painting was about: ‘Whole lot, that’s whole lot.’ (I’m grateful for a note at the back of the book, without which I might have been baffled at first reading of the poem and not returned to it.)

The poem captures an experience of standing in front of that painting, of letting it work on the viewer. Let me walk you through my reading of it, stanza by stanza. Feel free to skip my commentary and just read the poem itself. First, a hint for readers who are intimidated by poetry: think of the line-endings as full stops, or at least commas. Here goes:

Whole Lot

family, earth
dingo, eagle
fire, food
Whole Lot
it’s all of those things

These opening lines reflects on what ‘Whole Lot’ means for the speaker. These are not the elements that Emily Kame Kngwarreye named in the rest of her reply I didn’t quote above – she spoke of her Dreaming, yams, lizards, emus. This is not an explication of the painting. It’s a response to it.

what we eat comes from our roots
if we stop sharing there will be nothing 

At a literal level, the painting represents a yam’s complex root system, which gives rise to this fairly abstract reflection. I read ‘we’ here as referring to all of humanity. The book’s food theme is introduced. The second line of this couplet follows logically from the first because of the implied metaphor: our spirits are nourished by contact with our roots, and we make that contact by sharing. But then:

we start with black
let it get hold of you
look at the stars
or are you afraid to?

Here, ‘we’ are the people who are looking at the painting with the poem’s speaker. Our attention shifts to the painting’s black background, beyond the complex interconnection of yam roots, as a place to start seeing it, surrendering to it. But ‘we’ is also all humanity, and ‘black’ could be a reference to our African origins, or the darkness of the womb, or, as the next line narrows it down, the blackness of the night sky, so that the painting’s complex lines are now constellations. You almost don’t notice the shift from ‘we’ to ‘you’ in the second line. Maybe here the painting is speaking to the viewer, including me/us, the poem’s reader/s.

The fourth line evokes for me a whole tradition in European literature where the night sky, the space behind the stars, is the subject of existential dread: Blaise Pascal, grim 17th century Christian, wrote, ‘Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinies m’effraie / The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me’; Kenneth Slessor, in his poem ‘Stars’, spoke of ‘Infinity’s trap-door, eternal and merciless.’ But here, rather than a statement, it’s a question about fear, asked of ‘you’, and I don’t think it’s the same fear as Pascal and Slessor were taking about: it’s not so much fear of infinite emptiness and silence, of nothingness, as a fear of facing an underlying and possibly sustaining reality.

the day shows
country spread open
a map of all that was and will be
don’t forget it
I’m tracing it to remember
don’t be scared

Underground, the night sky, and now a map of the land in daylight. A painting like Big Yam Dreaming can sustain multiple readings. In this stanza the painting speaks to us, offering – I’ll use the word because it’s in the book’s title – comfort. It’s not comfort as a gentle soothing, but a promise of knowledge that will fortify, a solid sense of totality that you can hold in memory. The painting is not just a decorative object, but a source of strength.

In this stanza ‘I’ appears for the first time. There are no capital letters in the whole poem except for ‘Whole Lot’, ‘I’, and later ‘Mibunn’. It may be idiosyncratic of me but I think of John Henry Newman writing in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua that there were ‘two luminous beings, myself and my Creator’. In this poem there are just three capitalised beings: the speaker, the painting and Mibunn. In this stanza, though, I’m not sure if ‘I’ is the painting or its viewer.

we are not here until we sit here
we sit in silence and we are open
there are different kinds of time
I hope you'll understand

What a brilliant description of sitting in front of a great work of art and letting it work on you.

sing it
I want this to be here
when I leave again
I’ve been leaving a lot of times
it doesn’t mean I want to
there is no easy way to cry
tell them I’ll be back soon
when I come back and sit here
I want to still see Mibunn
powering through the sky

On first reading I thought this was somehow about death and reincarnation. And you may read it like that. But my mind has settled on a reading at the level of a relationship with a painting. That shifty ‘I’ has settled on being the painting’s viewer. And there is no more ‘we’: the poem is now intensely personal, having left generalisations behind. After the stillness of the previous stanza, this one begins with elation – what comes next is to be sung. I will leave the painting reluctantly, as I have many times before, but it’s important to me that it’s still here, and I will return to it.

In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker’s Indigenous identity comes into play explicitly for the first time. I had to look up ‘Mibunn’: it’s the wedge tail eagle, a totem of the Yugambeh people, harking back to the eagle in the first stanza. Somehow, Big Yam Dreaming by a great Anmatyerre artist from the Northern Territory can speak to a Yugambeh poet from south-east Queensland through a painting in a gallery in Melbourne, remind her of deep cultural truths. As a settler Australian reader of the poem, I feel welcomed to read/listen without feeling that I’m eavesdropping.

let me tell you with my skin
under the earth we will find
Whole Lot
it’s all of those things

Here it’s the poet speaking to her reader. I hear her as saying that her encounter with the painting has deepened her sense of connection to her Yugambeh cultural roots. ‘with my skin’ refers to her blac(k)ness, ‘under the earth’ to the subject of the painting, and the poem ends with a direct quote from the artist.

Enjoying a poem is one thing. Saying why is another thing altogether. This poem has pulled me in, and kept me there for any number of readings over the last weeks. Maybe it’s that it establishes such a solid ground of shared humanity at a deep level – a level I associate with religious intensity – before moving to specifically Indigenous experience, where I can’t follow, but it’s there for me to witness. That’s the best I can manage for now.


Comfort Food is the thirteenth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


This review is a contribution to Indigenous Literature Week hosted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers blog.

Margaret Simons’s Cry Me a River

Margaret Simons, Cry Me a River: The tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin (Quarterly Essay 77, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 78)

I came to this Quarterly Essay with dramatic images in my mind: outraged farmers making a bonfire of the newly published guide to the Murray–Darling Basin Plan in 2010; millions of dead fish near the Menindee Lakes the summer before last; die-back by the Murray and great stretches of parched river-bed in the Darling. There was also video, of water flowing down the Darling in February and finally reaching the Murray in May, for the first time in two years.

This Quarterly Essay was written before and during the fires that ended 2019 and began 2020. As Margaret Simons was finishing it there was rain over most of the Murray–Darling Basin and the renewed flow of the Darling was approaching Burke. The political environment was also shifting: in February David Littleproud was replaced as the relevant Federal minister by Keith Pitt.

The Murray–Darling river system covers more than a million square kilometres. It’s one of the largest drainage areas in the world. It’s of huge cultural significance to First Nations peoples. A huge amount of Australia’s food is produced by farmers who use water from the Murray–Darling to irrigate their crops. More than three million people rely on it for their drinking water. ‘But,’ Simons writes,

we are all in trouble. Over the latter part of the last century, it became clear that the river system was at breaking point. It could die. All that went with it – money, livelihoods, sense of nation – was at risk.

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan was developed by the Commonwealth government as ‘the first attempt to manage the Basin as a whole, and to make its use sustainable’.

The Plan is beset by what one man calls ‘politics gone feral’: the Commonwealth vs the states, state vs state (New South Wales being the stand-out non-cooperation), Barnaby Joyce, the National Party vs the Hunters and Fishers while Labor, after initially making progress, is missing in action, bureaucracy vs the people on the ground, cotton growers vs family farms, almonds vs everything else, upstream irrigators vs downstream irrigators, environmental scientists vs vested interests, accusations of theft and corruption, ‘pervasive lack of trust in governments of all complexions’, the South Australian Royal Commission giving everyone ‘a terrible pasting’. There is an alarming degree mutual incomprehension between people who live in the large cities of the south-east and those who live and work on the land.

Margaret Simons went on a road trip through all this with the aim of putting flesh on the bones of the abstract arguments. She interviewed people who were keen to have their point of view herd, and people who didn’t believe a journalist would ever represent them accurately. At one point, a companion asked her which of her interviewees would be most unhappy with the essay:

 I replied that I thought everyone would be unhappy. That is the nature of the issue, of the failure of governance, dating back more than a century, that the Murray-Darling Basin represents.

I hope she’s wrong. Many voices are heard through this essay, from Badger Bates, a Barkandji elder, to Philip Glyde, one of the bureaucrats most responsible for the implementation of the Plan. Simons doesn’t pretend to the ‘he said she said’ brand of journalistic objectivity, but she leaves room for the reader’s judgements. The result isn’t a coherent argument, but the picture that emerges is that the difficulties caused by drought have been made worse, to the point of calamity, by mismanagement and poor governance, by making water into a commodity to be traded. At the same time, she makes clear the size and complexity of the challenge of bringing the river system back from the brink.

In the last couple of pages, Simons talks about climate change. She met only one denier, she said, but when she raised the subject with farmers, mostly the response was ‘a million-mile stare’. Reading the essay I could feel my own million-mile stare coming on: if the challenge of saving one river system from devastation under capitalism and electoral democracy is so overwhelming, what will it take to stave off the impending multi-faceted disaster from climate change?

And on that note, I turned to the correspondence in Quarterly Essay 78 (itself about another climate change pressure point, Australia’s coal addiction).

With the exception of an academic whose scholarly critics were given voce in the essay, and the acting chair of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, the correspondents confirm my sense that the essay presents a dependable account of the situation. A number of them expand on the theme of climate change. Some discuss the way Covid-19 changes the context by making it more problematic to import food, at least in the short run. A number of people who feature in the essay spell out their arguments more fully. Maybe I can finish by quoting the final paragraphs from Maryanne Slattery, who was a director of the Murray–Darling for more than decade, then senior water researcher for the Australia Institute, and now a director of an independent water consultancy:

The Plan is a relic of a time and a system that no longer exist. Change will be forced upon us, probably by a changing climate and the changes to society it brings about. Covid-19 has brought into the present many things we thought we could put off.

If we want two irrigated monocultures in the Basin, hollowed-put regions and reliance on other countries for our food, then the water reforms are a success. If we want a diverse agricultural sector, vibrant communities and to grow what we eat, we need new water policies, as well as policies for regional economic development. To achieve this we need to allow an honest and inclusive public debate and banish the binary rhetoric.

May this essay be widely read as a substantial contribution to public debate that doesn’t fall into for-the-Plan/against-the-Plan and other binaries.


Cry Me a River is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain

Mirandi Riwoe, Stone Sky Gold Mountain (University of Queensland Press 2020)

There are precious few books set in North Queensland. This is one. Its first epigraph is a quote from Taam Sze Pui, whose Innisfail department store, known as See Poy’s, was still going strong in my 1950s childhood, dominating the street corner opposite the gate to King George V Memorial Park. In honour of that epigraph, I’ve just retrieved from oblivion a couple of earlier posts that referred to Taam Sze Pui, here and here. It reads:

To search for gold was like trying to catch the moon at the bottom of the sea.

So Mirandi Riwoe had me at the epigraph. She kept me with her story-telling. A young Chinese woman Ying and her brother Lai Yue have come to the Palmer River goldfields in North Queensland in the mid 19th century, intending to return home when they have accumulated enough wealth to save their mother from poverty and buy their siblings back from servitude. Their story unfolds in triplets, each comprising a chapter from Ying’s point of view, a second from Lai Yue’s, and a third from the point of view of Meriem, a young white woman who is the maid to a sex worker in Maytown, a settlement close to the goldfield.

The book is firmly within an Australian tradition. There are echoes of Henry Handel Richardson in the descriptions of goldfields hardships; of Joseph Furphy in the woman disguised as a boy to survive in the harsh male world; of Henry Lawson in the man going quietly desperately mad in a lonely shepherd’s hut; of Barbara Baynton in the brutal violence endured by Meriem’s employer. But that tradition expands before our eyes as Chinese characters take centre stage, dealing with harsh oppression as well as the generally harsh conditions, escaping into an opium haze, negotiating issues around language and names (‘Jimmy’ or ‘Wui Hing’), reaching tentatively and sometimes tenderly across the racial divide, communing with the ghosts of those left behind, balancing the yearning for home against the appeal of the freedoms in the new land.

The Chinese characters are not absolved of complicity in the violent dispossession of First Nations people, and I was relieved when the possibility of romance was raised only to be sorrowfully dismissed. The story moves along so smoothly that you hardly notice how much of this is new in an Australian historical novel, and how much you trust that it’s underpinned by solid research.

Thanks, Mirandi Riwoe, for adding so elegantly to the slender stock of books about the place I came from.


Stone Sky Gold Mountain is the eleventh book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lisa Gorton’s Empirical

Lisa Gorton, Empirical (Giramondo 2019)

This is a book in two sections. The first, shorter section. ‘Empirical’, consists of eight poems related to Melbourne’s Royal Park. The second, ‘Crystal Palace’, deals with works of art – the Aphrodite of Melos/Venus de Milo, poems by Rimbaud and Coleridge.

A disclaimer: I’m not a critic. If you want to read a discussion of this book by someone who understands contemporary poetics, I recommend Michael Farrell’s flashily academic review in the Sydney Review of Books (link here) or David McCooey’s in ABR (link here), which is accessible in full only to subscribers.

The first seven poems, ‘Empirical’ I to VII, are deeply rooted in a particular place. The first poem (which you can read here) begins with a description:

A factory, the train line curving off
to cross the motorway – between them this
falling away of ground – two or three acres
where for years the council trucks
brought building rubble – mounds of shattered concrete,
brick shards, piping, steel mesh heaped here
where grass succeeds itself and flowering weeds

The poem’s speaker walks into ‘the wreckage’, and the reader, this one at least, is right there with her. Then the perspective shifts, as I read it, to the speaker’s subjectivity: she is transported to a place from her early life, perhaps a kind of template of place:

and it is the first place, place itself
grown inward to my sight, along the side of the house,
in the playground where dry ground
slants to the fence

And now I start to have trouble following. The weeds ‘have made for me a heraldry of my forgetting’, perhaps like the smell of the madeleine dipped in tilleul for Proust,

__________________________ and set me here
in its abyss giving the bright scenes place –
which is to say I have not seen it yet

This isn’t difficulty for its own sake, but a struggle to articulate what is happening for the speaker: the first thirteen lines have established the physical reality of the place, but all she can actually see is what she brings to it, so it becomes impossible to see in its own right. That’s a familiar line of reasoning among philosophers of epistemology, but here it’s not so much a line of reasoning as a description, even an enactment, of a mental process. Then the speaker takes a leap to imagine what it is that she cannot see. The place, the poem ends, is

__________________________ to itself a storm
perpetually in the front of light –

I can’t paraphrase that, and I don’t think I’m meant to. It’s reaching for something that can’t quite be said. The dash at the end suggests to me that the poem hasn’t so much finished as gone as far as it can go and then stopped.

Each of the seven ‘Empirical’ poems begins similarly with physical description, and ends similarly with a non-conclusive dash, with a similar play between what the place is in and of itself on the one hand, and what the observer/poet/artist can make of it on the other.

The eighth poem, ‘Royal Park’, begins with an echo of the start of the first poem:

A factory, the train line curving off to cross the motorway –

The reader realises, if she, or he, hasn’t already read the cover blurb, that the ‘two or three acres’ of the first seven poems is Melbourne’s Royal Park, or at least part of it.

This is a longer poem, which I found completely engrossing. It tells the history of that piece of ground, beginning with Batman and ‘what he called his treaty’. It consists mainly of a kind of collage of quotes – what the academics ‘bricolage’. A list of sources in a note up the back takes four pages: archival documents, paintings, maps, newspaper stories, learned articles. The park has been the site of a zoo, an orphanage and truant school combined, a quarantine station, a digging ground for beginners in geology, an exhibition ground for the ‘Centennial Exhibition’, a military camp, a rifle range, a Military Mental Hospital, a public recreation area. And for each of these incarnations there’s colour and movement.

In an author’s note that the publisher enclosed with my review copy, Lisa Gorton writes:

I was provoked by a statement in a heritage assessment of Royal Park that Andrew Long and Associates carried out for the government, in preparation for the East-West Link: ‘This location would not appear to have been of great likely attraction to Aboriginal past populations given its distance to local watercourses.’ This claim seemed to me to epitomise how a manufactured landscape can conceal the history of country. The ground now named Royal Park opened out alongside the Moonee Moonee chain of ponds … The dark and remarkable history of this patch of ground set up a drama of surface and depth, remembering and forgetting.’

The poem doesn’t presume to speak of or for the Aboriginal people whose country this is. It’s a colonial history of that patch of ground. It’s a mighty act of reclaiming collective memory.

In the second part of the book, the longest poem ‘Life Writing’, subtitled ‘Of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan‘, does bricolage on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his poem ‘Kubla Khan’, the historical Kublai Khan, and a constellation of related subjects. It’s likewise full of bright colour and engaging movement, though possibly because it doesn’t have the chronological through-line of ‘Royal Park’, I fond I got lost a number of times.

I am in awe of Lisa Gorton’s erudition and her ability to put words together. I’m grateful for the moments of deep pleasure I’ve found in this book.


Empirical is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing, for which I am grateful.

Ruby Reads 21: Books lent by a blog reader

I’m doing proportionally more posts about children’s books just now because this Covid lockdown is giving me more time than ever with granddaughter Ruby, and concomitantly less time for other reading.

After my last post about books I’ve read with Ruby, a lovely friend/blog reader lent me a swag of books she thought we’d enjoy. This is that swag:

Ian Falconer, Olivia Saves the Circus (Atheneum 2001)

The original Olivia has been a big success. Ruby talks about Olivia’s little brother Ian quite a lot and doesn’t want to go pink at the beach ‘like Olivia’. So this book, in which Olivia tells her class at school how she stepped into the breach when the circus performers were all sick, was very welcome. Although Ruby is a long way from getting the classroom jokes – the teacher is sceptical of Olivia’s tall tales and forces a near-admission of untruthfulness – she asks for the book on repeat. Olivia’s bold inventiveness is pretty irresistible.


Alison Lester, Clive Eats Alligators (OUP 1985)

The first spread of this gives us six children eating breakfast, all different. Turn to the next spread: the text on the left-hand page reads ‘But Clive eats alligators,’ and the image on the right shows Clive, perhaps disappointingly, eating a cereal called Alligator Pops. The book continues with Getting Dressed, Playing, Lunch, Shopping, Pets, Treats and Bedtime. Each of the seven children has a turn at having a spread to her or himself. The fun is in tracing any one of them through the book and seeing how their interests play out in the different contexts: the girl who loves horses, the bookish boy, and so on.


Shirley Hughes, Chatting (Walker Books 1994)

Shirley Hughes is one of the great children’s illustrators of the 20th century. The endpapers of this book are 18 wonderful, warm cameos of active small children, each with a present participle beneath it: laughing, aching, pushing, pouring, and so on. The body of the book picks up on one of these cameos, ‘chatting’. and rings variations on it. The first person narrator is a little girl who likes to chat, who is bored when adults chat for too long, whose mother calls her a chatterbox, whose best chats of all are with her dad when he comes to say goodnight. The illustrations are great, but not very enticing to Ruby, and the theme is a bit lost on her too, I think. (For my part, I rankled vicariously at the ‘chatterbox’ criticism.)


Vera B Williams, “More More More,” Said the Baby (Greenwillow Books 1990)

Subtitled ‘Three Love Stories’, this is exactly that. In three separate stories a small child – a toddler rather than a baby – has a great time with an adult and cries out, ‘More. More. More.’ Except , that is, for the third one, because she’s asleep and just says, ‘Mmm. Mmmm. Mmmm.’ Done in consciously arty gouache, and with attention to diversity, this is very sweet. It doesn’t have the dramatic hold of Olivia or Rosie (see below), but it’s terrific.


Ruth Krauss (writer) and Maurice Sendak (Illustrator), A Hole Is to Dig (Harper Collins 1952)

Subtitled ‘A first book of first definitions’, this is just that – a collection of definitions, mostly in the form ‘X is to y’: ‘A watch is to hear it tick,’ ‘A mountain is to go to the top,’ ‘A mountain is to go to the bottom,’ ‘A package is to look inside.’ The text is witty and charming, but what makes the book brilliant are the pen-drawing illustrations by Maurice Sendak, then 24 years old. It’s a book to treasure. Ruby doesn’t care for it at all.


Maurice Sendak, The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960)

Stung by Ruby’s indifference to the 1952 Sendak, I retrieved this chapter book from our bookshelves, expecting it to sail right past her. The book has been on high rotation ever since.

You can see Meryl Streep reading the first half of the book at Maurice Sendak’s 80th birthday party, complete with slides of Sendak’s drawings, at this link. In that half, Rosie becomes Alinda the Lovely Lady Singer. In the second half, which is even better, she becomes Alinda the Lost Girl (‘Who lost you?’ ‘I lost myself.’) and a giant firecracker, and finally (spoiler alert) a sleepy cat. So many lines in this book make my heart sing. It was inspired by children Sendak saw playing in the street outside his window in Brooklyn, in particular the little girl who ran the show. Like Ruby, Rosie creates a lot of fun, and takes on a range of identities as she goes. I love them both.


Clive Eats Alligators is the ninth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

Ruby reads 20: Lockdown?

In the mainstream narrative grandparents everywhere are pining for their socially distanced grandchildren. The Emerging Artist and I have meanwhile been quietly sailing against the current, with more contact than ever, pending our little one being rid of flu-like symptoms. She comes to our place three days a week, and our small collection of children’s books has been much called on. When Gleebooks at Dulwich Hill reopened recently, we fell on its non-virtual shelves with cries of joy and came away with arms full.

Here are some of the old and some of the new.


Libby Gleeson (writer) and Jedda Robaard (Illustrator), Soon (Little Hare 2020)

This is brand new and has already been requested/demanded many times. It may be a mistake to give a toddler who is obsessed with babies a book about waiting for a new baby to be born, but if so it’s a mistake that’s hard to resist. We wait, wait, wait. We clean, clean, clean. We paint, paint, paint. And just about all the mother mouse has to say on the subject is, ‘Soon.’ You don’t need me to tell you the ending, but I will say that it is emotionally very satisfying. Libby Gleeson’s incantatory text and Jedda Robaard’s calm, charged images make this a joy to read together. (The birth itself, like the devouring of the apple in Grug and the Big Red Apple, happens offstage.)


Ian Falconer, Olivia (Simon & Schuster 2000)

Olivia is a great artist and dancer trapped in the body of an anthropomorphised pig and the persona of a six year old girl. The back-cover praise from dame Joan Sutherland, Mikhail Baryshnikov and David Hockney, at least one of them written posthumously, are just one of the delights for adult readers. A 2 and a half year old seems to be delighted as well. Olivia argues, paints, dances, fusses about her clothes (which I’m glad to report are all bright red, no pink in sight), and is generally fabulous on pages with acres of white space.


Julia Donaldson (writer) and David Roberts (illustrator), Jack and the Flumflum Tree (Macmillan Children’s Books 2011)

We may have gleaned this from a street library a while back. In it the enormously prolific Julia Donaldson teams up with illustrator David Roberts for a quest story. Jack’s granny has spots and the only cure is the fruit of the faraway flumflum tree. Jack and friends sail away, face many challenges in which the contents of a patchwork sack come in handy. It bounces along, and ends with a terrible pun. I think Ruby likes it because it’s got sharks in it, and they’re almost as interesting as the big bad wolf or a bear.


Cressida Cowell (writer) and Neal Layton (illustrator), Emily Brown and the Thing (Hodder CHildren’s Books 2007)

Cressida Cowell wrote How to Train Your Dragon, which I haven’t had the pleasure of reading yet. She has also created a whole series of Emily Brown books: in this one, Emily Brown and her old rag rabbit Stanley keep trying to go to sleep but are kept awake by a weird creature, a ‘Thing’, who demands that they perform great feats to help him. They perform the feats – retrieving his cuddly (we say ‘blanky’) from the Dark and Scary Wood, fetching a glass of milk from the Wild and whirling Wastes, and so on. In the end Emily refuses to pander any more, and everyone gets a good sleep. We love this one.


And now a couple more Julia Donaldson titles. Is anyone else finding that her books are multiplying like mice? Nice mice, of course.

Julia Donaldson (writer) and Axel Scheffler (illustrator), The Smartest Giant in Town (Macmillan Children’s Books 2002)

Here Julia Donaldson is teamed up with Axel Scheffler, the co-creator of her most famous book, The Gruffalo.

This is a tale told in prose that allows the reader-aloud to burst into song at the end of each of its episodes. A scruffy giant wanders into town and buys a smart new outfit. Then, in fairytale rhythms, he gives one item of flash clothing after another away to animals in distress. In the end, he retrieves his scruffy old clothes from the garbage outside the clothes shop, and is reconciled to his scruffy status. But them the animals he has helped turn up and celebrate his kindness. This is amiable and charming. The text is beautifully honed, and the illustrations are full of unexpected joys – other giants can be seen among the rooftops and characters from fairytales pass the giant on the road without comment.


Meanwhile, the parents had felt the need for variation and bought a number of books online, among them:

Julia Donaldson (writer) and Axel Scheffler (illustrator), Zog (Scholastic 2016)

Told in the bouncing rhyme that I think of as Julia Donaldson’s typical mode, and which is a lot harder to do than it looks, this one plays sweet variations on the dragon theme. As young Zog learns all the basic dragon skills he is helped out by a girl who happens to turn up just as he gets into trouble. When he has to capture a princess, well, guess who turns out to be one? And when a knight comes to rescue the princess, I don’t think you’ll guess what happens, but it’s a most satisfactory ending with a most satisfactory variation on the tale’s recurring refrain.


Besides the books, there’s the scooter, the dolls, the trampoline, the cooking, the painting, the songs and the athletic challenges – all making worthwhile the weariness come 6 o’clock


Soon is the eight book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics

Natalie Harkin, Archival-Poetics (Vagabond Press 2019)

This is an extraordinary book. To quote from the eloquent and accurate cover blurb:

Archival-Poetics is an embodied reckoning with the State’s colonial archive and those traumatic, contested and buried episodes of history that inevitably return to haunt … Family records at the heart of this work highlight policy measures targeting Aboriginal girls from removal into indentured domestic labour

I like that word ’embodied’. There have been many books that are based on archival research, and more than a few that describe the process of archival research, including research into the history of the stolen generations and stolen wages. This book – actually three very slim books in a slipcase – takes the reader into the experience. The titles of the three books – ‘Colonial Archive’, Haunting’ and ‘Blood Memory’ – indicate the process of increasing immersion into the poet’s family history: first there are narratives to be read and decoded, then as the imagination engages further it is as if those young women are returning like ghosts from the past, and finally, a realisation that there is a deeper richer connection, a sense of belonging.

Archival-Poetics is categorised as poetry, and has deservedly won or been shortlisted for a number of poetry prizes. But, like African-American Claudia Rankine’s Pulitzer-winning Citizen, it pushes well past the generally understood boundaries of that category. There’s a lot of straightforward prose. Natalie Harkin writes of ‘an unassuming warehouse holding the State’s Aboriginal Records archives’ – the State, in this case, being South Australia, in Kaurna country. She reflects on the nature of memory, official records and oral history. There are excerpts from government documents, Aboriginal people’s personal letters, newspapers and women’s magazines. There are brilliantly apposite quotes from other Aboriginal artists (Julie Gough, Judy Watson, Vernon Ah Kee). French theory is invoked – and for what it’s worth, this is the first time I’ve read a Jacques Derrida quote that makes me want to read its source. And there are images of artworks, including the three cover photographs of a basket woven from torn up photocopies of letters from the archives.

A lot of the poetry lies in the juxtaposition of these elements. For example, page 28 of the second book, gives two would-be amusing anecdotes from The Australian Woman’s Mirror in the 1920s: vile, condescending references to Aboriginal girl servants. At the top of page 29, there’s a brief quote from the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association from the same time beginning ‘… girls of tender age and years are torn away from their parents’, and beneath that, this poem, as if a song is wrung from the archive reader’s heart:

APRON SORROW
apron-folds and pockets --- keep secrets
--pinned--- tucked-- hidden
------they whisper into linen-shadows-- that flicker-float with the sun 
------------– hung -
--------- limp on the breeze they sway
------------------------------------- a rhythmic sorrow.

There are ‘odes’ – rhyming poems, but laid out without line breaks, so that the reader is invited to slow down and unearth the verse form, in a process analogous to the way a researcher has to unearth information from impersonal bureaucratic language. Three austerely modern sonnets in ‘Hauntings’ tell three girls’ stories.

A series of prose poems, ‘Memory Lessons’, form a kind of philosophical backbone, with almost Proustian reflections on the nature of memory. The third book ends with a letter that begins, ‘Dear Nana’.

I hope that gives you some idea of this book. It contains hard truths about Australia’s history, and the conveys pain of unearthing them in their particularity. The form isn’t always easy for people not at ease with contemporary poetics, but it’s not difficult for its own cryptic-crossword-like sake. And it’s physically gorgeous – hats off to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Books for a brilliant design.

Archival-Poetics is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jennifer Maiden's Espionage Act

Jennifer Maide, The Espionage Act (Quemar Press 2020)

In May 2019 Julian Assange was indicted on 17 counts of violating the USA’s Espionage Act. It’s the kind of event we’re used to reading about in journalistic language: what and why and when and how and where and who, though not necessarily in that order. You can click here to see how the New York Times reported it.

Jennifer Maiden’s books for the last decade or more have dealt with that kind of incident, but done it obliquely, in imagined scenes that usually begin with the ‘waking up’ of a historical or fictional character who is somehow connected with the news item. As Assange was taken from the Ecuadorean embassy in London, he was clutching a copy of Gore Vidal’s History of the National Security State: in the first poem in this book, ‘Resistance’, Vidal wakes up beside Assange in a London Magistrate’s Court. He does it again, in prison, in four more poems, in one of which they are joined by a newly awake Emma Goldman – who, we are told by Vidal, was sentenced under the same act in 1917 – and in another by Diana Spencer.

These are political poems, but no one would call Maiden ‘our protest poet’ as a recent headline did, reductively, the late Bruce Dawe. Her imaginary dialogues have a clear point of view, but they are exploratory rather than declamatory. In ‘Resistance’, for instance, Vidal’s ruminations are a means to inform the reader (or remind her, if she’s better informed than I am) that the magistrate presiding in Assange’s hearing ‘was the one who had / stopped a private prosecution of Tony Blair for war crimes’, and to remind us (or inform, etc.) of the circumstances of Assange’s removal from the Ecuadorean embassy. But Vidal does exist as a fictional creation, anxious to know if Assange liked his book, vain about his own quotability, dropping the occasional name from high society. Lady Diana wears the dress she was buried in to remind us ‘of the easiness with which one ignores murder,’ but flairs the dress out, ‘actress-fashion’. In these poems, it’s as if Maiden puts two or more characters in dialogue to see what she thinks about something, but they are invariably more than just mouthpieces for ideas.

There are two other sets of dialogues in this book. In five poems, Maiden’s longstanding characters George and Clare converse, have sex, look after their toddler son, Corbyn. George chats on the phone to Donald Trump and a friend in the CIA. Three poems feature an Australian critic, who chats with Jackson Pollock and Brett Whiteley (in front of Blue Poles in Canberra), with Dorothy Wordsworth (and quotes to her the passage from her diaries that her brother drew on for his famous poem about daffodils), and with Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who doesn’t like the term ‘magic realism’).

There are other poems – one responds to a comment, reproduced on the back cover, that Maiden should be considered for the Nobel Prize; three feature her recent creation, a cute little marsupial named Brookings (after the Brookings Institution); one features Alan Turing; several ‘Diary Poems’, ruminate on the Federal Police raid on the ABC, on Jeffrey Epstein’s death in prison, on the Australian ‘poetry wars’, on the writing and reception of other poems in the book.

If there’s an overall subject, it’s the way reactionary politics infiltrates and influences the general culture, belittles creativity and promotes art that serves its purposes. And what it means to struggle against that influence.

It needs someone more learned than I am to talk about the formal qualities of the poems. I’ll just mention one thing. Have a look at the opening lines of the title poem, ‘The Espionage Act’:

Emma Goldman woke up uneasily in Belmarsh Prison Hospital.
She recognised the sharp shape of a reading Gore Vidal,
who was watching over Julian Assange, curled foetal
in a prison sheet not blanket, not at all
well, she thought, but fragile as an angel.
Death had made her even more maternal
and she had always been motherly, since a girl.
Vidal gave her his usual tough smile:
'I've really been expecting you for a while'

You could read this as prose that’s been interrupted by an occasional line break, but if you did you’d be missing a lot. You might not notice, but this is rhyming verse. All 56 lines of this poem end in ‘l’. Sometimes there’s a full rhyme like ‘smile’ and while’, or later ‘fall’, all’ and ‘recall’. Once you notice it, the effect is hypnotic, but if even without your noticing it the lines have a wonderful musicality that pushes the narrative forward.

I’ve been reading and rereading this book for a while now. I’ve been learning about history (I think of Muriel Rukeyser’s repeated line, ‘Pay attention to what they tell you to forget’), making connections between things I’ve known and kept in silos in my mind, and questioning received versions of things, all with Jennifer Maiden’s insistent music in my ears.

A sampler of the poems from this book are online at the Quemar website, at this link, including ‘Resistance’, ‘Except’, ‘Brookings Gets A Helmet’, ‘George Jeffreys: 25: George Jeffreys Woke Up on Abu Musa Island’, ‘The Espionage Act’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Fear’, ‘Clare’s Dream’, ‘Brookings Tries Out Ubiquity’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Alan Turing’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Poetry Wars’, ‘What if all the village were vampires?’ and ‘Maximum Security’.

The Espionage Act is the sixth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.