Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Jenny Blackford’s Girl in the Mirror

Jenny Blackford, The Girl in the Mirror (illustrated by Fiona McDonald, Eagle Books 2019)

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.

Julie Janson’s Benevolence

Julie Janson, Benevolence (Magabala Books 2020)

Before the Meeting: Generally, if I read a book about a marginalised group I try to read one by someone from that group soon after. Even though both Truganini (the Book Group’s last title) and The Colony (which I read just before Truganini) are committed to telling colonial history with First Nations perspectives to the fore, they are both written by white/settler women. So I was happy when this book by Julie Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Aboriginal Nation, was chosen for the Book Group.

Julie Janson has described the novel as ‘a First Nations response to The Secret River by Kate Grenville’:

[The Secret River] is a wonderful book, but I was challenged by the ending where all the Burruberongal Darug people died in a massacre except for one old man. I asked myself the question: if all the Darug died, who were we?

I had researched my (Aboriginal) family history along the Hawkesbury River, and the Darug interpretation of those early days of colonial invasion is entirely different.

(Link to Booktopia interview here)

Benevolence (the title is deeply ironic) tells the story of Muraging, a Burruberongal woman whose parents give her up to a missionary-run school in 1816 when she is very young, in the hope that she will gain resources there to survive in the colonised world. Renamed Mary, she learns to read, write and play the violin, and resists attempts to make her give up on her culture, language and people. She runs away with a handsome young Aboriginal man, and what follows is a picaresque account of her travels, moving back and forth between the two cultures – now living with a group of women who have lost their men to the frontier wars, now a servant to a clergyman with whom she has a consensual sexual relationship that eventually goes very sour, now wandering with her small daughter, a servant again, a disregarded listener to callous conversations about massacre and rape, a speaker of truth to power. She finds occasional kindness and mostly avoids threats of violence and sexual assault. She spends time in prison, is often hungry, loses her daughter, has a second child after having sex with a French man in return for a bag of flour. She never gives up the search for her family and a place where she can live among her people.

It’s a story of navigating the harsh conditions of colonisation. The Aboriginal people and communities that Mary encounters are not pathetic victims, and aren’t romanticised as automatically safe and nurturing, but at the end of the novel, she finds a home in a community of survivors – precarious, under threat, but solid.

Each chapter has a year in its heading title, and most begin with a brief note on what is happening in the colony: in 1826 Darling becomes Governor of the colony; in 1832 Kings School opens in Parramatta; in 1835 Governor Bourke proclaims terra nullius; also in 1835 King William IV recognises the continued rights to land for Aboriginal people in South Australia. These landmarks serve to anchor the narrative in settler history, but most bear little direct relation to Mary’s struggles.

There are many painful scenes with settlers: the unashamedly white supremacist Reverend Masters, the weak Reverend Smythe (her first child’s father), Smythe’s insufferably prim and nasty wife Susan, a military man who forces her to guide him on a punitive expedition that culminates in massacre, and others. These characters are pretty much universally portrayed as weirdly irrational, inconsistent, bullying or pusillanimous, so that their scenes – dinner parties, domestic rows, meetings with Aboriginal warriors – read like hellish phantasmagoria. I haven’t seen any of Julie Janson’s plays, but many of the scenes involving settler characters read like scripts for rough-theatre, agitprop pieces.

To give you a taste, here’s part of the scene where Susan Smythe has caught her husband Henry having sex with Mary, after Susan has set fire to their cornfield and blamed Mary, after Mary has saved Susan’s life, after Henry has told Mary many times that she must leave. Mary is listening from behind a screen:

‘Get rid of her!’ Susan is speaking with a clear high voice. Henry twitches and ruffles his black hair with nervous fingers. He sits by his writing desk and taps his quill. He laughs like men do when confronted by a wronged woman.

‘Must we discuss this now? I am penning a sonnet and working on my native language book,’ says Henry. He dips the quill in ink and examines the tip.

“Sonnet? Are you insane? I shall call the doctor to bleed and purge these dark humours,’ rages Susan.

‘We must buy more quills – make a list … She is just a black servant. Don’t be silly, Susan dearest,’ says Henry.

‘You must choose between rich cream cake and soda bread,’ says Susan.

Mary leans forward to hear his answer. She holds her breath.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, dearest. It was a mistake such as many better man than me have also on occasion made. You must forgive me. I command you to find forgiveness. I am only human,’ says Henry.

‘I have heard about such servants! The other colonial wives have spoken of these creatures!’ says Susan. ‘You are shaming me and have no respect for the sacred promise of our marriage. You are a colonial joke. Everyone is laughing at you – behind your back – at your lack of Christian fidelity or conscience as you preach your pious sermons on the Sabbath. Look at you now, damaged by a violent savage and yet you dare to defy me and you let her stay.’

(Pages 178–179)

Clearly both these people are unhinged. Yet they have life-and-death power over Mary and her daughter.

It’s exhilarating to have stories of early settlement told from a strong, unapologetic Aboriginal point of view that makes no attempt to humanise the invaders.

This is an unsettling book, not only because of its content. Very unsettling for me as a white, middle-class man who has worked for decades as a copy-editor, is a kind of knockabout quality to the text, something that I took at first to be poor proofreading but which is so pervasive that it has become a feature rather than a bug. In these sad times when publishing companies don’t generally have in-house copy-editors, it’s a rare book that has no typos, but this is at a whole other level.

There are moments, like this from page 110, that are impossible to visualise:

Mary sips the tea and smiles with her hands pressed between her thighs.

There are malapropisms – some Aboriginal people are to be punished for their ‘trepidations against settler families’. A tribe in the north-east of Sydney is called the ‘Awakabal’, twice, which is surely a misspelling of ‘Awabakal’. A character is described as Bungaree’s grand-daughter and on the same page as the sister of Bungaree’s son.

I don’t think these errors are deliberate, but whether they survive to the published text through lack of resource or failure of editorial attention they amount to a kind of nose-thumbing. I think of that Audre Lorde quote: ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Benevolence uses the colonisers’ tool, the novel, to respond to a ‘wonderful book’ that has erased a people’s survival. There’s a kind of rough justice in that tool being treated with disrespect.


After the meeting: We met in person for the first time in months. At least seven of us were there in person – even making a little physical contact. An eighth had been about to leave his home when a friend and recent contact called to say she was feeling sick, so he did the ‘abundance of caution’ thing and joined us on a screen for as much as he could stand.

It was good to eat together. It was so good to be in a room with other bodies, where cross-currents of conversation were allowed to flow (though that was hard on the virtual participant). Somehow, I think, being physically together made it easier to talk about this book – about the roughness of much of the writing, and the shameful sense most of us shared of having light shone on our ignorance about the realities of colonisation.

Others were – of course – less disturbed than I had been by the typos etcetera. I had hoped someone might have seen Julie Janson’s plays at Belvoir Street, but no one had. Someone mentioned Kim Scott’s books, That Deadman Dance and Taboo (links to my blog posts) as covering similar territory, brilliantly. More than one of us had gone in search of historical information, and reminded us that Samuel Marsden, presumably the inspiration of the novel’s Reverend Masters, was on record as perpetrating some hideous atrocities. We generally acknowledged the heartbreaking difficulty of the task Julie Janson had taken on: to draw on scholarly historical works and stories passed down by generations of survivors, to imagine herself into the life of one person in those terrible times. The general sense was that, for all its flaws, we were glad to have read the book. The Chooser, who was absent because of a non-Covid infection, was thanked in his absence.

And of course, we shared our responses to whatever the President of the United States had done (it was last night and he’s said so much since then!), to the Premier of New South Wales’s self-inflicted damage, to some recondite celebrity gossip (did you know about Bug Beats, a children’s show on Netflix, that has permission to use a whole slew of Beatles songs), to the adventures of some of our offspring, etc. We took a moment to honour the achievement of Victorians in bringing the infection numbers down. The potatoes that our host had out in the oven some time before we all arrived were ready to eat soon after we all left. He sent us a photo on WhatsApp.


Benevolence is the 17th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jennifer Maiden, George and Clare, the Malachite and the DIamonds

Jennifer Maiden, Play With Knives Five: George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds: a novel in prose and verse (Quemar Press 2018)

George Jeffreys and Clare Collins first met in the 1980s when he was a probation officer in Western Sydney and she was a young woman nearing the end of her prison sentence for murdering three smaller children when she was nine years old. They have since featured in four novels before this one, and in more than 30 poems, going on to become lovers, work together for an NGO called Prisoners of Conscience, and most recently have a baby together.*

In this book they set off to Russia to bring home the daughter of a friend who is in thrall to a murderous international operative. The young woman is an arms dealer in her own right, and it’s not at all clear that she wants to be rescued, although she knows her life is in danger.

The book has all the ingredients of a thriller: exotic locations, hacking, deep-state conspiracy, silicon-impregnated diamonds, helicopter rides, glamorous women, worldweary men, and an urgent sense of jeopardy both for the characters and for the whole world of the novel, which is recognisably ours, as conflict rages in Syria, Julian Assange is not yet extracted from the Ecuadorian embassy, and there are wars and the prospect of war from Russia, the Ukraine, the USA, China … There’s quite a bit of sexual tension and actual sex, lots of violence, and a satisfying twist at the end, with bonus explosion.

But if you picked the novel up expecting a straightforward political thriller, you’d be disconcerted. For a start, every second chapter is in verse – verse whose long lines and conversational rhythms may at first be mistaken for prose with unexpected turns of phrase and odd line breaks, but whose precision and visual qualities are anything but prosaic.

Then there are the characters. In their previous adventures, George and Clare have accumulated relationships. We rarely see them without their months-old baby Corbyn, and many of their scenes, even the most violent, are shared with some or all of their entourage: eight-year-old Florence whom they rescued from death in Paris, Florence’s mother Sophie, George’s hacker grandson Idris, a young Russian cop named Kirill and a Saudi agent, Samir. They frequently converse with Clare’s and Quentin’s mothers back in Mt Druitt, as well as a Darug woman, Ruth, behind whom lurks the shady but benign Lithgow Coven. A dog and a cat that were rescued from far-flung places in earlier books still need to be catered for. The memory of the children Clare killed is never far from her mind. Unsurprisingly, every now and then there is a roll call: ‘Present were Clare, Corbyn and I, Idris, Sophie, Florence and Ninel’ (page 30), ‘In a cafe near 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street, I was sitting with Idris, Sophie, Florence, Ninel, Kirill and a Saudi agent called Samir’ (page 106). This is not a tale of a solitary individual hero; none of the characters needs to be told that humans are social animals.

Nor is the book populated by strong, silent types. There’s constant chatter – political gossip, poetry recitals, reminiscences about adventures in previous books, snippets of interesting history, commentary on world affairs, cultural analysis, meditation on moral and ethical issues. Thrillers are often impregnated with right-wing ideology. Not the George and Clare books. I confess that reading the book three years after publication, I’m mystified by many of its contemporary references – but maybe I would have been at the time. George and Clare are extraordinarily well informed, and have inside knowledge of many points of global conflict, thanks in part to their membership of Prisoners of Conscience, and in part to their creator’s extraordinary insight into international politics.

I often feel the impulse to read the start of a novel when I’ve reached the last page. Here’s the start of George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds:

Clare was standing at the window in the saffron orchid, orange orchard light of the Mt Druitt December. She was in a smock-like translucent azure kaftan, and still a bit rounded by her recent pregnancy. She looked as innocent and preoccupied as a Vermeer wife, and was holding a letter to Silkie Roberts from Silkie’s daughter Quentin. This included a new photo of Schmidt and Quentin. Clare showed it to me. Schmidt was thinner since the recent stabbing-attack on him and was grasping Quentin’s shoulder with sharp, skinny, greedy fingers.

Does that make you want to read on? It did me. And it was a fun read.


* You can read my summary of George and Clare’s appearances up to 2016 here.


George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds is the 16th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Denise O’Hagan’s Beating Heart

Denise O’Hagan, The Beating Heart (Ginninderra Press 2020)

The last line of Andrew Huntley’s ‘An Essay on Criticism’ comes to mind as I gather my thoughts about The Beating Heart’: ‘Poem can be way to make friend.’ (You can read Andrew’s poem in full at this link.)

Anne Casey’s introduction to this slim volume speaks of the poet’s ‘keen powers of observation’, of ‘an elegant interplay of evocative forays between [the poet’s] internal and external worlds’, of conjured enchantment. All this is true, but my overwhelming response to these poems wasn’t to be enchanted or impressed, but something much closer to home: it was the pleasure of meeting someone new. There’s art here, and technique, but it’s art that conceals art and feels like a natural voice speaking directly, warmly and openly.

The back cover tells us:

Born and raised in Rome, Denise O’Hagan lived in London before emigrating to Sydney, where she lives with her husband and sons. She has a background in commercial book publishing, [and] works as an editor with independent authors.

Many of the poems put flesh on the bones on that biographical note. To an extent, in fact, the book could be subtitled ‘Scenes from an Autobiography’: family holiday visit to Switzerland in ‘And the nuns wore lipstick’; a child’s perspective on the Brigate Rosse‘s kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro in Rome in 1978 in ‘Fifty-five days’; Proustian, unbidden memories in ‘A stain in the shape of Italy’:

That these milestones of our lives
(Laboriously recounted, photographed,
Or documented in countless other forms)
Are glued together by such details
We scarcely realise until later
When they emerge with doubled force
From the backrooms of our memory 

There’s adolescent anguish (‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’), young adulthood in London (‘Bedsitter’, ‘Lost in Transition’ – the titles tell you a lot), a wonderful series of poems about early motherhood and her son’s hospitalisation for a rare condition, the death of parents, and then – a progression I recognise from my own experience – the discovery of a grandparent’s story. ‘The quiet assimilators’ canvasses the ambivalence of an assimilated immigrant. There’s even a poem about being an editor, which I love:

For we editors are tailors
(Seamstresses of old
Working in the back rooms of history
Heads bowed, diligently, invisibly),
We cut and paste and nip and tuck,
Sewing it all together
Until the point is clear

There’s much more than these autobiographical glimpses, but they lay a solid ground so the reader can recognise the voice in the other poems.

Rather than discuss one of the poems in detail, which is my usual practice, I’ve been prompted to write one of my own in response. I started with the quote from Andrew Huntley above and then went where the lines took me. I can justify the opening words of Dante’s Inferno because Denise quotes them in an epigraph to one of her poems, but the rest – sadly – couldn’t be further from Denise O’Hagan’s loose, informal, uncontrived openness.


Responding to Denise O'Hagan's The Beating Heart
'A poem can be way to making
friend,' my friend wrote years ago,
not something only for painstaking
exegesis, judgement – no, 
instead an open invitation:
read, let's have a conversation –
silences, yours and mine,
word by word, line by line,
meet, we listen to each other.
When lost nel mezzo del cammin
di nostra vita, each has seen
a thing or two. Dear sister, brother,
semblable or not, you write, I read,
together smile, together bleed.

The Beating Heart is the 15th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from the author.

The Book Group and Cassandra Pybus’s Truganini

Cassandra Pybus, Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Before the meeting: It was my turn to choose the book. I was tossing up between Truganini, about which I’d heard a terrific podcast from the Sydney Writers’ Festival (here’s a link to my blog post), and See what You Made Me Do, the Stella Prize winner. When I put it to the group there was an overwhelming preference for Truganini’s journey through the apocalypse over Jess Hill’s exploration of abusive men. If we thought this would be less gruelling we were probably wrong.

Truganini is known to non-Indigenous Australian popular history as ‘the last Tasmanian’. That’s rubbish of course. There are still many Indigenous Tasmanians alive and kicking. But Truganini’s life is better documented than any of the survivors of genocide in Tasmania, and she has become, as Cassandra Pybus says in her Preface, ‘an international icon for extinction’. The mythologising began almost as soon as she died, and she has been seen ‘through the prism of colonial imperative: a rueful backward glance at the last tragic victim of an inexorable historical process’. In this book, Pybus sets out ‘to redirect the lens to find the woman behind the myth’.

Pybus’s main historical source is the writings of George Augustus Robinson. To quote the Preface again, ‘Truganini and her companions are only available to us through the gaze of pompous, partisan, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described’. I’m grateful that Cassandra Pybus did the hard yakka of extracting a story line from such sources, reading them so we don’t have to.

In the 1820s, the Aboriginal clans of south-east Tasmania (Van Diemens Land as it then was) were all but wiped out by massacre and disease. Truganini belonged to the Nuenonne clan, whose country included Bruny Island. When George Augustus Robinson, fired by missionary fervour and ambition to be seen as a man of significance, set out to rescue the surviving First Nations people from the violence of the colony, Truganini, her father and some friends accepted his protection and became his guides and later his agents in persuading people from other clans to come under his protection.

For five years the band trudged through forests, over mountains, across streams. Truganini had terribly swollen legs, possibly as a result of syphilis she had contracted from sealers who had abducted her early in life, but she was an adept diver for seafood, and she and the other women in the group were the only ones who could swim, so were often called on to pull rafts across icy rivers. For the most part, Pybus tells the story straight without commenting, for instance, on the moral dilemmas involved in persuading resisting warriors to surrender to Robinson rather than face deadly violence elsewhere, as at the hands of John Batman, who emerges from these pages as a ruthless, brutal slaver.

The result of all these rounding-up missions is that, whatever promises Robinson might have made, people were sent to virtual island prisons, mainly on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, where the death toll were horrifying. what started out as a ‘friendly mission’ became the coup de grâce of a genocidal program.

After being taken to Port Phillip on the mainland where Robinson hoped they might again play an intermediary role, Truganini and her companions were conclusively dumped by Robinson. He simply turned away from them and never mentioned them in his journals again.

Truganini and her companionos, including a husband and a close woman friend, were settled in Oyster Cover on the east coast of Tasmania, from where they would go on hunting excursions to Bruny Island and elsewhere. One by one, her companions died. With extraordinary restraint, Pybus simply tells us that their deaths were unrecorded. She doesn’t have to spell out the callous disregard of the colonial establishment. Truganini, the sole survivor, spent her last years in the care of John Dandridge and his wife (unnamed) in Hobart. Dandridge would take her across to Bruny Island, so that she could still walk in her own country. To the end, she cared for country, and slept on the floor rather than the coloniser’s bed.

For all the horrors that were inflicted on this extraordinary woman and her people, the one that comes across with most poignancy in this narrative comes right at the end. As people die, the scientific establishment waits like vultures for their skeletons. Graves are dug up, newly dead bodies are decapitated, collections of skulls are sent to England. Truganini herself expressed her terror at having this done to her own remains, and asked Dandridge to scatter her ashes in the channel between Bruny Island and the main island of Tasmania. But he died before her, and her body was buried, dug up and later exhibited in the Tasmanian Museum – until 1947! After a long legal battle by Tasmanian Aborigines, the Museum allowed the skeleton to be cremated, and her ashes were scattered according to her wishes on 30 April 1976, a few days short of the centenary of her death.

And then there are the illustrations. Truganini, her warrior husband Wooredy, the great leader Mannalargenna and others challenge our gaze in portraits painted by Thomas Bock in 1835. There are photographs too, perhaps taken with ethnographic intentions, but when Truganini looks at you from a photo taken by Charles Woolley in 1866 (here’s a link), she isn’t offering herself as an object. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Jakelin Troy said, referring to the fact that Truganini walked about Bruny Island in old age:

I’m sure she was making the point that this was still her country and that she’s there, and even if they didn’t think deeply about the fact that it was her family’s country, I think that in reality you can’t avoid that that’s what it is.

It’s hard to look at Truganini in these portraits and not feel that she’s making a similar point: she is still herself, and even if the photographer, the curators, the scientists, the colonial historians don’t think deeply about the fact, she challenges us to acknowledge that she is a human being. As she tells us in a final chapter, Cassandra Pybus has reasons to take that challenge personally: her ancestor received a grant to part of Truganini’s country, and in her childhood she heard stories of the old Aboriginal woman who walked about the family’s property. This book is a powerful, humble and devastating response to the challenge.

After the meeting: We’re still meeting on zoom, probably not for the last time. This book generated a very interesting discussion among us white middle-aged and older men. Some were less enthusiastic about it than others. The negatives first.

One man had studied George Augustus Robinson on the 1980s, particularly the collection of his papers published in 1966, The Friendly Mission. He had approached this book with high hopes, but found that it didn’t add much by way of new perspectives or insights – despite its intention of focusing on Truganini, it largely stayed with Robinson.

Another, who read this just after Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (my blog post here), was disappointed that neither Truganini nor Robinson, or really any of the other characters, emerged as fully rounded characters. There was precious little exploration of motivations or emotional responses. Maybe, he said, you can’t expect that of history: this might be excellent history but it’s not much chop as literature.

Someone who agreed with that latter point said that the question for him was, if that is so, then how come the book held his attention the whole time, when he usually gave up on history books after 15 pages? Someone said that the subject commands our attention, as this is a story that cuts through to our souls as settler Australians. I think that’s true, but I also think the book is well written, and the failure to flesh out the characters is a strength: Pybus doesn’t speculate or invent, but largely leaves us to join the dots. As someone said, it’s fairly clear that for Truganini and her companions, Robinson’s offer of protection was their best bet for survival.

Challenging the notion that the writing was generally flat and factual, someone read a short passage about Truganini’s father, Manganerer who had encountered convict mutineers:

These men abducted his wife and sailed away with her to New Zealand, then on to Japan and China. Hastily constructing a sturdy ocean-going canoe, Manganerer had attempted to follow them but had been blown far out into the Southern Ocean. His son had died and he himself was half dead from dehydration when he was found by a whaling ship.

The tragedy was almost too much for this proud man to bear. He had endured the murder of his first wife and the abduction of his two older daughters by the intruders, and now they had taken his second wife. His only son was dead and his remaining daughter had abandoned him for the whaling station. His distress was compounded when he discovered that in his absence almost all of his clan had succumbed to disease, as had all but one of the people visiting from Port Davey, who were under his protection.

There was a moment’s silence on the zoom space. With such a litany of horrors – and this is early in the book, the worst devastation comes towards the end – there’s not a lot of need for further authorial commentary.

One man took up the cudgels on Robinson’s behalf. He said he felt protective of him. Yes, he took on the role of ‘Protector of Aborigines’ out of a kind of opportunism, and yes, his ventures finished off the ‘extirpation’ that the notorious Black Line failed to achieve. But he had a huge inner struggle. At some level he recognised and respected the humanity and the cultural strength of the people in his care (there are scenes n the book where he eats and sings and dances with them). But he was blinded by his belief system and could only at rare moments acknowledge what he was actually doing. And – I think I’m quoting correctly – isn’t that blindness something that we all have?

I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration that the book had us staring into the abyss of our nation’s foundation story. Today, someone is offering to send us all bumper stickers in support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.


Truganini is the 14th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Grace Karskens’ Colony

Grace Karskens, The Colony: A history of early Sydney (Allen & Unwin 2009)

The Colony won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for non-fiction in 2010. You can read the judges’ comments at this link.

The book is nothing less than a rewriting of the origin story of New South Wales.

It’s been on my TBR shelf ever since I read Tom Griffiths’ account of it in The Art of Time Travel (my review here) four years ago. The delay is probably due to the sense instilled by my primary-school education that Australian history is either boring or hard to face, but if a similar whiff hangs around Australian history for you, I encourage you to plunge through it. The book is a marvel and a delicious treat for the mind. It will probably speak most directly to Sydney dwellers, as it bring to life the rich history of Warrane / Port Jackson / Sydney and the hinterland, but the tale it tells of colonisation and the wars of resistance is a powerful rewriting of received versions that will resonate much more widely.

The book engages with other infuential writers about the beginning of the Sydney colony. In his hugely popular The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes failed to recognise that many of his sources were written as polemic, exaggerating and inventing for political purposes, and took them at face value. Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers downplays the figure of an armed soldier standing amid the early scenes of apparently friendly dancing. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River cherry picks incidents from different times and places and as a result distorts the historical reality. Keith Windschuttle: well, anyone who accepts official records as the only source of information about the past just isn’t a historian.

A number of the basic, emblematic ‘facts’ of my early education disappear here like a magician’s coins. For example, everyone now knows that Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth (remembered by the mnemonic LBW) weren’t the first to cross the Blue Mountains as we were taught. They followed the tracks made by First Nations people. But it turns out they weren’t even the first settlers to do it. That honour actually belongs to an ‘extraordinary convict explorer’, John Wilson/Bunboee, who lived with Aboriginal people for a couple of years, underwent ritual scarifying, and later – but 14 years before the LBW team – went on a journey over the mountains and reported back in detail to Governor Hunter. The orgy on the arrival of the second fleet just didn’t happen. The holey dollar, which we loved as nine-year-olds, barely rates a mention; instead, there’s a brief discussion of the consequences of an early decision to have no money in the colony. The Rum Rebellion likewise fades into the background. James Ruse, touted as the colony’s first farmer, is demoted to a minor opportunist. Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie emerge as effective self-promoters, and so on. Instead, we have a portrait of a town where naked First Peoples know everyone’s business and actively negotiate the terms of co-existence; where nowie, the tiny fishing craft of Eora women, dot the harbour for decades after the First fleet’s arrival; where what is now Hyde Park is the site of frequent ‘contests’ among Aboriginal men, probably payback sessions, treated as a spectator sport by settlers; where convicts live in neat cottages from which many ply a trade or conduct a business.

The big difference from the history I was taught is in the account of the First Nations people. Their dispossession and resistance replaces the ‘savage yoke’ borne by the convicts at the centre of the story. Like Inga Clendinnen, Karskens reads settler documents with an eye to what can be divined of Aboriginal perspectives. Her account of the violence and bloodshed on the Cumberland Plain doesn’t shy away from the word war, and she quotes contemporary documents using that word. This book leaves its readers in no doubt that at its heart the settlement of New South Wales was a genocidal project, acknowledged as such at the time in all but the actual word.

A number of Aboriginal men and women emerge from the pages as individuals, not least visually, in portraits that sit in counterpoint to the images meant to meet the needs of the curiosity-seekers back in England. Partly because I had a small hand in a children’s graphic novel in which he played a part (link here), I was struck by the representation of Bungaree. In the block of colour prints between pages 338 and 339, there’s Augustus Earle’s famous portrait showing him dressed in borrowed military gear, doffing his cap as he welcomes new arrivals to the settlement – an assertion of custodianship of the land that was tolerated because it was seen as vaguely comic (and Bungaree was by many accounts an accomplished comedian and mimic):

Augustus Earle, ‘Portrait of Bungaree, a native of Australia’ (National Library of Australia)

This is often paired with a later painting of him in a similar pose, but surrounded by evidence of his descent into alcoholism and misery. Instead of that painting, Grace Karskens gives us this, painted by a visitor who had less vested interest in the British colonisers’ point of view:

Russian visitor Pavel N Mikhailov’s portrait of Bungaree (Russian State Museum)

This is not a man who can be treated as an ethnographic curio. If he came onto your ship, even barefoot and wearing military cast-offs, and said, as he did regularly, ‘This is my shore,’ it would carry weight.

My copy of the book is bristling with Post-its, but I’ll leave it at that. If you live in Sydney, read it. It will change your sense of the place. I’ll give Grace Karskens the last word. This is from her Acknowledgements:

I hope this book will also be a gateway to the wider world of Sydney writing: it is in part a tribute, a celebration of the restless, exciting spirit of inquiry, the tireless work that Sydney scholars of all stripes and inclinations do, and the joys of discovery and of telling new stories as well as old ones.


The Colony is the 13th book I’ve read for the 2020 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 bla(c)kness, ‘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.