Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful

Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful: Mapping landscapes and memories (Text 2016)

pd.jpgSome time in 1997, Kim Mahood was chatting with the mother of the young manager of the Tanami Downs cattle station in the Northern Territory. A fragment of that conversation made it into this book:

– I love this country, she said. People don’t understand. There aren’t words to describe it.

One way of reading Position Doubtful is as Mahood’s attempt to find ways of communicating her love of that country, not  in any easy sense, but as the complex engagement of one who ‘feels an almost cellular affinity to a place that has been constructed by a different cultural imagination’: she spent her late childhood and early teenage years in ‘a tract of country that extends across the Tanami Desert to the edge of the East Kimberley’ and has been returning to it now for twenty years.

Though Mahood writes beautifully, words aren’t her only means of communication. Among other things the book describes a number of art projects that grapple with her relationship to the country. As well as her own works, and more interesting than them in the telling, are her collaborations with artist Pam Lofts on surreal photographic works involving high heels and a rowboat in the desert; and with people – mostly women – from Aboriginal communities to create large maps annotated with Indigenous and non-Indigenous place names, the names of people, history and Dreaming stories. The book’s first paragraphs invite us to think of the book as just such a map – ‘position doubtful’ is an annotation from an old map of the desert, a term that satellite technology has rendered obsolete, though it retains its power here to describe ‘the way in which white Australians move through and occupy the country, especially the less accessible parts of it’.

To engage with the land is to engage with the people who live there, so the book includes riveting accounts of cross-cultural relationships, in which Mahood has a ‘position doubtful’ status as insider–outsider: she’s not Aboriginal, but people who know her acknowledge that she is from that place. Sometimes the old women expect her to know things and she has to consult her GPS device surreptitiously so as not to disappoint them. Her half-in-half-out status gives a vivid intimacy to her descriptions of life at the Balgo Art Centre and the tiny community of Mulan, her accounts of a number of mapping projects, the Canning Stock Route Art Project, an archaeological expedition with (among others) Mike Smith, author of The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts.

This is not a drop-in account of life in remote Australia. It’s in part a memoir about friendship, including a number of bereavements, in part a reflection on an artistic practice, in part a record of Aboriginal testimony. Some of the interactions with Aboriginal women are so intense – some funny, others tragic – that it’s a relief to read towards the end that Mahood read large parts of the book to people at Mulan:

I face the assembled group with my manuscript.
– I’ve been working with you for a long time, I say. I’ve written down your stories, I’ve mapped your country with you, I’ve made a radio program, I’ve helped to write books about you and for you. Now it’s my turn. I’m going to tell my side of the story.
I read everything I think might offend or upset people. Bessie is not sure about the moment on the Canning Stock Route trip when we all say we stink, but the others laugh and tell her that it’s really funny. Many of the people in the room are not literate, but the context, the animation I bring to the reading, the knowledge people have of the events and places, transcends the barrier of language….
When I stop reading they demand more. Seeing themselves through my eyes is a beguiling novelty. The ancient authority of storytelling maintains its power to captivate.

It maintains that power for me too. I think this book will engross anyone who grew up in rural Australia, and especially, I imagine, in desert regions knowing traditional Aboriginal people. It will grip anyone interested in Western Desert art, or the question of how to live awarely as a non-Indigenous Australian My one sorrow is that almost all of the reproductions of art works in the paperback edition are too small and muddy to be of much use. The book cries out for an edition with larger, full-colour illustrations.

aww2017.jpgPosition Doubtful is the third book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Kathryn Lomer’s Night Writing

Kathryn Lomer, Night Writing (University of Queensland Press 2014)

nw.jpgKathryn Lomer has been to places I’ve been, loved music I’ve loved, had experiences similar to mine, learned things I’ve learned, and uses words about them that opens doors for me. A rural Catholic childhood, science and maths, bushwalking, parenthood, sex, the ups and downs of relationships, camping holidays, birds, cattle, several kinds of loss, several kinds of revival, surgery, music, visual art and sculpture, the quality of daylight, Brisbane and Melbourne art galleries, North Queensland tourist spots: she makes warm, intelligent, accessible poetry from all these.

An attractive feature of her work is the way it’s grounded in science and physical experience, while open to kinds of feeling generally associated with religion or fantasy. This stanza from ‘Measure’, for example:

I used to make shell necklaces on Hawley Beach,
my mother saying fairies made the shell holes
to help little children do just that.
I tell my son sea urchins
drill a hole to get at food inside.
Truth is also extraordinary

And how about this bit of taxonomical music from ‘Spyhopping’, which is addressed to humpback whales:

Your name is a parsing of the past:
animalia chordata vertebrata mammalia
cetacea mysticeti balaenopteridae
megaptera novaeangliae
;
a prayer said in Latin
that you survive.

The book is in five sections. There’s a lot to say about all of them, but I’ll start with the fourth, ‘Eclipse plumage’, which reads pretty much as a narrative. The title poem gives the set-up:

I read in my bird book of females’
changed feathers after breeding:
eclipse plumage.
They become undistinguished.
Here, my colour has come back.
It’s all the walking, I say.
The fresh air. The land.
Silly, I know, but I grin
all the way to the river.

In the next poem, ‘Paddock bull’, the bull is not distracted by cows lowing in the next paddock, ‘though I detect a little bit of pink interest’. And from there on, a narrative can be pieced together: ‘Here’ in the lines above is an artists’ and writers’ retreat at Bundanon in New South Wales, and the returning colour is the stirrings of desire, in abeyance since she became a mother, presumably some years before; a painter of birds reciprocates, they vacillate (‘we’ve said the timing isn’t right, / but all day we will wonder / What if it is?‘), go for it (as conveyed in ‘Lovers below Brasso tin’ which mainly describes the drypoint by Arthur Boyd for which it is named, in which ‘lovers are suspended in lust’), and in a final two poems ‘Men without sorrows’ and ‘Contentment’ say goodbye.

Nine of the ten poems in the section contribute at least indirectly to this narrative – which raises questions about the other poem, a double sestina at the beginning of the section, ‘The fencer and his mate’. (A sestina has six 6-line stanzas, each stanza having the same six end-words, but in a changing order, followed by a 3-line stanza using all six ‘end-words’. ‘The fencer and his mate’ does it twice, with two sets of end-words.) It’s a stunning poem in its own right. As if the complex recurrent rhymes aren’t enough, a number of other words and motifs recur, and the poem’s technical whizzery functions as a kind of homage to the fencers’ skill with their axes and saws. Nothing in it relates obviously to the main narrative of the section, but then near the end of ‘Contentment’, there’s this:

Across the Shoalhaven, a dead tree is chain-sawed for firewood,
next winter’s warmth to be stored

as comforting in its woodpile pattern
as the promise of love

That stands by itself, but it also sends us back to the final lines of that first poem, which on first reading struck an odd note by speaking of ‘love’ between the fencer and his mate (rhyme words are straight, earn, axe, true, sleep and new):

and moist and ready. To tell it straight, what they can earn
is each other’s love, that feeling like an axe, something fine and true,
like a sound sleep, two lives made new.

We’re left with the hovering notion of ‘two lives made new’ in a passing holiday affair.

Once I’ve committed myself to reading for narrative, it’s hard not to read the final section, ‘Holy Days’, as telling what happens next. There’s a rough equivalent to the earlier poem’s new plumage in ‘Shy’, which speaks of the ‘platypus of the bedroom’:

it comes in only at night,
wraps itself around my waist and thighs,
strokes my breast and buttocks,
nuzzles, sometimes settles on my belly.
Gone is the begetting,
the wearing, the faring well.
Here in the dark,
all is fine.

There’s a man who spends time with the poet and the son who was noticeably absent from the ‘Eclipse Plumage’ section. This man seems to be a keeper, and when the two of them go on a North Queensland holiday in the sequence ‘Holy Days’ (roughly a quarter of the section) there’s no need for a Boyd print to convey their physical joy in each other. Then in a couple of lines that must bring joy to the heart of anyone raised as a Catholic:

Yes, it’s an indulgence.
As a child, and in my church,
the word meant punishment was cancelled,
everything forgiven.
They’ve skipped purgatory
and sent me straight to heaven.

aww2017.jpgNight Writing is the second book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jennifer Maiden’s Metronome

Jennifer Maiden, The Metronome (ebook, Quemar Press 2016)

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Jennifer Maiden’s poetry inhabits the news cycle the way another poet’s might a particular landscape. Kevin Rudd’s pursed lips, George W Bush’s nose, Tanya Plibersek’s smile, Tony Abbott’s hurt look – all have been sharply observed and made meaningful in her poems. In The Metronome, Hillary Clinton’s ‘crazy campaign smile’ joins the list, along with

the movements of a little-marching-girl, the
drilled expansive gestures.

In many Maiden poems of the last half-dozen collections, someone – a historical or fictional personage – wakes up and engages with a contemporary political figure or another fictional character. Ten of the 15 poems in The Metronome are of this sort. I tend to read these poems naively. That is, I just enjoy the conversations: what do Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln have to say to Hillary Clinton; what do Jeremy Corbyn and Constance Markiewicz discuss as they stride out on the moors; and who wouldn’t want to eavesdrop on Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen? In other poems too, whether they’re picking a fight with a critic (only one in this book, in ‘Jennifer Maiden Woke Up outside the Fourth Wall’), or reflecting on the uses of Rodin’s The Kiss or Catalonia (these two add to a substantial list of ‘uses of’ poems), the conversational mode draws one in: one reads for the argument (in this book, a recurring subject is economic austerity), the wit, the odd twists of mind and unexpected digressions. Sometimes, as in the adventures of Clare Collins and George Jeffreys, characters from her three Play with Knives novels, one reads for the story.

Like any good conversation, these poems tend to touch, glancingly or attentively, on a wide range of subjects. I found myself reading with my phone near at hand: I watched Vladimir Miller singing Veniamin Basner’s ‘Leningrad Metronome’ on YouTube (for the poem ‘Metronome’); I checked to see if Malcolm Turnbull’s middle name really is ‘Bligh’ and William Bligh really was a water-colourist (for ‘Temper’); I satisfied my curiosity about the unnamed critic; I read Wikipedia on Constance Markiewicz (for ‘The gazelle’), Dick Whittington (for ‘‘Turn Again, Whittington’’) and the brumby cull in the Australian Alps (for ‘George Jeffreys 19: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Thredbo’). I found some lovely intertextual serendipity: Clare – in ‘Clare and Nauru’ – mentions that the Nauruan government invested a lot of money in a West End Musical about Leonardo Da Vinci. A little after reading that, I heard the This American Life episode ‘In the Middle of Nowhere‘ in which, at about the 15 minute mark, a couple of lines from that musical are sung. This American Life‘s description of the Nauru landscape echoes Clare’s:

She herself had wondered: was it flammable?
The wide stripped-bare belly of the island
with its lorn coral peaks clawing up
where the pasty soil had been? One
could not plant crops here now. The lagoon
of freshwater near here shone toxic. There
generations ago young saltwater fish
had been trapped by the tribal families,
and adapted to freshwater, kept to grow
for food, like the family pigs.

All that is pleasurable (not the devastation of Nauru, but the interplay of texts), and there’s pleasure in the way the words sit on the page. I notice, though, that when I try to read a passage to a long-suffering companion, I have trouble: I can see that the lines are musical but I can’t read them aloud musically. I mention this here, because in another piece of serendipity I read Clive James’s Poetry Notebooks in rough tandem with The Metronome. I doubt if these poems are to James’s taste. They certainly lack the thing he seems to prize above all else: rigorous adherence to an established metric form which plays against the rhythms of normal speech. But nor are they the formless self expression he despises.

I want to mention two things related to that. First, Maiden’s use of enjambment: often a line ends with the first word or two of a new phrase – three of the ten lines from ‘Clare and Nauru’ above, for example – or a line break falls after a preposition or between an adjective and the noun it refers to. Something in the poetry plays against the conversational rhythms after all. It’s nothing as orderly as James’s classical model, but it keeps the reader on her/his toes.

Second, she uses rhyme a lot, though not always obviously. I was shocked to realise, for example, that all but two of the 34 lines of ‘George Jeffreys 19’ rhyme with either ‘so’ or ‘cull’. Here’s the start:

George Jeffreys woke up depressed in Thredbo.
It was too early for autumn snow.
Clare was at a meeting to organise local
resistance to the planned brumby cull
of ninety per cent of the wild horses, no
great hope to prevent it, although
she would ghost herself trying. So,
he thought, the death aura of Thredbo
– there for years after decades ago
an avalanche caused by a kill
of non-native trees crushed all
asleep in a hillside building – now
would return like the hooves of dead foals
along an icy grassy overflow.

Maybe there’s even an iambic tetrameter lurking there. Whatever, I enjoy and am challenged by my first, naive read, and then find more on each further read. As I think I’ve said before, I’m a fan.

The Metronome was published by Quemar Press as an ebook (available on the Press’s website for $5) on the night of the US presidential election – quite a feat given that in its final poem, ‘George Jeffreys 20: George Jeffreys Woke up in Washington’, Donald Trump’s ‘soft voice sounded infinitely defeated’ when he told George over the phone that he’d won the election. The publication in paper form by Giramondo is scheduled for February.

Quemar Press has reissued Maiden’s novel Play with Knives and published for the first time its sequel, Complicity, which has been around in manuscript for decades. Recently it has also published a third novel, George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker. All three novels are available for free from the press’s website.

aww2017.jpgEven though I started reading The Metronome last year, I think it’s legitimate to count it as the first book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s a great start to a year’s reading.

AWW 2016 challenge completed

AWW2016 This is my mandatory round-up post about the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2016. I undertook to read 10 books by Australian women writers. I read 14, which ranged from revelatory and richly entertaining to definitely meant for readers who aren’t me. Here they are. I’ve tried to be clever with the lay-out. My apologies if it shows up on your screen as a jumble.

Poetry:

img_1551

Pam Brown
Missing Up

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

frag.jpg

Antigone Kefala
Fragments

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Novels:

seahearts

Margo Lanagan
Sea Hearts

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Short Fiction:

lp

Michelle Cahill
Letter to Pessoa

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Memoirs:

njb&w

Lesley and Tammy Williams
Not Just Black and White

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

A comic (that’s a graphic novel to those who think ‘comics’ means superheroes or Disney):

alli

Lee Whitmore
Ada Louise

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

Essays:

qe60

Laura Tingle
Political Amnesia

1925355365

Helen Garner Everywhere I Look

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

I’m signing up for the 2017 challenge.

My general gender stats: This year I read 39 books by men and 31 by women.This includes at least five (the Y: The Last Man series) that were jointly written by a man and a woman.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites at the Book Group & November Verse 14

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador 2013)

burial-rites.jpg Before the meeting: This book is based on the real story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, an event that happened in 1830. My knowledge of Iceland, which comes mainly from photographs of stark, beautiful, treeless landscapes and Grímur Hákonarson’s movie Rams, led me to expect that any novel set there would be grim. So a novel culminating an execution could only be more so.

Grim or not, I loved it. I’ve raved about it to people met in the park, and barely restrained myself from reading bits aloud to the Emerging Artist (now known as the Heart Lady, but that’s another story).

At the beginning Agnes, convicted of brutally murdering her employer, is being transferred from one place of imprisonment to another. She is filthy, malodorous and barely able to speak. (Interestingly, her condition at the beginning of the novel bears a striking resemblance to that of the women towards the end of Charlottte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which I imagine was being written at the same time as this.) While awaiting execution, she is sent as a cost-saving measure to live with the family of a local official who lives near the planned place of execution.

The main narrative follows Agnes’ developing relationships with members of the host family: father, mother and two young adult daughters. At first the family are convincingly and reasonably horrified that they will have to share their house with this monster, though right from their first encounter the mother of the household is even more horrified at the way Agnes has been treated. A young trainee clergyman is assigned to attend to Agnes’ spiritual needs. Against the advice and instructions of his superiors, he refrains from preaching sternly at her and instead encourages her to talk to him. Because of the size of their dwelling and the bitter Icelandic winter, the family hear much of what passes between them, and we learn her story along with them. As you’d expect from the set-up, in the process they come to see her not as a monster but as a fellow human – more a servant than a prisoner.

All of that is beautifully done, though the story Agnes tells, a story of love betrayed, is less compelling than the circumstances of its telling. And then there is the narration told direct to the reader from Agnes’ point of view. This is where we learn Agnes’ inner story – the erotic experiences that she can’t speak of, and her emotional life. In these sections Hannah Kent’s writing, never less than elegant elsewhere, is rich and poetic without being hi-falultin, so that I for one was completely drawn in. I don’t remember ever being so caught up by a deft use of similes. Here’s a passage from fairly early on, when Agnes has begun to work again,  trusted to use a scythe:

I let my body fall into a rhythm. I sway back and forth and let gravity bring the scythe down and through the grass, until I rock steadily. Until I feel that I am not moving myself, and that the sun is driving me. Until I am a puppet of the wind, and of the scythe, and of the long, slow strokes that propel my body forward. Until I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.

It’s a good feeling, not quite being in control. Of being gently swung back and forth, until I forget what it is to be still. Like being with Natan in the first months when my heartbeat shuddered through me and I could have died, I was so happy to be desired.

The book’s power has something to do with the strong sense of a particular time and place. The world-building, to borrow a term from SF/F discourse, is extraordinarily convincing. In her acknowledgements, Hannah Kent says she set out to write a ‘dark love letter to Iceland’. She has succeeded in spades.

The meeting: As it was the last meeting of the year, we ate at the new (to most of us) Tramsheds in Glebe, and gave each other gift-wrapped books from our shelves. As always in restaurants, the background noise was a dampener in general conversation. But we all enjoyed the book. Someone compared it unfavourably to Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, saying that at times Burial Rites broke free of its early 19th Century Icelandic setting and resorted to tropes from 20th century romance fiction. Specifically, if I understood him correctly, Agnes’s internalised sense of the master–servant relationship vanished too easily and was replaced by an anachronistic expectation of romantic love and fidelity. In general we could see what he meant. Likewise, we all agreed when someone said that it was obvious what was going to happen from the very beginning: the family would soften towards Agnes, and her story as it emerged would reveal either innocence or major extenuating circumstances. Neither of these criticisms dampened the general enthusiasm for the book.

There were some mostly audible, goosebump-inducing readings of passages our Post-it warrior had marked.

Then we cheerfully turned away from the spartan, claustrophobic and bitterly cold world of the novel and enjoyed a meat-heavy meal in a flash new restaurant whose menu names the farms that provide the animals they serve up to their customers.

The verse, my last for this November: 

November Verse 14: The Book Group Chooses What to Read Next
Ben stands and says he must be going:
‘Shall we decide the next book now?’
‘No time for all the to and fro-ing
before you leave,’ says Ian. That’s how
just seven of us made the vital
choice of our next book group title.
Not Watson’s Bush, that’s far too long,
not more Houellebecq, that’s just wrong.
No to Solnits, Coetzee, Gorton.
Steve says, ‘How about Don Juan?
I mean Quixote. That’s a yarn
I’d like to read.’ That one caught on.
And after complex back and forth
we lit on Shakespeare’s Henry Fourth.

AWW2016Burial Rites is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Antigone Kefala’s Fragments, and my Verse 11

Antigone Kefala, Fragments (Giramondo 2016)

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The final issue of Ivor Indyk’s literary journal Heat, published an astonishing 6 years ago, included an interview of Antigone Kefala by Amanda Simons. The conversation ranges widely, from Kefala’s ‘scribbling’ in her childhood home in Romania before World War 2, over the role her mother played in her creative life, to the critical isolation that comes from being classified as an ‘ethnic’ writer. She says this about poetry:

It is a medium that has its own directions. It comes when it wants to come, doesn’t come when it doesn’t want to come. You can never force it, you have to wait for it.

Fragments is a collection of 61 poems that feel absolutely unforced in that way, almost as if each poem catches an unbidden thought, or dream, or observation, or burst of emotion, and finds a precise form of words for it. If they are fragments of some greater unity, the book is not concerned to find that unity, or to explain contexts, but invites us to focus on each fragment in its own right. Take the first poem:

The Voice
At the sound
I turned
my veins full of ice
that travelled
at high speed
releasing fire.

This return
the past attacking
unexpectedly
in the familiar streets.

The speaker hears a voice from her past. Perhaps it’s associated with a terrible memory, or it might remind her of the voice of a loved one who has died. The poem isn’t interested in the specifics, nor in what happened next. Did the speaker approach the owner of the voice, did she go about her day as if nothing had happened or was she shaken to the core? The poem doesn’t go anywhere near these questions. It focuses tightly on the moment of hearing, and renders it with wonderful precision and complexity: there are the explicit images of ice and fire, and possibly an implied reference to the kinds of warfare that turns city streets into war zones. It’s not ‘difficult’ poetry, but it rewards you for time spent in its company.

The poems, only a handful of them much longer than the first, are divided into five sections. Here’s my guess at their organising principles:

  1. a thematic introduction: poems of memory and loss, dream renderings, observations of social life, dark love poems
  2. evocations of places, mainly Australian, including a scene from the movie Wake in Fright
  3. poems of grief, loss and impending loss
  4. dreams and visions, surrealism and metaphysics
  5. social poems – quick character sketches, satirical jabs, laments, a little politics.

In the Heat interview, Antigone Kefala observes that ‘we ethnics are constantly being compared to other ethnics, but not to Australian writers’, and asks if her interviewer has ever seen a comparison between her work and that of Les Murray. Well, perhaps with that quote working at the back of my mind, I found myself making just such a comparison. Here’s her poem ‘Weapons’ – I hope it’s OK to quote it in full:

Weapons
Ruins
corpses in the sun
men moving cautiously
in the abandoned streets
close to the scarred walls.
Men on top of houses, hills,
coming from dark undergrounds,
men holding on, hugging
these metal erections
firing them
a spray of semen
rushing with velocity
to breed another race of killers.

The evocation of the battle-zone is followed by what at first looks like crude, even trite feminist anti-war rhetoric – the gun as phallic symbol – which becomes almost shockingly explicit with the ‘spray of semen’, and then is brought home in the powerful last line: this isn’t just emotive rhetoric, there’s a strong idea here.

The poem reminded me of Les Murray’s ‘I wrote a Little Haiku‘, which similarly compares bullets to semen. In Murray’s poem, the molten bullets drip from a burning farm rail, and he sees the drip as ‘the size of wasted semen / it had annulled before’. It’s the visual image that counts: one’s response is to admire the poet’s mental agility in seeing such a comparison: the notion that the bullets had ‘annulled’ real semen when they were fired in the past – that is, they had killed young men and so prevented them from fathering children – is almost a melancholy afterthought. In Kefala, the visual image matters, but the force of the poem is in its idea. We’re not invited to admire her cleverness, so much as to dwell on what she has unearthed.

Oddly, the comparisons that came to mind most strongly as I read this book are with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, both of whom have grappled with ageing in their recent work – Dylan’s ‘Mississippi’ for example, or Cohen’s heartbreaking ‘I’m Leaving the Table’. Kefala too brings a ruthless eye to the experience of ageing, and at the same time, like those two writers (in other ways very different from her), conveys a deep joy in living and creating. I love the bitter-sweet final lines of the book’s last poem, ‘Metro Cellist’:

we were floating on sound.
The earth was singing,
singing in an exuberance
of youth.

AWW2016Fragments is the thirteenth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my free copy.
—–
As my regular readers will know, I have a self-imposed task of writing fourteen 14-line verses each November and putting them up on my blog. I was going to let this post go by to avoid putting any of my verse on the same page as Antigone Kefala’s infinitely superior work, but then I read her saying in the Heat interview that she could not write a sonnet: ‘You know how writers do exercises in terms of poetic forms; I have never been able to do that.’ Perhaps one day I’ll outgrow my attachment to the form of the Onegin stanza, but for now, here’s one more, an attempt to explain the joys of this attachment:

November Verse 11: 
A turn of phrase, a half idea:
that’s enough for my first lines.
The path ahead is far from clear
but through mind’s muddle somehow shines
an argument. Then, as I’m seeking
rhymes and scans, the sense starts leaking
into somewhere unforeseen
and who knows what line eight will mean?
Six lines to go, and now I’m counting.
So much that I wish I’d said,
not on the page, still in my head!
Its all a mess. The panic’s mounting.
With luck I end my little song
as if I meant it all along.

Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look and November Verse 3

Helen Garner, Everywhere I Look (Text 2016)

1925355365.jpgI’ve recently been surprised to hear a number of people refer to Helen Garner as ‘one of our great writers’. My surprise doesn’t come from disagreement. It’s just that hers isn’t writing that invites one to bow down in the presence of greatness. She’s less a Great Dane (or Grande Dame) making magisterial pronouncements than a terrier who keeps on at her subject until it yields some truth, her truth. She passes judgement often enough, and definitely enough, but not dogmatically, and not looking for a stoush either, but ready in case one comes along. A striking feature of Sotiris Dounoukos’ movie of Joe Cinque’s Consolation is the absence of the book’s persistent questioning – so when the end titles announce that, against the strongly implied judgement of the previous 90 minutes, one of the real-world characters was exonerated by a real-world jury, one tends to simply distrust the movie. When the book calls that verdict into question, you can disagree, but you can’t honestly dismiss it out of hand: the judgement has been honestly, and I would say humbly, worked for. (Perhaps its relevant that some of the harshest critics of Garner’s The First Stone refused to read it, or so I’ve been told.)

One of the pieces in this collection is titled ‘While Not Writing a Book’. That could have been a working title for the collection as a whole. It and a couple of others, including ‘Before Whatever Else Happens’, are presented as excerpts from the writer’s diaries/notebooks: overheard snippets, chance encounters, family moments, brief reflections. Another writer might have called them flash fictions or prose poems. Other pieces are more sustained: the product of a week locked away with CDs of Russell Crowe movies; reviews; sketches from the courts; wonderful pieces on her friendships with Jacob Rosenberg, Tim Winton and Elizabeth Jolly; glimpses of family life with grandchildren and, once, a dog; a revisit to her relationship with her mother; reflections on the ukulele, the ballet, suburban life; and more, enough to keep her readers interested between This House of Grief and whatever big thing may happen next.

Everywhere she looks and listens, from conversations about farting with small children to a teenager who has bashed her newborn baby to death, Garner finds stuff for her mind to grapple with, and she knows how to communicate the grappling with grace and vigour.

And now, because it’s November, a versification of one of the diary entries (see page 85 for the original):

Verse 3: At a conference
Supreme Court Judge and Helen Garner
chatted over tea and dip.
‘My home,’ the judge said to the yarner,
‘was once the scene of Monkey Grip,
your novel, and we’re renovating.’
‘My novel, and some devastating
and elating life. But how
do those old rooms look to you now.’
He listed them: ‘… and one so dinky
my daughter’s desk was there before.
It’s soon a bathroom, nothing more.’
‘The one with wooden shutters?’ Inky
flash from hippie days divine:
‘That tiny room was [humbly] mine.’

AWW2016Everywhere I Look is the twelfth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lee Whitmore’s Ada Louise

Lee Whitmore, Ada Louise: A life imagined (Susan Lane Studio 2016)

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The host of a Radio National books program regularly disparages family histories. ‘We’re just not interested,’ he says. But he’s wrong. Not because all or even most family histories are gems, but because Sturgeon’s revelation –’Ninety percent of everything is crap’ – is as valid here as it is for comics or science fiction. It’s just wrong to disparage a whole genre on the basis of even a large number of poor examples.

Ada Louise isn’t just a family history, it’s also a comic, so it also belongs to a medium often targeted by literary snobbishness. Come to think of it, it’s in a third outsider category as well: it’s self-published. At least, I can’t find any reference to Susan Lane Studio on the internet. The copy I read belongs to a friend, and is number 65 of a limited edition of 100 copies.

The good news is that Ada Louise is definitely in the non-crap ten percent of all three categories.

When Lee Whitmore was about eight years old her maternal grandmother came to live with her family. The grandmother – Ada Louise – was very old and frail and not at all interested in the children. ‘Very occasionally there was a glint of amusement in her eyes,’ an introduction tells us, ‘but mostly she just looked wistful, even sad.’ In what Whitmore’s website describes as a ‘loose series of episodic moments strung together on a time line’ the book sets out to answer the questions that puzzled the young girl: ‘What was it that had made my grandmother this way? What had happened in her life?’

We first see Ada Louise as a tiny figure in a two-page drawing of ‘British settlement Invercargill’, New Zealand in 1885. A speech bubble in the bottom right corner of the townscape reads, ‘Hurry home, Ada,’ and on the next spread the fourteen year old Ada runs with her violin case through a windy yard towards her front door. In the following pages she is absorbed into the cheerful chaos of her many-sistered life, and in the course of the book’s nearly 600 page s her story emerges in a discontinuous way that creates a sense that these are family stories, legends almost, rendered into a coherent whole.

We follow Ada’s fortunes and those of her sisters as they mature, marry, become variously rich and poor and have children of their own. These affectionately realised characters deal with scandal, frustrated ambition, betrayal, heartbreak and almost Shakespearean restoration. There’s also some Micawberish comedy.

The book’s seven chapters follow Ada and her family from New Zealand to Melbourne (when she is 30, in 1901), to Sydney six years later. The cities and suburbs of the action are lovingly created: a church in Darlinghurst, a Prahran mansion, inner-city Sydney streetscapes, Flinders Street Station,Waverley Cemetery; trams, trains, early cars, and the ocean in its many moods.There are cucumber sandwiches, family singsongs around the piano

The comics medium is beautifully suited to this project. From the family tree at the beginning to the hand-lettered postscript, Whitmore is intimately present, not just in her words, but in the movements of her hand recorded in the richly crosshatched charcoal drawings. You can see examples on her website. Here’s the spread introducing Chapter 2:

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AWW2016

Ada Louise is the tenth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Judith Ridge’s Book that Made Me

Judith Ridge, The Book that Made Me (Walker Books 2016)

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tl;dr: This book would make a brilliant gift for a teenager (what the book trade calls a young adult) who loves reading. And part of the money you spend on it will go to the Indigenous Literary Fund. Also: I tell my own story.

Judith Ridge has been a tireless worker in the field of children’s literature for decades, organising, promoting, debating, judging, studying, editing, writing, teaching, networking – oh, and reading. This is her first book. Characteristically of Judith’s commitment to young people and literature, it’s a labour of love: she and the contributing authors have agreed that all royalties from the book will go to the extremely worthy Indigenous Literary Foundation. Also characteristic of her, it’s a showcase for other people.

It’s a showcase in the first place for the 31 writers, mostly of YA fiction, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, who were invited to write about a book that ‘ made’ them. The invitation allowed for wide interpretation. As Judith says in her foreword, she was asking what book

made them fall in  love, or made them understand something for the first time? Made them think. Made them laugh. Made them angry. Made them feel safe. Made them feel challenged in ways they never knew they could be, emotionally, intellectually, politically. Made them readers, made them writers – made them the person they are today.

Readers get to know a little more about writers whose work they know and love – in my case Markus Zusak, Shaun Tan (who couldn’t confine himself to anything like one book, but in effect gives a whole reading list of sophisticated picture books and comics, as well as having line drawings throughout the book), Benjamin Law, Alison Croggon, Ursula Dubosarsky (the only verse contribution) and Simon French (one of two pieces that brought tears to my eyes). And we are introduced to new writers we may be interested in – in my case all the rest. To name half a dozen:

  • Will Kostakis, who writes about a book he put down after reading six pages and decided to write his own story
  • Queenie Chan, who writes of the joys of manga, telling part of her story in comic frames
  • Ambellin Kwaymullina, one of the Aboriginal contributors, author of a dystopian series of books, who writes eloquently about the non-written stories that ‘made’ her
  • the late Mal Peet, who tells a wonderful story about turning up at a Moby-Dick tutorial at university with the Classics Illustrated comic
  • Kate Constable,whose piece featuring Tom’s Midnight Garden is a lovely essay on how a reader’s circumstances affect how she reads.
  • Jaclyn Moriarty, who explains beautifully what Roald Dahl can do for his young readers.

As well as the contributors, the book is also a showcase for the 200 or so novels, series, picture books, comics, plays and poetry anthologies that rate a mention, ranging from Homer and Melville to Dr Seuss and Archie comics. In a neat bit of mise-en-abîme, some of the contributors wrote books that some of the others say ‘made’ them. No one mentions Harry Potter.

Something the book does for me which it’s unlikely to do for most of its intended readership – the difference being that I’ve been reading for half a century longer than any teenager – is make me wonder how I would answer the book’s question.

The rest of this post is today’s version of the book that made me.
—–
I was a compulsive reader as a child. I remember lying with my mother on her bed after lunch and watching the words as she read to me – from among other things a Hans Christian Andersen collection – correcting her if she got a word wrong. I loved Donald Duck (though not so much Mickey Mouse) and Superman (rather than Batman) and Classics Illustrated comics. I had Kingsley’s Heroes and Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia at home, Enid Blyton, W E Johns and Richmal Compton from the town library, the Queensland Reader and Bible Stories at school. I had to be told not to read at the table during meals. I read in bed at night by the faint light from two rooms away (our North Queensland house wasn’t big on internal doors). When I reach double figures I took on the likes of Great Expectations, Ivanhoe and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

The worlds of books fascinated me. They had snow. A child could look out his bedroom window and talk to another child sitting at her window in the house next door: my nearest neighbours were a sugarcane paddock and a cow yard away. Moss grew on the south side of trees in books: in the tropics the sun comes from either the north or the south, depending on the time of year, and moss grows anywhere it can in the rainforest. In books it can be broad daylight at nine o’clock at night and no one has heard of bandicoots, or cane toads, or sensitive weed, or cane fires, or pomelos, or bagasse, all of which were ordinary parts of my life.

I’d like to be able to write about the wonderful moment when I picked up a book and found my childhood world reflected there. But no, that didn’t happen – and still hasn’t, really. When an aunt started giving me Australian books for birthday presents – Ash Road, I remember, and Simon Black in the Antarctic, both by Ivan Southall – the worlds I found in them were only slightly less other. They weren’t exactly foreign, they just didn’t show the world as I experienced it, where it would rain heavily for days on end, where houses were on stilts, where we guzzled mangoes on our back veranda and where Aboriginal people came occasionally to use our phone to call for a taxi. I grew up feeling that books were never about the real world, but were completely made up – either that or the world of my actual experience was somehow invalid.

What comes to mind when I ask myself if there is one book that set me on a literary path is not a book at all, but an after-dinner talk.

One Sunday a month was Holy Name Sunday in our church. Members of the Holy Name Society, all men, would sit together in  Mass, away from their families, and at one point they would all stand and make the church ring with a rousing anthem:

We stand for God and for his glory,
The Lord supreme and God of all.
Against his foes we raise his standard.
Around the Cross we hear his call.
____Strengthen our faith, Redeemer,
____Guard us when danger is nigh.
____To thee we pledge our lives and service.
____For God we’ll live, for God we’ll die.
____To thee we pledge our lives and service.
____For God we’ll live, for God we’ll die.

I was totally in awe of the display of full-throated masculinity. And when I was thirteen I was allowed to join the Society. (Girls joined the Children of Mary and wore pale blue cloaks, which was cool, but boys got to bellow in church.)

I was only in the Society for a year and don’t remember doing anything apart from singing on Sundays, but I did attend that year’s annual dinner. It must have been exciting to be there as one of the men, no longer a boy, but that’s not what I remember. What I do remember is that as we were finishing dessert, someone tapped a glass with a spoon and introduced the speaker, Vince Moran. He wasn’t a family friend, but I had seen him around – Innisfail was a small enough town.

His talk wasn’t an inspirational address. Basically, he told three jokes. What was exhilarating for me was the way he told them: not one after the other, but intertwined. He got to a certain point in his main story line, which had something to do with a cat who was a great tennis fan, then went off on a digression, then from that digression onto another digression, and circuitously back, jumping from one story to another in what seemed random moves, until, just when it seemed the whole thing had become hopelessly muddled, he brought all three strands home with three punchlines in quick succession. The cat, I remember, lost all interest in tennis when he found out what racquet strings were made of.

For all my countless hours of reading, and though I knew from the ABC Children’s Hour that it was a good thing to remember the names of the people who wrote books, this was the first time I realised that stories were made by people – by people who eat food, and go to the toilet, and have to tie their shoelaces like the rest of us. An ordinary man standing at the front of the room had just presented us with a fiction he had crafted himself. (I think he was the same Vincent Moran who wrote for Homicide in the 70s and The Flying Doctors in the 80s.) I don’t think I quite got as far as realising that Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton were also mere mortals (I’m not sure I’ve fully internalised that reality even yet), but a door swung open in my mind. Books might not reflect my world, but people who lived in my world could make them.
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AWW2016I won’t count The Book that Made Me in my tally for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge, but the editor and by my count more than half the contributors are Australian women, so I’m adding the logo here.

Lesley & Tammy Williams, Not Just Black and White

Lesley and Tammy Williams, Not Just Black and White: A Conversation Between a Mother and Daughter (UQP 2015)

njb&w.jpgThis is a superb memoir. If the title sounds a bit preachy, don’t be misled. It’s a page turner, a romance, a tale of multi-faceted heroism with plenty of grief, rage and laughing out loud, and some totally – I do mean totally! – unexpected plot twists.

The two authors are mother and daughter. Lesley Williams was born in the mid 1940s and grew up in Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement in Queensland, 170 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, where the Aboriginal people were referred to as ‘inmates’ and every aspect of their lives was regulated by the authorities. Hers is the last generation to have grown up ‘under the Act’ – that is The Aboriginals Protection and the Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act of 1897 and its successors: people couldn’t travel or marry without formal permission, and any money they earned was held ‘in safe keeping’ by the government. When she was fifteen, Lesley was assigned to work as a domestic servant in distant homes; she wasn’t informed of the conditions of her employment and received only ‘pocket money’ directly. A timid girl who lives in fear of any white authorities, she grows up, with help from Aboriginal and white friends and allies, to spearhead a campaign  for justice for Aboriginal workers that eventually led to payment of a compensation package of $55.4 million dollars.

Meanwhile, she had three children whom she was determined would have better lives than hers. Tammy, the youngest, started out ghost writing this book, but became its second authorial voice when they realised how their lives were intertwined. Tammy’s story doesn’t have quite the same extraordinary journey from one era to another, but it’s full of surprises of its own. Spoiler alert: Michael Jackson plays a significant role and José Ayala Lasso, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has a walk-on part.

Both women are great story-tellers. The success of the campaign to recover the stolen wages is almost an afterthought to these two wonderful yarns.

I was about a third of the way into this book when ABC’s 4 Corners aired those heart-stopping scenes of the mistreatment of Aboriginal boys in custody in the Northern Territory. And you know, grim though those scenes were, the government’s treatment of Aboriginal people in Queensland into the 1960s, which Lesley Williams recounts with extraordinary calm and clarity, was just as violent and demeaning in its own way. As with current events in Nauru and Manus, there was no shocking footage, and for most Australians out of sight was out of mind. This book, and other like it, make a huge contribution to our understanding of Australia’s history

AWW2016Not Just Black and White is the eighth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It won the 2014 David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writing. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t get more gongs now that it’s published.