Tag Archives: Edwina Shaw

Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows

Favel Parrett, Past the Shallows (Hachette Australia 2011)

1psI had three compelling reasons for fast-tracking Past the Shallows to the top of my TBR pile. Favel Parrett is a friend of my novelist niece, Edwina Shaw, and Edwina gave me the book as a Christmas present (‘Read it and weep,’ she said). I met Favel at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dinner last year, for this book was shortlisted, and was charmed. And I’ve recently signed up with the Australian Women Writers Challenge to read a certain quota of AWWs in 2013. And there was an additional softener: it’s short.

awwbadge_2013 The book tells the story of three brothers and their father, who makes a marginal living as a dubiously legal abalone fisherman in southern Tasmania. The action unfolds in the long shadow cast by the death of the boys’ mother in a car accident some years earlier, and is seen in alternating chapters through the eyes of the two younger brothers, Miles and Harry. It’s Tim Winton territory: brothers growing up with the splendour and terror of the sea, in a family racked by emotional turmoil. Maybe I shouldn’t put the mockers on a young writer by saying so out loud, but I found the people and the world of this novel more convincing, more demanding of my compassion, than I ever have Winton’s; and the writing is more direct, draws attention to itself less, and allows for broader sympathies. The father is violent, irrational and dangerous, but neither the boys nor we lose sight of the grinding forces and bitter blows that have made him that way. The ocean is a place of pleasure and exhilarating challenge – Miles goes surfing with the eldest brother, Joe, while Harry hunts for treasures in the tidewrack. But it’s also the site of hardship, as in Miles’s exhausting work on his father’s abalone boat, and terror, especially in a climactic storm scene. You could probably read the book as a meditation on the ocean, with the human story there just to keep us reading: Favel Parrett writes about surfing, seamanship and heavy seas with a kind restrained precision that manages to suggest, and – very occasionally – explicitly invoke something like awe.

I haven’t mentioned the boys’ ages. It’s a measure of the book’s fineness that we’re not told how old they are until maybe halfway into the story. Instead, we’re left to work it out for ourselves from their preoccupations, their different strategies or dealing with the poverty and neglect, and their different degrees of vulnerability and protectiveness, innocence and savvy, openness and quiet desperation.

Terrible things happen in this story, and there are a number of revelations about terrible things in the past, but for me the book’s emotional power doesn’t lie there so much as in the brothers’ mutual tenderness, and even then not so much in the big moments – which are operatic in scale, but not overblown in the telling – as in tiny, poignant gestures.

My copy has half a dozen stickers on the cover boasting of prizes and shortlistings. I concur with all those judging panels. It also has pages of notes up the back for book groups. I didn’t read them: does anyone really want to have a questionnaire waiting for them when they emerge back into the shallows from deeps like this?

End of year lists 2012

As if it isn’t enough to be shopping and wrapping and cooking and unwrapping and eating and searching for lost dogs and blocking our ears to keep out the piped carols, it’s the season for drawing up Best-Of lists.

The Art Student’s best five movies (with links to the movies’ IMDb pages):

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi 2011): ‘Definitely the best movie this year. We got to see how complex it all is for secular Muslims in Iran.’

Lore (Cate Shortland 2012): ‘Up there with A Separation. You don’t believe you can watch yet another film about Jews and Nazis, yet here it was, original and fresh. I hope it wins an Oscar. I liked Somersault too.’

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar 2011): ‘Creepy,’ she said, ‘but good.’

This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino 2011): ‘I loved the great humour, the art, the spectacular musical event.”

The Sessions (Ben Lewin 2012): ‘I liked having nudity and sex without it being voyeuristic.’

My best five movies, chosen fairly arbitrarily (with arbitrary reason given) from a short list of 19 that included all five of the Art Student’s picks:

Liberal Arts (Josh Radnor 2012) features a main character who walks around the city reading. I identified. It also reminded me of the pleasures of Eric Rohmer movies.

Sing Me the Songs that Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle (Lian Lunson 2012) pips The Sapphires (Wayne Blair 2012) at the post for my musical of the year. It’s a concert movie that invites us into extraordinary intimacy with a brilliantly musical family. Martha Wainwright sings ‘First Born’, which her mother wrote for her brother, and which we played a lot when our firstborn son was being ‘the first to crawl’.

Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki 2011) made me feel irrationally pleased with myself or recognizing the oddly deadpan directorial style from Drifting Clouds, which I saw and loved decades ago.

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius 2011) was a moderately enjoyable film until the final moment, which resolved a plot point I had been half-awarely worrying over, and vastly expanded the movie’s meaning.

Weekend (Andrew Haigh 2011): In spite of the phenomenal consumption of alcohol and other drugs, which would normally be enough to put me right off, I loved the unsentimental, unprurient portrayal of two characters who are completely taken with each other, including sexually.

The worst movie: We both picked Sophie Lellouche’s bland, self-indulgent Paris–Manhattan. But don’t take this as a solid judgement on the film as it might have miraculously picked up after the first hour, which is all we could bear. If we had to name a movie we stayed the course for, the Art Student would pick Skyfall, which she just plain hated, and I might have to pick Bernie, because Jack Black’s creepiness and the creepiness of the subject matter were from different universes.

The Art Student’s best books (she wouldn’t be limited to five), listed here in no particular order, with links to my blog entries or the book’s LibraryThing page:

1bmMartin Gayford, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney (2011): ‘Full of surprises and delights, about the way an artist sees the world.’

090787181XIrfan Orga, Portrait of a Turkish Family (©1950, Eland & Galeri Kayseri 2004): ‘Compellingly tells of the transition from a feudal society to modernity as a result of war. Also wonderful was the insider child’s view of life under the veil.’

20120704-175516.jpgHilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012): ‘I’m glad it won the Booker. I’m completely hooked on the story, and looking forward to the third book, although having fallen in love with Cromwell I’m not looking forward to his death.’

1920898581Heather Goodall, From Invasion to Embassy (1996): ‘A must-read for all Australians, especially those who think the dispossession of Aboriginal people all happened in the distant past.’

1ccStephen Gilchrist, editor, Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art (2012): ‘I’m only half way through this but it’s a great, accessible introduction to the complexity of Australian Indigenous art.’

Edwina Shaw, Thrill Seekers (2012): ‘I read this in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down even though a lot was uncomfortable.’

0007149530Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (2008): ‘Fascinating portraits of scientists in the late 18th century, when science and romanticism were closely joined. Particularly good on Banks and the Herschels.’

0670033804Sebastian Barry, The Long Way Home (2005) and On Canaan’s Side (2011): ‘Two completely absorbing novels. The first is probably the best novel of the First World War I’ve read, and the second extends the story to Irish immigration to the USA, and the past catching up with you, written convincingly in the voice of an 80 year old woman.’

My best books, which I’ve kept down to just five by declaring the AS’s list off limits:

20120224-180529Fàbio Moon & Gabriel Bà, Daytripper (2011): A gem of a comic book by twin brothers from Brazil, this is a string of connected short stories that celebrates a human life as a miracle of survival.

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (2008): A story of colonial India that manages to be a gripping romance at the same time as blasting any romantic nostalgia for the Raj to oblivion.

Yalata and Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley, Maralinga, the Anangu Story (2009): it was a toss-up between this and Tohby Riddle’s miraculous Unforgotten for my picture book of the year. This is a different kind of miracle from Tohby’s – it opens a space for a multitude of voices to speak about the lethal indifference to Indigenous Australians on the part of he British atomic test at Maralinga, and about the resilience of the Anangu people.

Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (2002): I choose this over Gibson’s brilliant 26 Views of the Starburst World, which was published this year, because the earlier book made me understand something of the colonisation of my North Queensland home that I had read about previously but managed not to grasp.

Jennifer Maiden, Liquid Nitrogen (2012): I read quite a bit of poetry this year. Possibly the major revelation was Byron’s Don Juan, but I haven’t finished reading that, and I might have chosen Liquid Nitrogen anyway, as I feel that Jennifer Maiden’s stories, meditations and dialogues help me to live in the modern world.

A note on the gender balance front: I would have thought my reading was fairly every spread between male and female writers, but numbers don’t cater to wishful thinking. According to my blog statistics, I read 34 books by men and 22 by women.

NSWPLA and NSWPHA Dinner

I didn’t expect to attend a NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner this year. For a while back there it looked as if the awards might go the way of the Queensland equivalent, but the Liberal Party-approved panel’s unpublished report must have come down in favour of continuation, because here they were again last night, six months late, run by the State Library rather than the Arts NSW, charging $200 [but see Judith Ridge’s comment] for a book to be considered, and sharing the evening with the History Awards, but alive and kicking. And pretty special for me, because I got to go as my niece’s date, my niece being Edwina Shaw, whose novel Thrill Seekers was shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing.

The dinner was held in the magnificent reading room of the Mitchell Library. Not everyone approved of the venue – I was in the Research Library in the morning when a woman complained very loudly that she had driven the four hours from Ulladulla only to find the Mitchell’s doors were closed for the day so it could be converted into a banquet hall. She must have been placated somehow because she stopped yelling, but there were other problems. None of the shortlisted books were on sale – Gleebooks had a table at this event for years [but see Judith Ridge’s comment], as the Library has its own shop, which wasn’t about to stay open late just for us. And library acoustics aren’t designed for such carryings-on: the reverberation in the vast, high-ceilinged room made a lot of what was said at the mike unintelligible at the back of the room. But those are quibbles. It’s a great room with happy memories for a good proportion of the guests.

Aunty Norma Ingram welcomed us to country, inviting us all to become custodians of the land.

Peter Berner was the MC. He did OK, but organisers please note: the MC of an event like this needs to be literate enough to pronounce Christina Stead’s surname correctly.

The Premier didn’t show up. Perhaps he was put off by the chance of unpleasantness in response to his current attack on arts education. The awards were presented by a trio of Ministers, one of whom read out a message from the Premier saying, among other things, that art in all its forms is essential to our society’s wellbeing. But this was a night for celebrating the bits that aren’t under threat, not for rudely calling on people to put their money where their mouths are.

The Special Award, sometimes known as the kiss of death because of the fate met by many of its recipients soon after the award, went to Clive James – whose elegant acceptance speech read to us by Stephen Romei necessarily referred to his possibly imminent death. He spoke of his affection for New South Wales, of his young sense that Kogarah was the Paris of South Sydney, and his regret that he is very unlikely ever to visit here again. He also said some modest things about what he hoped he had contributed.

After a starter of oyster, scampi tail and ocean trout, the history awards:

NSW Community and Regional History Award: Deborah Beck, Set in Stone: A History of the Cellblock Theatre
The writer told us that the book started life as a Master’s thesis, and paid brief homage to the hundreds of women who were incarcerated in early colonial times in the Cellblock Theatre, now part of the National Art School.

Multimedia History Prize: Catherine Freyne and Phillip Ulman,  Tit for Tat: The Story of Sandra Willson
This was an ABC Radio National Hindsight program about a woman who killed her abusive husband and received  lot of media – and wall art – attention some decades back. Phillip Ulman stood silently beside Catherine Freyne, who urged those of us who enjoyed programs like Hindsight to write objecting to the recent cuts.

Young People’s History Prize: Stephanie Owen Reeder, Amazing Grace: An Adventure at Sea
This book won against much publicised Ahn Do on being a refugee (The Little Refugee) and much revered Nadia Wheatley on more than a hundred Indigenous childhoods (Playground). It not only tells the story of young Grace Bussell’s heroic rescue of shipwreck survivors but, according to the evening’s program, it introduces young readers to the ‘basic precepts of historical scholarship’. It also looks like fun.

General History Prize: Tim Bonyhady, Good Living Street: The Fortunes of My Viennese Family
A member my book group rhapsodised about this book recently, comparing it favourably to The Hare with Amber Eyes. It’s a family history, and in accepting the award Bonyhady told us it had been a big week for his family because the lives of his two young relatives with disabilities would be greatly improved by the National Disability Insurance Scheme introduced by the Gillard government.

Australian History Prize: Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal People and the Australian Nation
This looks like another one for the To Be Read pile. Russell McGregor acknowledged Henry Reynolds and Tim Rowse as mentors.

After a break for the entrée, a creation in watermelon, bocconcini and tapenade, it was on to the literary awards:

The Community Relations Commission Award: Tim Bonyhady was called to the podium again for Good Living Street, but he’d given his speech, and just thanked everyone, looking slightly stunned.

The newly named Nick Enright Prize for Drama was shared between Vanessa Bates for Porn.Cake. and Joanna Murray-Smith for The Gift. Perhaps this made up to some extent for the prize not having been given two years ago.
Joanna Murray-Smith said she learned her sense of structure from the Henry Lawson stories her father read to her at bedtime. As her father was Stephen Murray-Smith, founding editor of Overland, she thereby managed to accept the government’s money while politely distancing herself from its politics. She lamented that her play hadn’t been seen in Sydney and struck an odd note by suggesting that the Mitchell Library and a similarly impressive building in Melbourne may have been the beginning of the Sydney–Melbourne rivalry: I wonder if any Sydney writers accepting awards in Melbourne feel similarly compelled to compete. Vanessa Bates couldn’t be here, so her husband accepted her award, with his smart phone videoing everything, perhaps sending it all to her live.

The also newly named Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting (and I pause to applaud this conservative government for honouring an old Communist in this way): Peter Duncan, Rake (Episode 1): R v Murray
Peter Duncan gets my Speech of the Night Award. He began by telling the junior minister who gave him the award that he was disappointed not to be receiving it from Barry O’Farrell himself, because he had wanted to congratulate Barry on the way his haircut had improved since winning the election. At that point we all became aware that Peter Duncan’s haircut bears a strong resemblance to the Premier’s as it once was. He then moved on to congratulate the Premier for instituting a careful reassessment of the Literary Awards and deciding to persevere with them. He expressed his deep appreciation of this support for the arts. (No one shouted anything about TAFE art education from the floor. See note above about this being an evening to celebrate the bits that aren’t under threat.)

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature: Kate Constable, Crow Country (Allen & Unwin)
I hadn’t read anything on this shortlist, I’m embarrassed to confess. It looks like a good book, a time-slip exploration of Australian history.

The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature: Penni Russon, Only Ever Always (Allen & Unwin)
Again, I hadn’t read any of the shortlist. But Bill Condon and Ursula Dubosarsky were on it, so this must be pretty good! Penni Russon’s brief speech referred to the famous esprit de corps of Young Adult writers: ‘You guys are my people.’

There was break for the main course to be served, and for about half the audience go wander and schmooze. I had the duck, the two vegetarians on our table were served a very fancy looking construction, only a little late. Then onward ever onward.

The Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry: Gig Ryan, New and Selected Poems
Again, I hadn’t read any of the shortlisted books, but wasn’t surprised that Gig Ryan won, as this is something of a retrospective collection. She speaks rapidly and her speech was completely unintelligible from where I was  sitting (like some of her poetry). However, someone tweeted a comment that got laughs from the front of the room:
tweet

The Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction: Mark McKenna, An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark
Another lefty takes the government’s money, and a good thing too.

The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: Rohan Wilson, The Roving Party (Allen & Unwin)
I know nothing about this book. Rohan Wilson is in Japan just now. His agent told us that when she asked him for an acceptance speech ‘just in case’, he emailed back, ‘No way I’ll win – look at the calibre of the others.’ The three writers on my table who were in competition with him seemed to think it was a fine that it had won:

Favel Parrett and Edwina Shaw respond to not winning the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

Favel Parrett and Edwina Shaw respond to not winning the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction was almost an anti-climax. It went to Kim Scott for That Deadman Dance. We had a small bet going on my table, and I won hundred of cents. Kim Scott’s agent accepted on his behalf.

There was dessert, layered chocolate and coffee cake, then:

The People’s Choice Award, for which voting finished the night before, went to Gail Jones for Five Bells. She was astonished, genuinely I think, and touched that her book about Sydney as an outsider should be acknowledged like this. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m also a bit astonished, because what I have read of her prose is not an easy read.

Book of the Year: Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance. No surprise there!

No surprise, either, that the award to Clive James overshadowed all the others in the newspaper reports.

I believe that the judging panel for next years literary awards has had its first meeting. The dinner will move back to the Monday of the week of the Writers’ Festival, where it belongs.

Added later: Edwina has blogged about the evening.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2012

The shortlists for the NSW Premier’s Literary and History Awards were announced today, and the awards dinner will be on 30 November. I’ve been a fan of these awards for years, but this year it’s personal. My fabulous niece, Edwina Shaw, is in incredibly distinguished company on the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, for her novel Thrill Seekers. Much snoopy dancing and weeping for joy has ensued.

I couldn’t find the lists on the site of the State Library, which is administering the awards this year. The Sydney Morning Herald has them, here.

Apart from Edwina’s book, I’ve read two of the novels (blog posts here and here) and one of the non-fiction works (here), all with my book group. I’ve read one of the multicultural titles (here), and none of the poetry books, the children’s books or the ‘young people’s literature’. I’ve seen two of the three scripts (episodes of Rake and East West 101) and have no desire to see the third (Snowtown).

The Premier’s History Awards usually happen at a different time of year, but because of a general overhaul (not, Barry be thanked, a cancellation as in Queensland), the two lots of awards are happening at the same time for just this year. I haven’t read anything on the History Awards shortlists, though I do have one book beside the bed.

Added on 6 November: The shortlists are now up on the State Library web site, here and here. There are instructions there for how to vote in the People’s Choice Award.

Asia Literary Review 24

Martin Alexander (editor) Asia Literary Review 24, [Northern] Summer 2012

I subscribed to the Asia Literary Review in 2009 for worthy motives: they had published a short story by my niece Edwina Shaw, and I wanted to support a publication that had faith in her; it also seemed a relatively painless way to ensure some cultural diversity in my reading. I’ve kept on renewing my subscription because every issue has something to delight – from a photo essay on Karen exiles living on the Thai–Burmese border to a splendidly simple pasta sauce recipe. The current issue doesn’t disappoint.

Martin Alexander’s editorial announces that this journal is organised around the theme of identity. The contributors, he writes,

reflect, and reflect upon, the multiplicity and complexity of their identities. Each piece was composed in isolation, but when brought and bound together their explorations of identity complement one another in unanticipated and intriguing ways.

I would add: in laugh out loud ways, and weird ways, and ways that make you want to weep. Many of the pieces are about dislocation – through migration, exile or invasion. Many are about the experience of being mixed-heritage. There’s a fascinating, kaleidoscopic effect as voices from China, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Japan, India, Thailand, South Korea, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, the UK, the USA and Australia, Uyghur, Hawai’ian and Burmese voices, echo one another’s motifs, answer one another’s questions and question one another’s answers.

My precious blogging time is being taken up with doggerel endeavours these days, so I’ll limit myself to mentioning, pretty much at random, just a few highlights.

Kavita Bhanot’s ‘Too Asian, Not Asian Enough‘ asks if it isn’t a new form of Orientalism for so-called British Asians to simplify their identities and perform them rather than striving to understand and reveal their own complexities. The journal’s imprint page reveals that Madhvi Ramani’s short story ‘Windows‘ is taken from an anthology edited by Kavita Bhanot with the same name as her article. Ramani’s story illustrates beautifully the kind of thing Bhanot is advocating: it starts out with Mrs Sharma, close to the stereotype of the elderly, widowed Indian living in Britain, locked out of her home, and ends in a completely unexpected place.

In Win Lyovarin’s Rainbow Days, the Bangkok Reds and Yellows demonstrations are seen, to wonderful satirical effect, from the point of view of a barely legal Burmese street merchant. This is one of a number of pieces translated into English, in this case from Thai by Marcel Barang. Kim Jae Young’s ‘Elephant‘, translated from Korean by Moon-ok Lee and Nicholas Yohan Duvernay, is another: an impoverished and desperate little community of immigrants is seen through the eyes of a young boy, son of a Nepalese man and a Korean mother who has abandoned them.

There’s an interview with Donald Keene, pre-eminent expert on Japanese literature, who in his late 80s, not long after the tsunami, earthquake and nuclear accident last year, decided to leave the United States and become a Japanese citizen.

I’ve always thought that Chinese criticism of the Party and bureaucracy was inevitably an earnest affair. Jimmy Qi’s ‘Yu Li: Confessions of an Elevator Operator‘ (translated by Harvey Thomlinson, whose Hong Kong based Make-Do Press has a novel by Jimmy Qi in the pipeline) demonstrates definitvely that this just isn’t so. At one level this story is a completely serious satire, but at another it’s an immensely enjoyable piece of silliness.

I plan to keep my subscription up.

Edwina reads

My fabulous niece Edwina Shaw recently had a Sydney launch of her YA novel Thrill Seekers. Here’s a video of her reading a chapter – taken, she says on her blog, by her children:

[YouTube=”http://youtube/FY8o6OL2SVg”%5D

Thrill Seekers live

The Art Student and I are in Brisbane, wagging it from our Sydney lives to cheer for my niece Edwina Shaw whose book Thrill Seekers had its Australian launch at The Avid Reader last night.

I’ve blogged about the book before. It’s published by Ransom in the UK as part of their Cutting Edge series for reluctant teenage readers, and it’s pretty strong stuff. The promo on YouTube gives you some idea of its credentials to be part of something called Cutting Edge – lots of booze, drugs, sex, risk taking and rock and roll. Its final image of a wide-eyed, possibly terrified boy gives a glimpse of the book’s heart:

Though the book is grim and cutting edge, the launch was cheerful. A huge crowd crammed into Avid’s courtyard in the warm Brisbane evening (unlike Sydney, Brisbane has been having a summer) to be greeted by a slide show of Edwina and friends being young in the 80s. Jeff Cheverton, CEO of Queensland Alliance for Mental Health, kicked things off with a short talk in which he wondered aloud if Douggie, the boy in the book who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, might have had a less cruel experience if he and his friends had had a language for what was happening, and if there had been places then as there are now (though he seemed to say only two in Queensland) where young people who are losing it could go for support without being taken into the embrace of the medical model. Or words in that general direction – I didn’t take notes and I have a sieve for a memory.

Venero Armanno gave an elegant launch speech. He was at pains to say that while a great strength of the book is that it draws on the writer’s experience, it would be a mistake to see it as biographical, and especially so to see the alcoholic mother of the novel’s dangerously acting-out teenagers as in any way representing the author’s mother. The possibility of readers’ leaping to such an assumption has caused a lot of grief during the book’s long gestation, so the clarification was welcome. All the same, in other places the line between history and fiction are a little blurred. The book is dedicated to Edwina’s younger brother, whose life had a lot in common with that of the tragic fictional Dougie, and it’s his photo that ends the YouTub promo. I asked the elegant young man and successful artist sitting in front of me if he was a model for any of the characters. ‘Oh yes, he said, ‘I’m the one from a sugar farm who used to kill cane toads with his bare hands.’

Edwina spoke, and read a short passage, of which the emotionally charged last line caught her off guard, and she had to struggle to finish. Which must say something about the power of the book: she must have read that passage a hundred times in the writing-rewriting-rewriting-editing-proofreading process, but it still has that power for her.

And then she signed and signed and signed.
20120309-200156.jpg
Because Ransom is a tiny publishing house, Edwina is handling the Australian marketing and distribution herself. Her website gives regular updates on where it’s available.

Edwina Shaw’s Thrill Seekers

Edwina Shaw, Thrill Seekers (Ransom 2011)

This is a Cutting Edge title – part of a ‘gritty’ Young Adult series from Ransom Publishing UK. A gang of Brisbane children progress from mucking around in Oxley Creek to more risky adolescent thrills. In what might seem a standard children’s or YA literature trope, the father of the main characters dies in the first chapter, and their mother is pretty much lost in grief and alcohol. In what follows the young people go more and more out of control. There’s an awful lot of flagon wine (‘goon’) and marijuana, a range of other drugs, quite a bit of violence, some awful sex and a lot of wretchedness. The most vulnerable character goes horrifyingly, dangerously mad*. At the end there is a glimmer of hope.

That might make it sound like one of those ‘problem’ books for young readers that periodically stirs up the moral panic merchants. And maybe it is, but it’s a book with a lot of integrity. It treats its difficult subject matter without romanticising it, and without moralising. It resonated strongly with elements of three excellent books I’ve read recently: the dangerous play of Watch Out for Me, the heartbreak of After Romulus, the drugs and risk taking of The Life (blog entry to come when the Book Group meets), and the madness/psychosis/mental illness of all three.

Really, though, I can’t even pretend to write a sensible review, because the author is my eldest niece. It’s not that I worry I’ll seem nepotistic, and it’s absolutely not a matter of being tactful – as in, ‘I’m sure the target audience will love it.’ I can say up front that it’s a terrific book. But you know, even though Edwina is a mature woman, mother of two, teacher of yoga, blogger, disciplined writer, wise and warm lender of support to other writers including myself, she is still inseparable in my mind from the person whose exultant joy at being able to crawl I had the privilege of sharing more than forty years ago, and even though I know this book is fiction my avuncular heart recoils from following that cheerful little girl into these dark places.

Versions of some of the chapters have been published as short stories. You can read some of them online here and here. That last one didn’t make it into the book, and confirms my sense that, if anything, the world of the book has grown less harsh on its transition from book for general readership to a YA title.
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* I’m deliberately saying ‘mad’ rather than ‘mentally ill’ or whatever . Raimond Gaita writes with characteristic acuteness about this kind of language in After Romulus (pages 71 to 74). Referring to the lines from King Lear, ‘Oh, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!’ his discussion ends:

Lear’s cry is not heartrending because he suffers ‘social stigma’. And it would not move us as it does had he said, ‘Oh, let me not fall into bipolar disorder.’

Edwina’s story of Douggie includes the social stigma, but it also takes us into, using Gaita’s words again, ‘the unique terror that the word madness conveys’.

Asia Literary Review 14 and 15

Chris Wood (ed), Asia Literary Review, Nº 14 and Nº 15

I subscribed to the Asia Literary Review as an act of avuncular solidarity – I wanted a hard copy of issue 14, (northern) Winter 2009, which features ‘Broken’, a story by my niece Edwina Shaw. Having now read two issues, I’m a fan.

Asia, of course, covers a vast proportion of the Earth, from the Philippines in the east to the Arabian Peninsula in the west. The Asia (not ‘Asian’) Literary Review is a vast tent open to contributions from all of it and beyond. It’s an English-language journal, founded by Nury Vittachi in 1999, and currently edited by Chris Wood. It publishes work by writers and visual artists from Asian cultures in translation and originally in English, work by expat and former expat Westerners (like my niece), not all from English-speaking countries, work by Westerners who have engaged with Asia in other ways (there’s an extract from Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing in Nº 14), contributions from various Asian diasporas. There are interviews, both original and transcribed from The Book Show, and a wealth of illustration.

In Issue 15, just arrived in my letterbox this week, Hanif Kureishi (one of the interviewees) is quoted on racism:

It really is about language. It’s very traumatic to exist in a world of other people’s descriptions. Your own words have no force.

If he’s right, then the sheer multiplicity of voices here must be profoundly anti-racist. In Issue 14, ‘Noe’s Jiuta-mai’, a photo-essay by Bangkok based Xavier Comas on a traditional Japanese dance form, is followed by  ‘Nova Initia’, Thomas Lee’s first person narrative about a Korean man in the US learning about his father’s past, which in turn is followed by ‘Phallacy’, a laddish sonnet by England born Daljit Nagra (How oft do mates bang on at length about / how well they’re hung …). Issue 14 interviews Gao Xingjian, three times exiled from China for his writing and now living in France:

The writer is a weak individual and cannot overcome political oppression; he can only flee, or he has to write for the government. […] Dante fled Florence because he couldn’t write. Ibsen fled Norway; it wasn’t until Norway began to recognise him that he went back.

In Issue 15, dissident writer Liao Yiwu’s memoir ‘Go South, Go Further South’ concludes:

I had survived prison, while others had died within its walls. And I had survived a devastating earthquake while so many others perished. And hundreds of people are arrested or shot crossing the border. I don’t have a single reason to complain.
I accept my fate, which is to stay, and write.

Heroism has many faces. So does Asia. You get to meet a lot of them in this journal.

And in case I haven’t said it before, Edwina’s story can hold its head up in that multifaceted and exalted company.

December niece news

Since I seem to be posting regular notes about nieces, perhaps I should explain: I’ve got eight of them, and five of the eight have lived, or at least stayed for a while, with us over the years. Every one of them is a source of great joy. A number of them are meeting with a degree of success as writers and artists, and I’m shamelessly putting my blog to work as part of their publicity machines. (We have seven nephews, sources of no less joy, who have so far been more or less avoiding the need for publicity.)

Paula Shaw, whose memoir Seven Seasons at Aurukun received quite a bit of attention earlier in the year, and not just from me, popped up again in Inga Clendinnen’s article in the December Australian Literary Review. Although the article itself has attracted aspersions from Guy Rundle in Crikey, the reference to Seven Seasons as ‘a brave and honest book’ stands uncontested. Thanks to my avuncular Google Alert, I also came across a number of reviews by teachers – on the publisher’s web site, and a review by an Aboriginal reader who has the most negative response I’ve seen so far, identifying a ‘heart of darkness vibe’, but says all the same that it would be a ‘good read for anybody interested in contemporary life in an Aboriginal community in Australia’.

Meanwhile, Paula’s sister Edwina Shaw has been gracing the pages of the Griffith Review for a couple of years now – and grace is the right word for it, even though her stories deal with dark themes set in Joh-era Brisbane. She has a story in the current issue, along with Frank Moorhouse, Louis Nowra and other luminaries. She also has a story, about different youth altogether, in the current (Winter) edition of the Asia Literary Review, sharing the contents list with among others Henning Mankell. (I was putting off posting this until the Asia Literary Review web site included details on the Winter issue, but as it’s now 5 January my title will be appallingly out of date if I postpone any longer, so here it is with what may be the right cover.)

Update: Chris Wood, the editor, has told us in a comment that it is the right cover.

Another update: The Winter issue is now up on the Asia Literary Review web site. I’ve fixed the link, and added one to Edwina’s story, ‘Broken’.