Tag Archives: Edwina Shaw

Bryan Hartas, Hard As

Bryan Hartas, Hard As: My Life as an Orphan Boy (AndAlso Press 2021)

Full disclosure: This book was edited by my niece, Edwina Shaw. ‘Edited’ is an understatement for the process that she and the author undertook together. She describes it in an Editor’s Note:

I first met Bryan several years ago as a participant in the creative writing classes I run at Lotus Place, a resource and support centre for Forgotten Australians. Bryan often spoke about wanting to record his whole life story, despite having difficulty with literacy like many Forgotten Australians.
Over a period of years, Bryan and I have sat together and I have written down his words as he spoke them, later shaping these notes into a chronological narrative …
Over the past couple of years, I have read the story aloud to Bryan and he has added and changed details.

The book tells the story of just one of more than half a million children who were failed by Australian society and its institutions in the 20th century, under the appallingly ironic heading of ‘care’. They are the ‘Forgotten Australians’ – the term used by the 2003–04 Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care:

Children were for many reasons hidden in institutions and forgotten by society when they were placed in care and again when they were released into the ‘outside’ world. … These people who spent part or all of their childhood in an institution, children’s home or out-of-home care background have been the forgotten Australians.

(‘Introduction: Conduct of Senate Inquiry – Submissions:1.16‘, Forgotten Australians Report, 2004, from Wikipedia)

In the first dozen pages of Bryan Hartas’s story, he is relatively safe in his mother’s care. He very rarely sees his father, but hears him attack his mother when he comes home drunk at night. There are two photos, one of Bryan as a chubby baby and the other, a classic of its kind, showing him aged seven with his three siblings grinning awkwardly at the camera. A man whose head has been torn from the photograph, possibly the children’s father, stands behind them. Bryan’s mother was taken away in an ambulance soon after that photo was taken, and he never saw her again. Then the true horror began.

Completely neglected by their father, the children were taken into care, where they were separated. Years of mistreatment followed, including terrible hunger and vulnerability to sexual assault by older boys. In Bryan’s account, he was singled out for special mistreatment because he was ‘ugly’. The treatment meted out by the nuns and others was terrible. As he grew older, he was sent to work with the men around the place, but still given the paltry food allotted to the children. At times he had no bed, but had to find a spot in a shed where he slept under a pile of hessian bags. He was sent out to work on farms. In one of them he was treated well, given decent meals, and received some affection, which he soaked up. But mostly he was treated worse than the farm animals. It may be that he fell through the cracks in the system, but the system itself was hideous. He was sent to a correctional institution after some failed attempts at escape, and while still a teenager he landed in Boggo Road Gaol in Brisbane. Possibly the most horrific moment in his narrative is when he talks bout the relief he felt in gaol: he was safe and well-fed, with a bed of his own. On his release he committed a crime so as to find a way back to safety.

He manages to have relationships with a number of women. The narrative glides over the details, but none of the relationships endure. He does have a number of children. He gives up alcohol, does volunteer work, and at the time of telling the story he has a good connection with his children. It’s a story of survival.

The subject matter is gruelling, but it’s a gripping read.

To give you a taste, here’s a story of what happened on the Willises’ dairy farm near Fangool, out past Biloela, when Hartas was fourteen years old. (I can’t find a town called Fangool – maybe it’s a name made up to protect the guilty, and maybe it’s only accidental that it sounds like an Englishing of a common Italian swear word, which could be Bryan’s joke, or possibly Edwina’s.) Another boy from the home, James, was also working on the farm, and for some reason he was treated much better than Bryan. The farm was rundown, and a lot of the equipment – the truck, the milking machines, the windmill, the riding gear – was in disrepair. Inevitably, there was an accident. When Bryan was bringing cows in to milk one afternoon, the girth on his horse’s saddle broke. He fell on some jagged rocks and was knocked unconscious:

When I came to, I had blood on my head and terrible pain on the right side of my back and in my shoulder. I came to in a panic, knowing I’d been badly hurt, that I needed help. So I started back to the house as fast as I could. Staggered and ran and staggered and ran all the long way to the farm. I didn’t know where the horse was.
When I got back, James told me to go over to the house. Mrs Willis gave me a pain killer and told me to sit on the back veranda for a few minutes then go back to work. It was my left shoulder, my dominant hand, and my arm was hanging useless beside me, yet she forced me back to work. After a while, I got up and went to the dairy, but I couldn’t do anything properly because I was in so much pain. I could barely lift my arm. I should have gone to hospital. It was a serious injury.
I got no sleep that night or for many nights for months after that because of the pain. I didn’t even get another pain killer from the Willises. For months I couldn’t use that arm at all and had to fumble around with my right hand trying to put cups on teats and do the other jobs. Many decades later, I still can’t throw a ball with that arm. Only recently, the break and damage was revealed. X-rays showed my shoulder blade had been cracked and the ball joint of my shoulder was chipped. I told the Willises I was in agony, but they still didn’t take me to a doctor.

(Page 75)

This is characteristic of Hartas’s vivid manner of telling. It reflects the confidence he felt in his editor/scribe – confidence that she would record his story with integrity, but also that she is listening with respect and empathy. There’s an insistence on how terrible things were (and elsewhere on how much his mother’s love meant to him) that reflect his wanting her – and us – to understand. I know I’m probably prejudiced because the editor/scribe is my lovely niece, but it seems to me that what shines through in this book is her ability to listen well, and her ability to render the chaos of the spoken word (which anyone who’s ever transcribed their own or anyone else’s speech knows is close to universal) into smooth prose that still sounds like a speaking voice.

I’m glad I read this so soon after reading Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the Past. The books are similar in many ways. Together they bear powerful witness to the lived experience of suffering and resilience that lies behind labels like Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and Forgotten Australians.

Guides through grief, torture and trauma

Edwina Shaw, A Guide Through Grief: First aid for your heart and soul (Red Backed Wren 2020)
Margaret Bennett & Jennifer Maiden, Workbook Questions: Writing of Torture, Trauma Experience (Quemar Press 2019)

I’m not the intended audience for either of these books, but they’re both written, or co-written, by writers whose work I love. One of the writers is my niece. Each of the books is related to its author’s other job: Edwina is a yoga teacher when she’s not writing, and Jennifer Maiden has been employed as Writer in Residence at STARTTS (NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors).

Edwina’s book has a further subtitle on the title page: ‘Practical tools, creative activities and yoga exercises to help you cope with the loss of someone you love’. It announces itself as a self-help book. OK, I’m deeply suspicious of self-help books so, as blood’s not thicker than prejudice, I approached A Guide through Grief with my defences up.

It turns out that, yes, there are plenty of practical tools etcetera. At the end of each chapter there are several suggested activities: journalling and other writing tasks, affirmations à la Louise Hay, rituals with a New Age feel, the promised yoga exercises, and some recipes. Some or all of these may hit just the right note for some readers, and I’ve got nothing against a good recipe for chicken soup, but if that’s all there was to the book my heart would have hardened against it. (Luckily, an introductory ‘How to use this book’ explicitly invites readers to turn up their noses at some exercises, depending on taste.)

But the book is also a memoir. Edwina’s reflections on grief and loss, the need to weep and to stay connected, the importance of facing the reality rather than taking refuge in work or destructive activity of one kind or another, the passage of time – all these are entwined with accounts of personal experience. The book is rooted in her own bereavements: her father died of cancer when she was 14, her younger brother killed himself not long after, her grandmother died a peaceful death in old age, and then, devastatingly, decades later, a baby son died soon after birth. The self-help advice and suggestions have been tested in the laboratory of the writer’s own life, and she shows at least some of her workings.

I had tears in my eyes in many places. Partly this is because three of its four main deaths affected me deeply at the time. (I was ridiculously pleased to read in the paragraph about the impersonal remoteness of her brother’s funeral on page 110: ‘Only my uncle’s speech reflected the true essence of Matty’s personality.’ At least I’d been part of bucking the trend.) It’s also because Edwina can write. I happen to have read this book as I’m making my way, three pages a day, through Proust’s account of bereavement in the sixth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. I’m not suggesting that Edwina Shaw and Marcel Proust are in any way similar writers, but Proust’s description of humans as ‘amphibious creatures who are immersed simultaneously in the past and in present-time reality’, which I read this morning, resonates through Edwina’s accounts of the role of memory in grieving.

The book does an elegant two-step: it evokes one person’s experience of loss and her grieving work, and gives practical suggestions on how the reader can do their own work. I skipped the yoga and I skim-read the affirmations; you might ignore the writing exercises – which I might actually try. I doubt if I’ll ever practise a ‘visualisation’ in which I sit naked on the lap of a mother goddess, but I’ll remember Edwina’s wise aunt who said that ‘for every death there is one hundred hours’ worth of crying’. I love her argument for wrenching funerals from the control of religious institutions and for-profit enterprises. Edwina says in her introduction that this is the book she wishes someone had given her when she was 14. I hope I’d have the moral fibre to give it to someone in that situation: it could save lives.

Workbook Questions is what it says on the lid: 47 pages of carefully-devised questions intended as prompts in writing exercises for ‘Torture and Related Trauma Survivors and for Survivors of Camps and Incarceration’. So the main intended audience is limited – though an opening section of ‘General Questions’ is designed to make the book useful to anyone addressing trauma of any sort, not just torture and incarceration, which is a much broader readership/user base. It turns out that the list of questions is preceded by a 30-page ‘Conversation’ between the authors: Margaret Bennett, former Executive Director of STARTTS with a background in group therapy and counselling, and Jennifer Maiden, poet.

A more conventional presentation might have spelled out a carefully referenced rationale for the questions, probably with each question numbered for easy cross-reference: ‘The reasons for starting out with neutral questions about parents are as follows,’ etcetera.

Although such explanations are covered in the ‘conversation’, it is much more interesting and readable than that. Two women who have worked with each other and know each other well discuss the circumstances that led to this set of questions, the insights they bring from their different experiences and expertise, what they found worked in the groups, the value of writing as opposed to speaking as a way of integrating traumatic experiences, and autobiographical anecdotes.

Maiden and Bennett take turns in speaking/writing, and each turn is printed as a single paragraph. As these paragraphs can run for several pages and cover a range of topics, the reader has to do work that would be done by an editor in a more conventionally presented work, but the work pays off. I imagine that this conversation will be very useful, not only to people working with survivors of torture, trauma and incarceration, but also to to scholars interested in Jennifer Maiden’s poetry, in which these themes appear frequently.

A Guide through Grief and Workbook Questions are the 20th and 21st books I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

AndAlso Books, All We Could Do

Nicky Boynton-Bricknell & Duncan Richardson (editors), All We Could Do: Queensland flu stories 1918–1920 (AndAlso Books 2020)

AndAlso Books is a self-described boutique publishing house based in Brisbane. Last year they published Bjelke Blues, an excellent collection of reminiscences about the Jo Bjelke-Petersen days, which was a startling reminder that Australia is not immune from erratic authoritarianism. When I read that at the beginning of May this year AndAlso had published a collection of prose pieces about the flu pandemic in Queensland 1918–20, I was in awe of the timing. And who better to initiate the project than commissioning editor Matthew Wengert, whose City of Masks: How Brisbane Fought the Spanish Flu was published in 2019?

I’m sorry to report that my overwhelming sense of this book is of a wasted opportunity.

The history is fascinating, The New South Wales border was closed and hundreds of travellers were stranded in Tenterfield and then Wallangarra. The flu came to Queensland late, but it did come. The town of Mackay went into self-isolation, completely cut off from the rest of the world for a time. Beef tea, eucalyptus oil and occasionally raw onions had almost talismanic status. Masks, isolation and quarantine chime with out current experience. Then as now, heroic individuals put their lives on the line to care for the infected, and for the general community in small towns. Over it all, there was the terrible reality that the pandemic followed on the heels of the Great War.

But the book feels as if it was put together on a shoestring without the input of professional designers or proofreaders. The latters’ absence is most desperately evident in what might otherwise have been one of the most engrossing pieces, which seems to have been saved from MS Word with the Track Changes button left on – so that original text and replacement are both still there. This isn’t just me being my usual nitpicky self: the reading experience was often physically unpleasant and in on a couple of pages the text was unintelligible.

Having said that, there are fascinating photos including some of the quarantine camps at Wallangarra and Tenterfield, and one of the contents page of a booklet of Recipes for Invalid Cookery that made me glad all over for Australia’s current cultural diversity. And most of the stories are worth the struggle.

Matthew Wengert’s introduction describes the pieces in the book as ‘creative non-fiction narratives’. That description covers a range – from historical fiction to narrative history, with various hybrids in between, of which the most successful to my mind is a fictional narrative interspersed with historical documents. Call me rigid, but I like to be clear about the relationship what I’m reading has to what we know really happened.

The piece I found most engaging is ‘Breath of Life’, a straightforward piece of fiction by Edwina Shaw, who (full disclosure) is my niece and my reason for having heard of AndAlso at all. ‘Breath of Life’ is the Maryborough story, though a good half of it is taken up with the wartime experience of its protagonist. We don’t care if the protagonist is based on a historical person. The writing makes us believe in the physical reality of his experiences of mustard gas, of killing a young German man at close range, of re-entering civilian life, of contracting the flu.

Andrea Baldwin’s ‘Love and Duty’, the Eidsvold story, does a nice job of incorporating bush-fiction tropes into its tale of a doctor called out to attend sick stockmen, and then in a short Author’s Note lets the fascinating historical context come tumbling in.

Steve Capelin’s ‘Two Zero Eight’, the North Queensland story, is a first-person narrative about an Italian migrant. shockingly, Italian men living in queensland were rounded up by Australian military police and shipped off under guard to do military service in Italy. The troop ship SS Medic set out from Sydney on 2 November 1918. The war ended before it got much New Zealand and in an eerie pre-echo of the Ruby Princess it brought the virus back to Sydney. The story ends with the narrator admiring the view across Sydney Harbour from his grave in the Third Quarantine Cemetery (the grave marker doesn’t bear his name, just the number 208).

Just Plain Scared‘ by Ron Glazebrook and Matthew Wengert, is the Townsville story. Townsville was ‘the heart of the Red North’, and there was a massive demonstration of waterside workers and others demanding successfully to have an approaching ship properly quarantined. This story gives a clear, straightforward account of the history interspersed with short diary entries by a young railway worker. I would have liked a note telling us whether the diary was real or invented.

The other piece I want to single out is ‘Big Sickness Come Ailan’ by Samantha Faulkner and Rita Metzenrath, Thursday Island/Weiben’s story. This is the only piece to have First Nations characters at the centre, though others refer to the devastating effect of the pandemic on some First Nations communities. (And I note in passing that as a North Queenslander I noticed the absence of Chinese and Islander voices, but you can’t have everything.) Samantha Faulkner is a Wuthuthi/Yadhaigana woman from Cape York Peninsula and Badu and Moa Islands, and Rita Metzenrath (whose name is given incorrectly in two places) is a senior officer at AIATSIS. The story is strong, of a terribly bereaved Torres Strait Islander man forming an alliance and friendship with a white woman from Rockhampton, but the kicker comes in a short endnote: there were 96 deaths recorded for the Torres Strait and Cape York, though the “exact number of Torres Strait Islander people who were affected by and died during the influenza pandemic is hard to quantify as they were collectively included under the term “coloured people” with Malays and Japanese.’

The AndAlso website promises a new book for publication this month: Our Inside Voices:Reflections on Covid-19, featuring writers such as Nick Earls, Samuel Wagan Watson and Jessica White. If they spend the extra money on a proofreader it should be something to look forward to.

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.


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:

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

[Added in 2021: Most of the links in the blog post are broken, but the title above and the image to the left will get you there. The whole issue is available online to subscribers.]

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 definitively 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:


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.
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.