Tag Archives: John Heilemann

Journals: Asia Lit Review 16 & Overland 199

Stephen McCarty (editor), Asia Literary Review Nº 16 ([northern] Summer  2010)
Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland Nº 199 (Winter 2010)

Both these journals have been sitting on my desk for too long.  This is the first Asia Literary Review with Stephen McCarty as editor, which is not the hot news it would have been if I’d read it when it arrived months ago. With Overland, my tardiness is even more embarrassing – the  much awaited special 200th issue is being launched in Melbourne this weekend, making issue 199 so last season.

This is only the third issue of the ALR I’ve read, and as far as I can tell the editorial change doesn’t herald any major shift in direction.

This issue includes work from and about Thailand, Laos, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Turkey, and their diasporas. Intergenerational tensions loom large in almost every piece. Two sayings, one Indian and the other Chinese, capture something of the tenor of that looming. In Sandip Roy’s ‘No Country for Old Women‘, reporting on government attempts to reunite families where elderly parents have been abandoned or abused, he comments:

Love, my mother always says, flows downwards. You can’t force it flow the other way if it does not want to.

The fading popular singer who narrates Stephen Hirst’s ‘It’s All in the Silhouette‘ quotes a ‘lovely Chinese saying’:

one generation plants the trees, the next gets the shade.

Story after story, some very good, deals with a parent’s love and sacrifice, a child’s obedience or resentment and rebellion. There’s an awful lot of pain – grandmothers with bound feet occur in more than one story, and there are a number of guilt-pricked young men living in the USA.

There are other subjects: Gary Jones reports on the Red Shirt encampment in Bangkok earlier this year; Jaina Sanga’s story ‘The Maharaja and the Accountant‘ is a tale of politics from the dying days of the Raj; and there’s a short essay by Tippaphon Keopaseut, ‘Looking for Laos‘. In this last, the writer explores the cultural traditions of her country, beginning with the shocking observation that ‘compared to the great nations of the world, Laos seems little more than an empty space’, continuing with savage wit to give a history of colonisation and concluding:

So, I continue looking for Laos. And if it doesn’t exist? I’ll just have to invent it. After all, isn’t that what writers do?

I hope that’s not just youthful braggadocio. Certainly it’s not the words of someone obliged to stay in shade that someone else has sacrificed their life to plant for them. (The full stories behind those links are available only to subscribers, sorry!)

If the Asia Literary Review serves to expand an Australian reader’s horizons, Overland helps one see more clearly what’s happening near at hand. The entire issue is, as always, available online, so it’s a bit ironic that the first item in the real-world version is ‘Driven to Distraction‘, in which Cate Kennedy inveighs persuasively against internet addiction. As soon as I’d read it, I opened the Twitter app on my iPhone and unfollowed @annabelcrabb, @andrewbolt and the other Tweeters whose witty observations had been delighting (and distracting) me since the election. My Twitter addiction is nipped in the bud. Thanks, Cate! All the same, as with many articles here, I did have a ‘Yes, but’ response: Yes, the internet is a distraction, but I hope not all blogging grows from ‘a compulsion that blunts our capacity for reflective, private contemplation’.

Sean Scalmer and Jackie Dickenson in ‘The March of the Insider‘ do a nice job of deconstructing the historico-journalism of Paul Kelly. I haven’t read any of his books, or indeed any insider accounts of Australian parliamentary politics, but I did recently read Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Race of a Lifetime, and this article’s shoe fits that book’s foot pretty well:

… the claim of political journalists to a special ‘insider’ knowledge might be considered an impediment rather than a spur to full democratic participation. The ‘inside’ requires an ‘outside’. The same rhetoric that elevated the journalist and the politician thereby also positions the voter as a perpetual outsider, sending the message that there is a separate political sphere of which they are not, and never can be, a part.

Yes, but isn’t it a whole other story when journalists, political or not, write books about issues such as the Tampa, the AWB scandal, or events on Palm Island?

Tad Tietze analyses the rise of the Greens as a party attractive to the left but with a complex relationship with left politics and left perspectives. Thomas Caldwell argues against the likes of Antony Ginnane and Louis Nowra who have recently been critical of Australian films en masse, with box-office takings as their sole criteria of success or failure. There’s a trio of articles that save from possible oblivion aspects of activist history: Zanny Begg discusses and illustrates political art and the counter-globalisation movement (yes, a tremendously interesting piece which I recommend, but isn’t it odd to discuss participatory art in terms that exclude people not trained in artspeak?); Michael Hyde’s memoir ‘Getting out of the Boat‘, gives the inside story of some key moments in Australian opposition to the Vietnam war; Seb Prowse talks to Iain McIntyre about the latter’s How to Make Trouble and Influence People (Breakdown Press, 2009) which deals with imaginative Australian protest, culture-jamming and graffiti from White settlement to the present.

And there’s literary stuff as well: short stories, poems, reviews, an engagement with the controversy around the PEN/Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature and the new Cambridge History of Australian Literature.

I skipped the article on literary piracy, part of the Meanland project of exploring the implications of new technology for the written word. I know its important, but for now I’m very happy to get my literary journals in holdable, stainable, dog-earable form.

The Book Group’s Race of a Lifetime

Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Race of a Lifetime: How Obama won the White House (Penguin 2010)

Before the Book Group meeting:

This book’s US title is Game Change, with the subtitle Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. This is snappy and gives a fair idea of the book’s contents. So why the change to a lame and inaccurate title for this British edition? Maybe it was revenge on the US for renaming J K Rowling’s first book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

The authors say in their introduction that they set out to give ‘an intimate portrait of the candidates and spouses who (in our judgement) stood a reasonable chance of occupying the White House’ after the 2008 election. They conducted more than 300 interviews with more than 200 people between July 2008 and September 2009, while memories of the election campaign were still fresh, and produced a book bristling with direct quotes from behind the scenes. I wouldn’t describe much of it as intimate in any real sense, but it’s got a kind of gossipy fascination. The Obamas, the McCains, the Edwardses and especially the Clintons are all big characters, and all have marriages that have had to withstand unbelievable strain. Todd Palin gets mentioned quite a bit, but doesn’t become a character in his own right, and not a lot of ink is spent on Sarah Palin herself – though what there is of her is even more bizarre than the press suggested at the time.

I don’t know that the book does much to deepen the reader’s understanding of the US political system in general or the 2007–8 election campaign in particular. The main take-home message seems to be that you don’t have to be some kind of sociopath to run for President or Vice-President of the United States, but it helps. Miraculously, Barack Obama doesn’t seem to be one. One does weep for US-style democracy, at least as seen through the lens of political journalism. I found myself empathising with the widespread fear of democracy in mid nineteenth century Australia, expressed in 1853 by John Plunkett, Attorney General of the colony of New South Wales:

All serious convulsions are carried out by demagogues; as a boiling cauldron throws its scum to the top, so in all social convulsions unworthy persons will be sure to get to the top, and betray the people for their own selfish purposes. The people left to themselves, and uncontrolled, will be hurled on to ruin by the ruffians who make them their dupes.

(Quoted in Peter Cochrane, Colonial Ambition, MUP 2006, p 379)

Not that ruffians and demagogues prevailed in 2008, but one gets the impression that without ruffianly behaviour and demagoguery, and certainly not without being able to deal with lashings of both, no one could ever become Potus.

Kate Jennings’s Quarterly Essay, American revolution: The fall of Wall Street and the rise of Barack Obama, though not an insider’s account, probably casts more light on the issues at stake in the campaign and is almost as thrilling a ride. I do feel an itch to read an account as candid and thorough, and occasionally lurid, as this about an Australian election. Sadly, I doubt if even Tony Abbott, for all his lycra and chest pounding and people skills, could equal any one of a score of moments in this rip-roarer.

After the meeting:

Tonight we were five, then six and eventually seven, the last arrival being delayed by an argumentative accountant and a locked car park. The conversation folded back on itself a number of times, with recaps and revisitings. Most of us, I think, had found the book interesting, though a number hadn’t been able to finish it – the apparent weighting of the scales towards Obama was a factor (either the Clintons are actually really weird or the journalist/authors decided it was good ‘narrative’ to portray them that way), an absence of politics-tragicality on the part of the non-finishers was another: do we really care about advice from yet another aide that was disregarded by yet another candidate? As an innovation tonight was also discussed an article – on climate change – and though none of us was ardent about the article, the juxtaposition emphasised the way the book favours personality above policy and implies that the US democratic process does likewise. I think its true to say we were all shocked and awed by the sheer amount of money spent on presidential campaigns.

The fact that the ABC had been reporting a leadership challenge in Canberra meant the book’s holding power was tested. Once the conversation veered – even lunged – towards a debate about Rudd and the intense stupidity of the NSW Right of the ALP, who are largely responsible for Rudd’s losses in the polls and now (I’ve learned since coming home) have decided to dump him, none of us was wildly enthusiastic to get back to the book.