Tag Archives: John w Howard

Leila Yusaf Chung’s Chasing Shadows 

Leila Yusaf Chung, Chasing Shadows (Vintage Books Australia, 2014)

1csIn August 2001, John w Howard kept the press away from the asylum seekers who had been rescued by captain Arne Rinnan of the Norwegian ship Tampa. It was crucial to Howard’s strategy of depicting the would-be refugees as ‘illegals’ and ‘queue-jumpers’ that Australians not see them as individual men, women and children. His famous utterance, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,’ could not have sounded like a defiant assertion of sovereignty if its hearers knew the wretched terror and misery – not to mention courage and determination – of those who were being ‘decided’ against.

Short of meeting asylum seekers in person, and so far I haven’t bestirred myself to do that, fiction has to be a good way of engaging imaginatively with this class of people who are still being relentlessly disparaged and dehumanised in our media. I bought a copy of Leila Yusaf Chung’s novel with those considerations in mind after hearing her speak, beautifully, at the Sydney Writers Festival about the importance of women in refugee communities.

I’m happy to report that the book filled the brief I had given it. Set mainly in Israel and Lebanon from the 1940s to the 1980s, it has real people who suffer real losses, confront real mysteries, and make their ways through the violence and indifference they meet at every turn. The form of the book mirrors the complexity of Middle Eastern politics, to the extent that plot summaries either misrepresent the book or are close to impossible to unravel. A character who seems to be the main driver of the plot becomes marginal to the point that when he dies we hardly notice; sympathetic characters do terrible things, and a shift in perspective reveals what looked like – and was – abuse to be an act of love; an early scene narrated from an uncomprehending child’s point of view turns out to contain a mystery that is central to the story; there are many false starts, many shifts of location and allegiance.

The book has a Zelig quality – characters find themselves on the spot just in time to be on the wrong side of a disastrous event: a Polish Jew living in Israel converts to Islam just before the naqba, so that he and his new family are among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven from their homes by the Israeli army into apparently permanent exile; a young Palestinian woman is persuaded to marry an Iranian official, only to arrive in Tehran the day of the 1979 revolution and be gaoled along with hundreds of women who don’t meet the requirements of Ayatollah Khomeini’s new regime; characters are caught up in the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Identity is fluid, and sometimes a  pragmatic choice: the Jew Lavi becomes the Muslim Abu Fadi in order to marry a young Muslim woman; his Arab daughter poses as a Christian Armenian to give her infant daughter a safe environment to grow up in; another daughter finds a source of strength in strict Islam. Nothing is simple.

I recommend the book. If you read it I’d love to hear your response in the comments.

aww-badge-2015

Chasing Shadows is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Namatjira, Perkins, Du Bois, Stojanovski

There’s been an extraordinary confluence in my cultural intake over the last week: Hettie Perkins’s Art + Soul on the ABC, Big hART’s Namatjira at Belvoir Street, Andrew Stojanowski’s Dog Ear Cafe, and W E B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, which I’m just starting. If I was a public institution and the Coalition was in power I’d have my funding cut.

A major element of Namatjira is the story of the friendship between the man known to non-Arrernte people as Albert Namatjira and the white World War One veteran Rex Battarbee. If Dog Ear Cafe had a single take-home message, it would be about the importance of solid relationships. In an exchange between Stojanovski and Robin Japanangka Granites, a Warlpiri elder. Stojanovski (named Yakajirri in Warlpiri) says that he feels that blackfellas (Yapa) and whitefellas (Kadiya) are standing on opposite sides of the Grand Canyon ‘looking at each other and waving at each other, but our cultural worlds are so different that we are not connecting at all’. Robin answers:

No, Yakajirri, I think you are wrong. I see tightropes across that canyon, and I see people like you and me walking those tightropes, connecting both sides.

Probably the most attractive thing about Art + Soul is the way Hettie Perkins puts herself in the frame, letting us see the warmth, but also the awkwardness of her relationships, as an urban Aboriginal woman and curator, with artists from remote communities.

The first of the 14 essays in Du Bois’s 1903 book begins with a brief impression of white folk clumsily attempting relationship:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville [site of a Civil War battle]; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

I know the legacy of US slavery is very different from that of Australian genocide and dispossession, but they do share some features, and I couldn’t resist blogging about this  little volley of reminders of the importance of personal relationships in dealing with those histories.

[From August 2004] Vale Thea Astley

In tonight’s news, running a very poor third to Ian Thorpe’s brilliance in Greece and John Howard’s increasingly transparent duplicity (‘I won’t take a polygraph test because if people can’t tell I’m truthful by looking at me they’re not going to believe me just because a machine says I’m telling the truth’), we were told that Thea Astley died today.

I met her and heard her speak when I was an impressionable 21 year old. The one thing I remember well was an anecdote about Patrick White that she told with great pleasure, to an audience of young Marist Brothers, for the most part earnest seekers after knowledge and virtue. White had read her novel The Well Dressed Explorer, perhaps in manuscript, or at least very soon after publication, and commented: ‘Thea, if you’re going to write about a shit, make sure it’s a very big shit.’