Tag Archives: memoir

Dog Ear Cafe

Andrew Stojanovski, Dog Ear Cafe: How the Mt Theo Program beat the curse of petrol sniffing (Hybrid Publishers 2010)

Despite the subtitle, this is not a how-to book, but nor is it straightforward memoir. The author lived for more than 10 years at Yuendemu, a Warlpiri settlement in Central Australia. He worked for a number of different employers during his time there, but from the first months he saw his job as being to fill the whitefella (Kardiya in Warlpiri) functions in the campaign against the petrol sniffing that was devastating the young people, and imperilling the future, of the community. A number of qualities equipped him well for the job: he was young, and evidently possessed huge amounts of energy; he had studied anthropology, and was open to cultural differences; he had a deep seated, quasi spiritual yearning to know Indigenous Australia intimately as a way of understanding his own Australian identity; he wanted passionately to make a difference in the world. The book is as much his personal story as the story of the program.

Stojanowski says somewhere in the book that he has written it to fill his obligations to the people he worked with, so other people can learn from the Mt Theo success. I imagine any whitefella planning to work in a remote Aboriginal community would find useful information here: how to make sense of cultural attitudes and practices that derive their rationality from hunter-gatherer ways, and to come to see their counterparts that might seem like they’re simply rational as rooted in millennia of agriculture; the importance of non-violence if a white worker is to keep the confidence and trust of a traditional Aboriginal community; a little on the workings of Warlpiri skin-name system; how indispensably useful it is that a whitefella has ‘diplomatic immunity’ from the intricate web of avoidance and can’t-say-no obligations that bind initiated Warlpiri adults; that what a distant, bureaucratic perspective might see as ’empowerment’ can look like abandonment when seen up close; and much more.

The book is very readable. Its potential usefulness is fleshed out in wonderful anecdotes – yarns in fact. There are dramatic confrontations with young people out of their minds on petrol fumes, privileged visits to significant cultural sites, one or two ceremonies lyrically described, revelatory conversations with old men and women, places where Warlpiri and whitefella senses of humour are a perfect match.  We get a richly textured picture of what it’s like to be a whitefella living and working closely and respectfully with Warlpiri people – elders and young people – in a Central Australian community. Stojanovski married soon after becoming moving to Yuendemu, and his two daughters were born during his time there. He gives an unsparing, though tactful, account of the strain that his heroic dedication to the work placed on his marriage. I would have loved a chapter in which his wife told her story. As it stands, it’s hard to tell how much she was an equally heroic member of team Stojanowski, and how much she was a sufferer of collateral damage – though it’s fairly clear there were elements of both. I would also have liked a chapter from Peggy Nampijimba Brown, the old woman who challenged cultural norms by undertaking to look after other people’s children at Mt Theo, without whom nothing could have happened – but the detail of whose story Stojanovski can’t tell us. Those, of course, are other books.

In the shadow of the Howard–Brough–Rudd–Gillard–Macklin Intervention, which gives the message that Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory are so dysfunctional that only military force can bring order, and in the more specific shadow of recent headlines about payback violence and exile from Yuendemu itself, this book is a challenging source of genuine light and realistic hope. It’s also a ripping good read.

A Life Like Other People’s

Alan Bennett, A Life Like Other People’s (Profile 2009)

Probably inspired by the success of Alan Bennett’s little hardcover, The Uncommon Reader, the publishers have given us this physically similar book. But where the earlier was a whimsical piece in which the Queen discovers reading for pleasure, with mildly catastrophic results, this is perfectly serious memoir. Originally published as part of the 650 page volume Untold Stories, it explores the themes of family secrets, depression, dementia and suicide in the lives of Bennett’s grandparents, parents and aunties. It’s a testament to his skill, and to the depth of his affection for his family, that for all its grim subject matter the book is a joy to read. The prose is unfailingly urbane, and he manages to convey multiple perspectives with apparent ease: for example, when one of his aunties (a term whose class connotations he carefully spells out) decides to take apart his mother’s stove to give it a thorough cleaning, we are amused at the spectacle of Bennett’s father flying into a rage (a very uncommon event) at this dire insult to his wife, and at the same time we realise that it was a dire insult.

Perhaps partly because I’ve tried something similar in the predecessor of this blog, I was taken by his attempt to convey the conversation of a demented aunty. His description is quite long, but this little bit may give you an idea, both of its truthfulness and of its elegance:

Embarking on one story, she switches almost instantly to another, and while her sentences still retain grammatical form they have no sequence or sense. Words pour out of her as they always have and with the same vivacity and hunger for your attention. But to listen to they are utterly bewildering, following the sense like trying to track a particular ripple in a pelting torrent of talk.

As I was reading, I found myself thinking of AD Hope’s lines about Yeats (see, the poems you study in your youth hang around in your brain forever): ‘To have found at last that noble, candid speech / In which all things worth saying may be said’. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it seemed that Bennett could write about a huge range of  human experience without his prose ever stumbling. We know, for instance, the kind of emotional tumult involved in the experience referred to in this sentence: ‘While sexual intercourse did not quite begin in 1974 it was certainly the year when sex was available pretty much for the asking … or maybe I had just learned the right way to ask.’ What did Freud say about jokes? Not that this is unconscious – on the contrary. And it’s not that he’s hiding anything. It’s just that the prose is not about self-revelation, but about elegant, usually witty communication. I wasn’t sure this was entirely a good thing, whether a little raw emotion mightn’t have made a more interesting book. But he was ahead of me. Towards the end of the book, when Bennett’s mother, after decades in and out of psychiatric institutions, ECT, is in advanced dementia in a nursing home, he winces at the way the employees address her, calling her loudly by a diminutive that was never hers, kissing her lavishly, who was always physically reserved. He observes with irritation that his mother seems to enjoy it, and goes on:

But then taste has always been my handicap, and so here when in this sponged and squeegeed bedroom with an audience of indifferent old women I do not care to unbend, call my mother ‘chick’, fetch my face close to hers and tell her or shout at her how much I love her and how we all love her and what a treasure she is.
Instead, smiling sadly, I lightly stroke her limp hand, so ungarish my display of affection I might be the curate, not the son.
The nurses (or whatever) have more sense. They know they are in a ‘Carry On’ film. I am playing it like it’s ‘Brief Encounter’.

There are photos of the Bennett parents scattered throughout. Almost as much as the prose, they convey the deep current of love that flows through the book.

Did I mention that it’s very funny?

Coetzee’s Youth

J M Coetzee, Youth ( 2002)

This is the second of three (so far) novels in Coetzee’s Scenes from Provincial Life series, which are fiction, but also by strong implication unsparing autobiography. It takes up our hero as an 18 year old student and aspiring poet living in a one-room flat in Capetown and drops him again as a 24 year old computer programmer living in an upstairs room in a house in the depths of the Berkshire countryside, convinced that he is a total failure.

It’s the 1960s. The young Coetzee is committed to escape being defined by his family, trapped in the dullness of colonial life, and torn apart in what he sees as the impending revolution in South Africa. He aspires to the status of poet, and theorises endlessly to himself about how he should live (as opposed to write) to achieve that aim. He agonises over his incompetence in relationships with women, over which writers and artists he should emulate (Ezra Pound presides over his pantheon, and Beckett the novelist is a late apparition), over how to shake off his colonial identity. He rationalises his moments of appalling behaviour and then berates himself for his rationalising, and for his general coldness. He aspires to Angst, but realises his sole talent is for ‘misery, dull, honest misery’.

I loved this book. There are two possibilities: either Coetzee’s interior life as an adolescent/young adult was uncannily like mine, or he has turned a searing light onto his experience of that time of his life and laid bare something essential about the collision of adolescent romanticism with the demands of reality. Given that the externals of his life weren’t noticeably similar to mine, and I never had his overarching sense of destiny, I’m guessing it’s the latter. Young Coetzee’s misery, confusion about sex, self castigation, romantic theorising and bitter disillusion are all presented without commentary, but with a gentle irony – which may derive partly from the reader’s knowledge that this pathetic youth went on to win the Nobel Prize (and possibly that an idea that comes and goes on page 138 was the seed of his first novel), but which also simmers in the prose, bubbling to the surface as humour often enough to suggest, without invalidating the character’s intensely felt experience, that an older, wiser head is constantly there, shaping the story. My favourite bubble pops up when young Coetzee, who lives alone and feeds himself with classic adolescent male incompetence, is ruminating on Ford Madox Ford:

Ford says that the civilization of Provence owes its lightness and grace to a diet of fish and olive oil and garlic. In his new lodgings in Highgate, out of deference to Ford, he buys fish fingers instead of sausages, fries them in olive oil instead of butter, sprinkles garlic salt over them.

We do wonder if he misses the point about so much else by quite so wide a mark.

Young Coetzee was writing an academic thesis on Ford. The paragraph after the one I just quoted describes the thesis as involving ‘the task of reducing his hundreds of pages of notes in tiny handwriting to a web of connected prose’. My sense is that this book has achieved something very like that: whether Coetzee has drawn on actual diaries from the period or on the virtual pages of his recollection, he has created from the material a shiny, elegant narrative web.

Early in his stay in London, young Coetzee hears a BBC talk about the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and is enraptured by his poetry. He reflects on what Brodsky and a handful of other poets mean to him:

they release their words into the air, and along the airwaves the words speed to his room, the words of the poets of his time, telling him again of what poetry can be and therefore what he can be, filling him with joy that he inhabits the same earth as they. ‘Signal heard in London – please continue to transmit’: that is the message he would send them if he could.

If in my early 20s I could have received this book as a signal, I would have responded, I’m sure, with a very similar joy. As it is, confident though I am that J M Coetzee won’t be reading my blog, I’m sending him a belated message on behalf of my younger self:  ‘Signal heard in Sydney 40 years later – please continue to transmit.’
—-
I read Youth in a library copy. A previous reader had ‘corrected’ the text:

  • on page 53 s/he fixed a simple typo, inserting be in ‘It would nice to write’ (‘Thank you,’ I thought)
  • on page 72 s/he altered pay to pays in ‘But none of the girls on the trains pay him any attention’ (‘Hmm, you are an old-fashioned pedant, but at least you left that But alone’)
  • on page 85 s/he changed oneself to one’s self in the sentence ‘Only love and art are, in his opinion, worthy of giving oneself to without reserve” (‘Someone please take the pen away from that person’)
  • on page 95 s/he changed the phrase to eat packet soup, possibly because one doesn’t eat soup, then – sensibly – scratched  out the alteration
  • thereafter, s/he presumably resigned themselves to the probability that Coetzee and his editors were competent after all.
  • Summertime, Boyhood and the book group

    J M Koetzee, Summertime (Knopf 2009)
    —-, Boyhood (Secker & Warburg 1997)

    I wasn’t there when Summertime was chosen for the Book Group1846553180, and might well have argued against it. I’d read some bemused discussion about its mixing of truth and fiction and multiple perspectives that made it sound like the kind of clever writing that disappears up its own whatsit – you know, technically challenging but otherwise as gripping as batshit.

    It turned out I loved it, and put in orders at the library for the two previous volumes in Coetzee’s Scenes from Provincial Life series, Boyhood and Youth. It’s autobiographical writing, covering the years when Coetzee was teaching at school and university in Cape Town and writing his first novels. It’s not straightforward autobiography, though. The John Coetzee character is dead, so who knows in what other respects the narrative here differs from the factual record? The book consists mainly of transcripts of recorded conversations between an (almost certainly invented) academic biographer and a handful of people. I have no idea what relationship any of the interviewees have to actual people, but I am persuaded that there’s a genuine project here on Coetzee’s part of imagining how he was seen by a number of key people in his life at that time. ‘Coetzee’ doesn’t exactly emerge covered in glory. In fact, if this had been told in straightforward narrative, even in third person, some of it would have been cringingly embarrassing; and some of it, removed from the realm of hints and suspicions, might have laid the author open to criminal investigation. Coming mainly from women who had, or in one case (if she is to be believed) didn’t have, sexual liaisons with him, it’s funny, and for me at least very engaging. I’m in awe of Coetzee’s feat of creating self-portrait from the point of view of people he’d had unsatisfactory intimate relationships with, most of them much more interested in themselves than in him. It’s an act of great imagination and unsparing self scrutiny.

    BoyhoodAt the risk of appearing excessively diligent, I managed to read Boyhood before the Group met. At least on the surface, it’s a much more conventional piece of work, a possibly fictionalised memoir of the author’s childhood told in the third person. (We don’t learn that the boy’s name is John until about the halfway point.) Unlike the unreliable interviewees of Summertime, the narrator appears to be omniscient, though he reports the young John’s understanding of things without signalling to the reader when the boy has got it wrong. This sometimes results in a straightforward irony, as in matters of reproductive physiology. Elsewhere, as the boy struggles to make sense of his relationships to his parents, of the English, the Afrikaans, the Coloureds and the Africans, of South African history, of religion and his own preadolescent stirrings, the narrator leaves us alone with the boy’s painful sense of his own peculiarity. The effect, for me at least, rang very true to what childhood is like, stripped of the gloss of nostalgia and self-preserving sentiment. An unexpected bonus from having read the book out of order was the poignant discovery that the father for whom ‘John’ cares in Summertime was an object of his contempt and intense dislike in Boyhood.

    Tonight we discussed Summertime in the book group. There were ten of us, fairly evenly divided between those who loved the book and those for whom it did nothing except perhaps induce sleep. A couple of guys turned up with their books bristling with sticky yellow papers, and argued for particular ways of reading the book. Over melon and prosciutto and then strawberries, the conversation tended to take the form of them what enjoyed the book telling them what didn’t about what had given them pleasure or illumination. One man talked about the theme of embodiment – that the struggle of the character was to find a way of being in the body, of having a voice, and the structure with its multiple filters and distancing devices fitted the theme brilliantly. Another read it as an extended build-up to the passage towards the end where a woman says of the John Coetzee character that people may be interested in him because he’s won the Nobel Prize and is seen as a brilliant writer, but to her he is just a man, and not a very interesting one (though others saw that passage as a bit of almost mechanical rounding out of things). Yet another was interested in it as a portrait of a man whose masculinity was under attack. And so on. It was a terrific evening; the book is perfect for that kind of free-ranging discussion.

    Dangerous Days

    Ernest Brough, Dangerous Days: A digger’s great escape (Harper Collins 2009)

    dangerousWhen I was ten or eleven years old, although I wasn’t at all attracted to the war comics that many of my school companions devoured, I did read, and enjoy, Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse, a POW escape story. It came with parental recommendation (my mother was amused by the POWs’ christening a cow Venus di Milko, or was that a different book?), and seemed to me to be a tale from the distant past. In fact, it was published in 1949, and the events it narrated had happened barely fifteen years before I read it. Ernest Brough’s story, written when he was in his 80s and when the events he recalls were more than sixty years in the past, nonetheless has some of the same qualities that caught this little boy’s imagination way back then.

    The book is Ernest Brough’s story of his war experience. He was one of the Rats of Tobruk, and his account of how the war was conducted there almost makes one long for the good old days when the Geneva Conventions were respected. Taken prisoner, he was kept in camps run first by the Italians and then by the Germans, then escaped with two companions. The story of the trio’s privations and difficulties as they made their way from the prison camp in southern Austria, through Slovenia, Croatia and into Bosnia, a good part of the way in the care of Tito’s Partisans, is the book’s compelling read – the larrikin camaraderie of the Australians and New Zealanders in training, in combat and in the POW camp is transmuted into an almost mystical solidarity.

    Perhaps more than The Wooden Horse, in fact, the book reminds me of Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life. It’s a tale of survival, told without bitterness but pervaded by a sense of good fortune. And as I like my morals to be explicit, I was grateful for the final chapter, ‘Take it from an Old Bloke’, where he spells out his views on war, peace and life, including this:

    War’s a damnable thing. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. The damage runs deep. All those nights for decades afterwards I would lie in bed thinking, I’ve got to get under the wire tonight. or gotta make it to the riverbank. … Most soldiers will bring the war home with them in some form. Some will never forget it; some will die from it, from suicide or alcoholism, years after the guns have packed up and gone home. You see, it’s just not natural for human beings to go out and kill other humans. And that’s what war’s all about.

    Leave to remain

    Abbas El-Zein, Leave to Remain (UQP 2009)

    9780702236921There was a piece on the news recently about a conference on Islamophobia. My lay thought on the subject is that the best way to make headway against that polysyllabic malady is to make friends with actual flesh-and-blood Muslims. A probably less efficacious but also less challenging cure might be to read books by Muslim writers. Irfan Yusuf’s Once Were Radicals is a case in point. So is Leave to Remain. Both books are memoirs by Australian Muslims who were born elsewhere, both deal with what it means to be Muslim and ‘of Middle Eastern appearance’ living in Australia; Irfan Yusuf comes from the rough and tumble world of blogdom and doesn’t know when to write ‘my friend and me’ rather than ‘my friend and I’, whereas Abbas El-Zein is a university professor and novelist, parts of whose book have appeared in literary journals. Once Were Radicals did a beautiful job (for me at least) of ‘de-Othering’ Islam – that is to say, I felt that the author had done a brilliant job of bridging the Islamophobia chasm. I approached Leave to Remain expecting something of the same, for a different generation, a different national background (Yusuf left Pakistan for Australia when he was a small child; El-Zein was an adult when he came here from Lebanon).

    Paradoxically, even though Abas El-Zein’s childhood and youth in war-torn Lebanon could hardly have been more different from mine in what someone has called the cotton-wool peace of White Australia, I had much less of a sense of chasms being bridged with this book. Perhaps that’s because Yusuf’s memoir deals largely with his adolescent exploration of Islam, which is still pretty much a closed Book to me; while El-Zein identifies unwaveringly as ‘an adherent … to Enlightenment ideas and practices concerning the secular state, pluralism, science and technology’, close to my own cultural identity.

    The book has elements of biography, but is actually a collection of personal essays with a stage of the writer’s life as subject and springboard. It’s divided into two parts, of roughly equal length: the first, ‘Origins and Departures’, takes us up to the 32-year-old El-Zein’s arrival in Sydney in 1995, the second, ‘Unhappy Returns’, deals mainly with his return visit to Lebanon and his responses to the wars that have afflicted that part of the world since. I don’t have time to say much more than that there’s some wonderful writing and give some samples.

    On his adolescent anti-Americanism (which he repudiates as naive, but records all the same):

    As a teenager, I worried about America because I could not understand how it could show off its wealth so casually on screens around the world. Was it not afraid of exposing itself, of being so present in the lives of so many individuals, a presence which  was all about America itself? Once, during the war in Beirut, my mother told my teenage sister not to go out with too much jewellery round her neck because the only men she would be likely to attract were robbers. I thought America could benefit from a little talk from my mother. Not that America was likely to grant an audience. America was a blind Narcissus, constantly playing mental images of himself with no hope of seeing himself, let alone anyone else, because he was Narcissus and because he was blind. America could not see. It was made to be seen.

    On the War on Terrorism:

    A Manichean view of history – in which ‘we’ are indisputably good and ‘they’ are inherently evil – remains the West’s dominant form of expression about terrorism, post–September 11, and barely disguises its racial overtones. It is one of the mysteries of our time that the Soviet nuclear warheads and the IRA campaign on the British mainland, to name two relatively recent threats, did not cause nearly the same ‘existentialist’ panic that a Middle-Aged tribesman has succeeded in inflicting on the West’s collective psyche from his remote hideout in Afghanistan. For all the atrocious deeds of Al Qaeda and European Jihadists in New York, London and Madrid, who does seriously believe that they pose a threat to our existence in the West?

    There is a wonderfully comic–grotesque description of his first walk from Redfern Station to Sydney University a few weeks after his arrival in Australia. ‘There was more mutilation around this street than I could live with,’ he writes – and we remember that this is a man who grew up in a civil war. He writes beautifully about his parental anxieties: his little son Ali announces with glee that his name can be found in the word Australia, and a few days later, just as excitedly, that it’s also in Alien. He writes graphic and instructive accounts of religious practices, especially of the Shi-ite festival of Ashura – mentioning in an aside that the public bloodletting that is so alien to Western sensibilities may well have been imported into Islam from the practices of Catholic Spain.

    Incidentally, the book was designed, beautifully, by Jenny Grigg, who has been responsible for some of Australia’s most beautiful books (she redesigned The School Magazine ten or so years ago).

    Once Were Radicals

    Irfan Yusuf, Once Were Radicals: My years as a teenage Islamo-fascist (Allen & Unwin 2009)

    Once Were RadicalsOver the years, I’ve regularly resolved to rectify my appalling ignorance about Islam. My bookshelves bear witness to my good intentions with a smattering of titles like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam (though I don’t have that precise book) and What’s Wrong with Islam, and none of them have I ever read.

    Enter Once Were Radicals. Perhaps it was the hint of B-grade horror movies in its subtitle that made it seem accessible, or perhaps it was the ludicrous cover image of the author – dark-skinned, bearded and brandishing an automatic weapon, but wearing a boxing kangaroo T-shirt, one cricket pad and a Gen-X smirk in front of a bullet-pierced rifle-range target. Whatever, this is book broke through my worthiness barrier.

    Irfan Yusuf, Pakistani Muslim from North Ryde, former member of the Liberal Party, old boy of St Andrew’s (Anglican) Cathedral School, blogger (in fact, the book has its own blog), winner of the Iremonger Award for Writing on Public Issues the year my niece Paula Shaw was runner-up, has written a kind of demotic Apologia Pro Vita Sua, an extended episode of Pizza with political Islamic writings in place of bongs.

    The comparison to the Apologia isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Compare John Henry Newman’s opening words

    I cannot be sorry to have forced Mr Kingsley to bring out in fulness his charges against me. It is far better that he should discharge his thoughts upon me in my lifetime, than after I am dead.

    to the way Irfan Yusuf begins his acknowledgements:

    Believe it or not, the first person I’d like to thank is the former US President George W. Bush for popularising the clumsy term ‘Islamo-fascist’.

    Both writers take personally the insult – of untruthfulness and terrorist tendencies respectively – to their religion, and respond with what Newman described as ‘draw[ing] out the history of [his] mind’:

    I will state the point at which I began, in what external suggestion or accident each opinion had its rise, how far and how they were developed from within, how they grew, were modified, were combined, were in collision with each other, and were changed; again how I conducted myself towards them …

    In Yusuf’s case this is a history of growing up as a middle-class immigrant in Sydney, revisiting Pakistan a number of times as ‘an Aussie kid’, gradually learning to distinguish among the interpenetrating religious heritages of his South Asian ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’,  going to Muslim youth camps, learning parts of the Koran by rote in Pakistan and at home, reading books given him by his Wahhabist aunt, toying with conversion to Christianity, engaging passionately with Islam in a number of ways in his teenage years, and in the end achieving an impressive equilibrium. He is given a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but his parents remove it deftly before he can read any of it; he reads The Satanic Verses, and his mother objects because it might interfere with his studies.

    As one who was deeply involved in Catholic matters in my teenage years, I could relate to young Irfan’s trajectory, including the bit that involved learning by heart slabs of text in a language he didn’t understand. Even though I’d be hard pressed to name withy any confidence even one of the authors who attracted him to political Islam, the sheer complexity of his reading is in itself instructive: everybody knows there’s not just one Islam, but following the teenage Irfan’s quest made the complexity of Muslim cultures tangible, almost tasteable.

    The Pizza connection: Once Were Radicals is at times very funny, with plenty of a specifically Australian quality of ethnic self-mockery. Yusuf impresses on us early in the book that his mother is highly educated, and that she made a calculated decision to speak Urdu in the home so that her children would not lose the language of their cultural heritage, and there’s no disrespect in his lampooning of her heavily accented English in the rest of the book. Lakemba’s Sheikh Hilaly features in one or two scenes whose comic effect couldn’t be further than the pot-shots taken at him by journalists and aspiring satirists: he treats a young bikini-clad Australian woman with friendly courtesy, and tells his astonished teenage charges:

    Ostraalyan beebul goodh, nice friendly beebul. Wee Muslim fighth thoo mush. Vee should lurrn from za Ostraalyan beebul how show respect.

    All of this is pretty much what I expected of the book after hearing the author speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I didn’t expect to be moved to tears. It’s against my religion to tell how a book ends, but I can tell you that for me this one did end in tears.