Tag Archives: Ramona Koval

The Other Way

Mostly my theatre outings are relegated to the blog that appears in the right-hand column here. But as very few of my readers will have a chance to see The Other Way, here it is in the main body.

The Other Way, written and directed by Stefo Nantsou, is the third annual collaboration between the Sydney Theatre Company and Bankstown Youth Development Service (BYDS). The ABC’s inferior replacement for Ramona Koval’s Book Show (no disparagement of the excellent Michael Cathcart intended – the Powers That Be seem to have declared non-fiction books to be off limits, a stupidifying limitation) ran an interview yesterday with three people involved in the show, which you can hear here.

The show’s cast includes five professional actors, 23 school students and seven other performers from the community, some of whom wrote pieces On Western Sydney (Westside Publications 2012), an anthology of writing from and about Western Sydney edited by Michael Mohammed Ahmad & Felicity Castagna and produced under the auspices of BYDS. I mention the anthology because, although it wouldn’t be fair to say the show was based on it, there is a shared agenda of putting Western Sydney stories and story-makers into the public eye.

The action takes place in a single day, beginning with an old man summoning his family to prayer and ending with family prayer at night. In between, we see people commuting by train and going about their work days. Three main stories unfold, each involving children lost and found. In the most lighthearted, a woman loses her two small children in a shopping centre and they turn out to have been hiding for the fun of it. A second involves children being removed from a junky mother by Community Services and given into the care of a decent, loving couple. The third, which involves the family from the opening moment and nosy teenagers acting as chorus, has a young woman returning to the family after being missing for a long time. Alice Ansara has some big emotional moments of rock bottom despair as the junky mother, but it’s the story of the young woman returning to her family that is at the heart of the show. The responses of her siblings, her parents and her grandfather are richly complex (not glibly joyful, by any means). Only at the end do we discover why she left, and it’s a powerful statement about the difficulties faced by a generation caught between cultures and the vicious effects of anti-Muslim prejudice.

Binding it all together is brilliant hip-hop artist Matuse. He’s part of the family that prays; the returning daughter tells him her story; his songs provide the time frame and an exuberant conclusion; and his encounters with a little thief are a running joke whose punchline evokes not a laugh but breath of hope.

This isn’t professional/industrial theatre, where success is judged by the length of the run and size of box office takings. It’s community, where the division between audience and performers is porous, where there’s an intimate sense that people are telling their own stories and those of their neighbours. There’s a wonderful scene where a group of boys are teasing/harassing a group of girls, who are giving back as good as they get. In the middle of the chiacking and posturing one of the girls looks one of the boys full in the face and says, ‘Hello!’ and the group falls silent. The whole thing falls apart, moves onto a different planet. Sure, it was scripted and stylised, but it felt right then and there.

Just before the show started, a section, not of the audience but of the cast. I didn't get my hands on a program so can't say names, but from the left:

Just before the show started, a section, not of the audience but of the cast. I didn’t get my hands on a program so can’t say names, but from the left: a young man who did spectacular leaps to impress a young woman; two players of multiple minor characters; the junkie mother / train ticket collector; younger sister of the returning young woman / girl who was impressed by the boy’s athleticism; neglected son of the junkie;  Community Services worker / mother of the praying family / drummer; mother and two children from the lost-in-the-mall story.

The Other Way is on again tonight and tomorrow night and tomorrow morning (that is, Wednesday 17 and Thursday 18 July) at the Bankstown Arts Centre where tickets cost $5 or $3 (book at 02 9793 8324), and then Friday evening and Saturday afternoon at the Wharf 2 Theatre at Walsh Bay where there’s no charge, but bookings are essential (02 9250 1777 or online) and maybe impossible.

Cate Kennedy’s taste of river water

Cate Kennedy, The Taste of River Water (Scribe 2011)

When Cate Kennedy read, marvellously, from this book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, she described her poems as meditations through narrative, and that’s a nice description. Her poems generally have a narrative thread, whether it’s the story of the woman who wins second prize in a photography competition in ‘8 x 10 colour enlargements $16.50‘ or the moving hand of a baby at the breast in ‘Dawn service’.

Mostly this is no-frills poetry: very little by way of formal rhyme schemes, and even less prosodic adventure – no clever enjambement, uncanny syntax, esoteric allusion. Almost universally, the cadences and imagery are those of conversation, sometimes intensely intimate but always intelligent, generous and emotionally engaged. There’s an attention to fleeting moments, to things easily overlooked: a tight smile, a gesture accidentally caught on camera, a detail from a larger narrative, a parent’s childhood memory, a tiny act of wanton cruelty. These become the subject for meditation, their meanings explored. Many of the poems can be read as reflections on art and communication, though the immediate subjects range from the laying of a brick path to being caught in a rip, and include a locust plague coming to the city, a little girl dancing in a square of sunlight, or the auction of the contents of a deconsecrated church.

What I wasn’t prepared for was that the sixteen poems in the second section of this book constitute what Frank Moorhouse used to call a discontinuous narrative: each poem stands alone, but there are lines, even words (a throat-tightening ‘again’ in ‘Thank you’, for instance) that gain tremendous force from their place in the sequence. Although it’s in many ways a very different beast, I was reminded of Sarah Gibson’s wonderful short lyric film The Hundredth Room.

Cate Kennedy read some of the poems and chatted with Ramona Koval on the Book Show on 19 May. It’s worth a listen, but be warned that the conversation reveals quite a lot about Section 2. Not that there’s a twist to the tale or anything of the sort – but there’s something to be said for letting a narrative reveal itself to you rather than approaching it with foreknowledge.

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom: a novel (Fourth Estate 2010)

There’s no doubt this is a terrific book. It tells the story of one US family through the Bush–Clinton–Bush–Obama years, taking in the bigger picture (the Iraq invasion, environmental despoliation, global warming, technological change …), while giving us sharply realised characters whose lives illuminate the times without ever feeling as if they’re determined by the author’s agenda. The words free, freedom, liberty and so on ring like chimes through the pages suggesting without being glib that a freedom that involves loss of connection – to other people, to the natural world, to one’s own best self – is not worth having. I love the way characters are astonished to find themselves reproducing patterns of behaviour they have hated in their parents, and the way character after character struggles for integrity in a deeply compromised and compromising society.  A sequence in the last seven pages touched some deep place in me that made the whole book sing.

But I was a resistant reader until those last pages. Partly this was a matter of timing – two things had set me up to fight the book every inch of the way.

First: I began reading it with those shocking VIDA pie charts about gender and literary publishing fresh in my mind, knowing that Freedom had been published amid a hype-storm unthinkable for a grown up novel written by a woman. As a result the book had an invisible frame around it announcing it as a privileged book by a privileged author about privileged characters, to read which was an endorsement of white English-speaking middle-class male privilege. This frame was gilded by the experience of reading in public. I regularly read while walking, while waiting in queues, on the bus, a practice that occasionally provokes comment, but only with this book have perfect strangers asked me how I’m enjoying it, and then say what they’ve heard – this happened twice.

The whole book can be read as a criticism of that very privilege, though I only noticed the word once. After I had written the first draught of the previous paragraph I encountered the only non-White characters in the book (apart from a beautiful and talented young woman of Indian heritage, who does have a major role), in this sentence, at a funeral towards the end:

It was only when the service finished that Patty saw the assortment of underprivileged people filling the rear pews, more than a hundred in all, most of them black or Hispanic or otherwise ethnic, in every shape and size, wearing suits and dresses that seemed pretty clearly the best they owned, and sitting with the patient dignity of people who had more regular experience with funerals than she did.

So privilege is explicitly acknowledged, but the people who don’t share it are more or less interchangeable. I’m not saying every book has to have a politically correct diversity in its cast of characters, but in this case I found the lack of it painful and it put me in a fighting mood.

Second: when I was about a hundred pages in, a guest on the Book Show used Freedom as an example of a book that uses electronic social media well, and went on to describe a major turning point of the plot. As a result, for the next 300 pages I noticed the little moments and comments that were building towards that point, so that I registered them as parts of a justifying mechanism rather than as elements of story. Maybe Franzen did his foreshadowing clumsily and mechanically, but it’s more likely that I was reading with a peculiar – spoiled – alertness. (Thanks, Ramona!)

Bloom & Blair’s Islam

Jonathan Bloom & Sheila Blair, Islam: A thousand years of faith and power (Yale Nota Bene 2002)

I bought this book some years ago in the hope of finding some insight into how a religion that has sustained so many people for so long over such a geographic and cultural range could be used to justify the barbarity of suicide bombings and videoed beheadings. Since I don’t have much insight into how Christianity or Judaism can be used to justify mass murder either, and I’m already reasonably familiar with at least some parts of the former, maybe I should have expected my hope to be dashed, but it springs eternal, and trust in book-learnin’ is hard to shake.

The authors’ expertise, and presumably their passion as well, lie in Islamic art. This book was written to accompany a US television series, and despite its self-described aim as ‘to help Americans – of whatever and even no religion – understand the religion and culture of another place and time’, what it actually does is to provide background, to tell the grand, sweeping narrative of the beginnings, growth and spread of Islam in its first thousand years, with an inevitable emphasis military conquests and defeats, political struggles and religious strife, with a couple of welcome chapters on the flourishing of science and poetry between 750 and 1200 CE. The succession of dynasties and ruling elites – Abbasids, Barmakids, Chaghatayids, Fatimids, Ilkhanids, Mamluks, Mughals, Ottomans, Seljuqs, Umayyads – is as bewildering and at times as dull as the begats of Genesis.

I’m not complaining. In fact I wish I’d read the book 50 years ago as a supplement and antidote to the Eurocentric version of world history I received in my schooling. It’s bracing to read the stories, even in broad outline as here, of people and places that I know mainly as elements of  Orientalist decor: Saladin of the curly-toed shoes becomes Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub; Suleyman (isn’t that the guy from Lord of the Rings? – yes, I’m that ignorant) ruled the Ottoman Empire for 46 years, Marlowe’s Tamberlaine the Great becomes Timur, a Great Mongol conqueror; Samarkand, Timbuktu, Xanadu all existed outside romantic poems and fantasy literature. Many things I have assumed to be creations of Western culture are in fact borrowed from the Islamic world: romantic love I already knew about, but x as a way of representing an unknown in maths was news to me; The Divine Comedy wouldn’t have existed if Dante hadn’t read in translation popular Arabic stories of Muhammad’s mystical journey to heaven.

I’d just finished the book when I heard Ramona Koval on The Book Show with James Delgado talking about his Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet. As Ramona, helping out her audience by displaying her own real or pretend ignorance, wrestled with the difference between Khubilai Khan and Genghis Khan, I realised how glad I am to have read Bloom and Blair’s book. If I had read it 50 years ago, when my memory was much more retentive,  I might have emerged from it knowing who all those people were. As it is, I can expect the names to ring some kind of bell, and I’ll know where to look for a quick rundown – and yes, as well as a list of further reading, this book is blessed with a substantial index.

Notes from an Exhibition

Patrick Gale, Notes from an Exhibition (2007, Harper Perennial 2008)

Consensus at the Book Club was that this is excellent. Penny brought it home as part of her swag and urged me to read it. Since she also sounded as if the book made her yearn to become a Quaker, and went to the Glebe Library to borrow every Patrick Gale novel she could find to take away on our current holiday, I understood her to be strongly recommending the book. Resistance was useless. I agree – it’s a wonderful read.

Far too many novels, even very good ones, have me at least occasionally counting how many pages I am from the end. Not this one. It reminded me of the two-laughs-a-page rule that a comic novelist friend of mine swears by – any fewer than that you’re losing the reader, he says. Notes from an Exhibition isn’t a comic novel, but it manages at least two flashes of something a page. If the descriptions of Quaker practice and ethos don’t hold you, there’s the engrossing web of relationships of a family whose mother is diagnosied as bipolar. If that’s not enough, there are engrossing accounts of an abstract painter’s creative process. There’s a steady progress towards the heart of a mystery, and a sense from early on that we’ll get the detail of a family tragedy before the last page. The narrative shifts among at least half a dozen convincing points of view and back and forth in time, so that the story emerges with four-dimensional solidity. There are sharply visualised minor characters, some of them trailing hints of complex, heart-wrenching narratives of their own. I wish I’d got to the final chapter before my other Book Group’s evening on erotica, because it includes a lovely account of a teenage boy’s first sexual encounter: a straightforward narrative, with the emotional meanings front and centre.

As you can probably tell, I’ve joined the consensus.

Patrick Gale was on Radio National’s Book Show in February, and among other things it was heartening to hear him defend his main character against Ramona Koval’s charge of being a terrible mother.