Not Meeting Mr Right, Anita Heiss

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

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Anita Heiss (1968- ) is a Wiradjuri woman, an academic and an author. I have previously reviewed her Dhuuluu-yala: To Talk Straight (here) on who should write Aboriginal stories, and plan hope to review her Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia towards the end of this Week.

As well as her academic work, Heiss has published a number of novels in the genre she likes to call Choc.Lit, ie. Chick.Lit with strong Black women protagonists. From the reviews I have looked at these are all as didactic as they are romantic. Not Meeting Mr Right (2007) was her first.

My younger daughter has been telling me off about using the expression Chick.Lit but I will leave her and Dr Heiss to fight that out between them. To be fair, I think that Gee’s concern was that men were too liable to characterise women’s writing as Chick.Lit. instead of engaging with their valid concerns about personal development and relationships.

Heiss’s mother is a Wiradjuri woman from Cowra in central NSW and her father was born in Austria. Heiss was born in Sydney and went to an eastern suburbs Catholic girls school. Alice, Heiss’s heroine, lives in the eastern suburbs, has an Aboriginal mother and an Austrian father, and teaches history at a Catholic girls school. That is not to say that Not Meeting Mr Right is autobiographical, but rather that it draws on her lived experience. At the time of publication Heiss, “who lives in Sydney, believes in love at first sight and enjoys being single!”, was going on 40. Alice, who lives in a flat overlooking Bondi beach, is 28 and determined to be married before she’s 30.

There is one other issue to be dealt with before I go on. And that is is that I sometimes find fiction by Australian Indigenous writers awkward to read, the most recent example being Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip. That is, that the flow of the words doesn’t feel right. In one of the many teaching moments spread through this book, Heiss addresses this:

I’d always thought the written and spoken word were very different in the white world. It’s so obvious in their literature. Aboriginal writing is closely aligned to the spoken word. We write like we speak, and reality is, that’s how our people read too.

What she leaves unsaid is that spoken Aboriginal English has significant differences, in its rhythms as well as vocabulary, from what we might call received English. I feel this sometimes just within ‘white’ English, moving from city to country and from lit.blogging to truck driving.

Two months after her twenty-eighth birthday Alice attends a ten-year school reunion

I’d been a self-conscious teenager who never really fit in – me being a Blackfella from La Perouse and the rest of the girls whitefellas from Vaucluse and Rose Bay. A triangular peg in a round hole, I used to say.

These days, Alice, probably shapelier and prettier than her former schoolmates, doing well as a senior teacher, is made to feel inadequate in another way. All the others are flashing engagement and wedding rings, the talk is all weddings and babies (It doesn’t help that Alice’s mother is applying the same pressure). Of course Alice “loves being single”, but by the end of the night she has decided that she will find and marry Mr Right before she turns 30.

She calls a meeting of her friendship group and they come around immediately to begin strategising – Dannie, happily married with children; Peta, a serial dater, who does something high-powered in Indigenous Education policy; and Liz a lawyer with the Aboriginal Legal Service. The upshot is that she will do what it takes – blind dates, classified ads, attend professional gatherings … to get a man who is ‘single, straight and wanting to be in a relationship’, financially secure, shows affection in public etc, etc. but she will not ‘put out on the first date’, date friends’ exes, or get picked up in a pub. There’s also stuff about star signs, which I ignored.

There follows, over the course of 20 months, a series of meetings with men who might fit the bill. Her friends line her up, her mother wishes to line her up with her best friend’s gay son, her garbo turns out to have a degree in something and to be an altogether nice guy; she dates white guys, Indigenous guys, a Samoan guy – who is just getting into bed when she mentions Wedding Island on the horizon and he disappears in a cloud of dust; she dates a lilywhite guy who is sure he is black – if by dating you mean drinking till you black out and waking up on the floor of a strange flat beside a man you’ve never seen before; early on she dates a friend of Dannie’s who might be perfect but rejects him because his face is pockmarked with chickenpox scars. Yes, Alice is a lookist.

The teaching moments deal with how to introduce your Black girlfriend; ‘significant moments for women in Australian history’ (interestingly she has Cathy Freeman’s gold medal at the Sydney Olympics but not Evonne Goolagong’s 14 Grand Slams); other stuff I forgot to write down; not reading Murdoch newspapers (duh!).

A couple of guys are nearly ok. An awful lot of makeup is applied and gin drunk to not much effect. More desperation comedy than romantic comedy. But enjoyable.

 

Anita Heiss, Not Meeting Mr Right, Bantam/Random House, Sydney, 2007

The Hand that Signed the Paper, Helen Demidenko

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The Demidenko affair is an old story now but still a relevant one as we continue to struggle with the idea that white and male authors crowd out minorities, people of colour, women who wish to tell their own stories, tying ourselves in knots in the process.

For the benefit of non-Australians, the controversy surrounded the awarding of the 1995 Miles Franklin Award to Helen Demidenko for The Hand that Signed the Paper, the story of a Ukrainian family collaborating with the Nazis during the Holocaust. The granting of the Award to an anti-semitic work was justified on the grounds that Demidenko was telling the story of her people, until Demidenko, who would  attend speaking engagements dressed in the costume of a Ukrainian peasant girl, was finally unmasked as Helen Darville, a University of Queensland student of entirely English background.

I have reprised here a university essay I wrote on the topic 15 years ago, cut down from its original 5,000 words, as you might tell from its unusually, for me, formal language.

The plot concerns a young Australian woman of Ukranian descent, Fiona Kovalenko, who attempts to understand how her father and his brother came to take part in the mass murder of Jews at Babi Yar and Treblinka during the Second World War. The retelling of their experiences uses theirs and many other voices, including at times, an omniscient narrator whose viewpoint is also that of a Ukranian anti-semite. The tone of the writing, generally described as cool, flat or amoral, infuriated many readers but earned the praise of others.

The attacks on The Hand took four major phases –

1.The previous year, 1994, three, arguably much better written, works by important Australian writers were listed for the Miles Franklin and explicitly rejected on the grounds that their content was not Australian; a judgement which, if carried forward, might also have encompassed The Hand.

2.All the major characters in The Hand, except for Fiona, are grotesquely anti-semitic.

3.Despite Demidenko defending The Hand as a work of ‘faction’ derived from the authentic experiences of her relatives, she was eventually forced to acknowledge that she was really the daughter of British migrants.

4.There were some issues relating to phrases and passages derived from other texts which may have been plagiarism.

The literary establishment’s initial concern seems to have been that The Hand, which has some raw power but is of very uneven quality, had been successful where the far more substantial work of Moorhouse (Grand Days) in particular had been explicitly rejected on what now seemed to be spurious grounds; and the conclusion naturally drawn from this was that Demidenko was the MF judges’ token ethnic.

On the other hand, the concern of the reading public seems to have been with The Hand’s anti-semitism. Louise Adler’s anguished response was typical: “If one wants to understand the psychopathology of evil the literature is plentiful … [but] for the rest of us this novel’s representation of a community of individuals as simple, rutting and drunk peasants and their victims as fucking Jews or roasted meat must be condemned.”

Demidenko took to the road, but then so do most authors with a newly published book. The public want to know the face, the person, behind the name, or, at least, they want the ‘name’ to put on a performance, to ‘be’ an author for their entertainment. “Helen Demidenko performed as a stage Ukranian … by wearing embroidered peasant blouses, dancing Ukranian dances, drinking vodka and mumbling Ukranian phrases.”

I don’t think even postmodernists believe that passages by other authors should be used without attribution. Sampling in modern music, referencing in movies, quotation in literature are all acts of respect, acknowledgements of a shared or derived textuality, and are designed to be noticed. Demidenko references Dylan Thomas and Thomas Keneally in her title and opening lines; her use of sources is appropriate for a historical novel – and her critics cannot consistently accuse her of both historical inaccuracy and of borrowing from Holocaust sources; and after all that, there appears to remain some plagiarism, an area in which she had form.

[An interesting discussion about the death of the author, Barthes, Foucault, post-structuralism, must, sadly, be deleted]

What Demidenko intended with either her novel or her masquerade we cannot be sure, least of all from what she herself has said, but both may be judged/consumed as ‘art’. Her writing is clumsy, but often urgent and expressive; her use of multiple voices following, she says, Faulkner, is interesting; and her subject matter, the participation in the Holocaust by people who are now Australian, is new. But the greater work of art – which, judging by her subsequent grudging apologies, was unintended or, at least, not fully carried through – was the masquerade, sustained in public for more than two years, of Helen Darville as Helen Demidenko, the reaction to which demonstrated clearly and unequivocally that not just ‘readers’ but critics and theorists were reading through the text to the author; were reading the text through the prism of their reading of the author; that their reading of The Hand was entirely dependent on their reading of Demidenko as Ukranian/Australian.

Following her ‘unmasking’, Demidenko’s defenders in the Literary Establishment, who had previously praised her bravery and authenticity, were now reduced to lauding her ‘imaginative genius’, a SMH editorial argued that “fiction has to be accepted as fiction”, but does it? Does historical fiction have a ‘duty’ to be historically accurate? More importantly, why do we constantly read through the text to the author? Because, whatever is going on in the romantic plot in the foreground, we depend on the author for the authenticity of the detail. The use by authors of ‘counterfeit identities’ breaches “that fiduciary contract between author and reader which justifies our assumption that what we are reading is genuine”[Foucault, What is an Author?].

Late in 1995, Helen Daniel, editor of Australian Book Review, wrote:

“I believe Demidenko/Darville merited neither the ASAL award nor the Miles Franklin. I believe she has since brought shame and outrage to the literary community and done immense disservice to the literary credibility of this country. On what grounds should she be allowed to keep these awards?”

Why is she outraged? Not because the author’s name has changed from Demidenko to Darville, but because The Hand is revealed to be entirely imagined. What an astonishing position for the editor of a literary magazine!

So the literary community is brought to acknowledge what the ordinary reader has always believed, that the author matters. Not that our reading is determined by the intention of the author, but that the authenticity of the text depends first and foremost on the ‘lived experience’ of the author.

 

Helen Demidenko, The Hand that Signed the Paper, Allen & Unwin, 1994


*ASAL. Association for the Study of Australian Literature. Their 1995 Gold Medal was awarded to Helen Darville AFTER she was revealed as the author.

 

 

Emma, 2020 movie

EMMA. - Official Trailer [HD] - Now On Demand and In Theaters

No, I haven’t provided a link. The message: “YouTube (owned by Google) does not let you watch videos anonymously. As such, watching YouTube videos here will be tracked by YouTube/Google,” got up my nose.

Milly and I went to the movies on Sunday. I’m not sure if it was the first day cinemas were open in Western Australia, but I think so – the Premier was in the newspapers having a pint in a pub to illustrate lifted restrictions. Of course most punters regard reduced restrictions as the end of the virus, so stage 2 will be upon us soon. I’ve stocked up on masks, I can’t imagine they’ll shut down the economy a second time.

Unfortunately, our art-house cinema chain, Luna, had not yet re-opened so our choices were restricted to Emma and the NZ film Boy which was apparently a hit at Sundance. Emma suited us better timewise so Emma it was.

“Directed by Autumn de Wilde. With Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Angus Imrie.” Those are names I do not know, but they’re an odd looking lot. Very few of the cast looked as I imagined them, though Bill Nighy made an excellent, very frail, Mr Woodhouse; and the director had Robert Martin, the farmer, as an awkward young country boy which worked quite well. Harriet was well done, looking exactly like a 16 year old school girl. Mr Knightley, frankly, looked like a yokel in fancy dress, leading to a serious disconnect between his appearance and his speech, far too young and frisky for the stern corrector of Emma’s speech and behaviour JA envisaged.

For some reason all the actors leapt and capered, not to mention undressing, and dressing at the drop of a hat, all a bit disconcerting.

So, to get to the meat. The screenplay was by Eleanor Catton whose The Luminaries was probably the first work of historical fiction to be reviewed, negatively, in these pages. She appears to have done no more than select Austen’s words and string them together. There was no attempt at interpretation. The movie, long enough at two hours, concentrates on Emma and Harriet’s friendship and the tangles Emma’s matchmaking gets both of them into.

The settings as you would expect, are gorgeous. I didn’t look to see which stately homes were used.

Spoiler coming up. The Westons, Miss Bates, the vicar and his new wife, Frank and Jane play their expected parts but very much in the background. Emma’s concerns are her father and Harriet. About half-way through, Emma dances with Mr Knightley and they make eyes at each other. We are meant to realise that they have feelings (for each other). Consequently, the denoument, when it is announced that Frank and Jane have all along been secretly engaged, falls flat.

I gave it 3/5

To the extent that I remember it, and I do own a copy, I think the Gwyneth Paltrow version is better. In fact, I remember only bits and pieces from the book as well. Lets hope WG posts a review. Her scintillating analysis of Emma, in three parts, made her the inaugural wadholloway blogger of the year in 2015, and I can well imagine her applying the same gimlet eye to this curate’s egg of a movie.

 

 

The Cockatoos, Patrick White

Text Publishing — The Cockatoos: Text Classics, book by ...

Patrick White (1912-1990) is an unlikely candidate for the title of Australia’s best writer. Born into a firmly upper class life, he lived as a child in Sydney and on his family’s properties in the Hunter Valley (NSW), he and his sister were brought up by a nanny, and at age 12 he was sent to boarding school in England. He left school early and jackarooed for a couple of years on an uncle’s 28 square mile station in the Snowy Mountains (similar country to and maybe 100 kms SE of Miles Franklin’s families’ properties) before returning to England to study French and German Literature at Cambridge.

When his father died in 1937 White was independently wealthy, living and writing in London and for a while in the US. His first novel, Happy Valley, which he had commenced while jackarooing, was published in 1939. He enlisted in the RAF at the outbreak of WWII and served as an intelligence officer in Egypt, Palestine and Greece during which time he met Manoly Lascaris, a Greek army officer, who became his life partner.

White lived with Lascaris for six years in Cairo before, in 1948, bringing him to live in Australia where they had a hobby farm at Castle Hill on the outskirts of Sydney. Their life as ‘farmers’ formed the background for one of White’s most admired novels (not by me!), his fourth, and the first written in Australia, The Tree of Man (1955). To be clear, Patrick White lived as an Englishman, rather than an Australian, until he was 36.

His fifth and greatest novel, Voss (1957) draws on the life (and death) of the explorer Ludwig Leichardt and also on White’s own time in the outback at another family property near Walgett, NSW. White wrote 13 novels all up and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. The Cockatoos, his second collection of short stories was published in 1974.

I always knew I should read White and attempted, unsuccessfully, The Aunt’s Story (1948) while I was at uni. Some time later I read and enjoyed Voss, and also the David Marr biography, and I read, and wrote about, The Aunt’s Story and The Twyborn Affair (1979) during my (very) mature age M.Litt. I have vague memories of starting others – I own A Fringe of Leaves (1976) and Memoirs of Many in One (1986) and I thought I owned the memoir Flaws in the Glass (1981) but maybe not.

I look up ‘Cockatoos’ in Marr. “So dry were the early months of 1973 that flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos flew in from the bush to plunder city gardens”. White is correcting proofs of The Eye of the Storm and putting together some stories written over the previous six years. “The latest story is called “The Cockatoos”, [White wrote], and that would be the title of the collection.” He submitted the stories in July and moved on to A Fringe of Leaves which had been lying ten years in a drawer waiting for Mrs Fraser “to recover from the mauling of librettists and composers” (see also: Finding Eliza, Larissa Behrendt).

Here are the stories and their lengths in pages:
A Woman’s Hand 104
The Full Belly 30
The Night the Prowler 58
Five-Twenty 34
Sicilian Vespers 86
The Cockatoos 59
so you can see why the collection is subtitled ‘Shorter novels and stories’.

Gail Jones in her 10 page introductory essay begins at the same place as I have, Marr’s “So dry were the early months of 1973 …”. She describes White’s work as “the singular project of someone for whom art offered questions, not answers, and an anguishing search for resolution in the irresolute business of being.” After waxing lyrical about The Tree of Man, she writes:

So what of The Cockatoos? Wonderfully broad in setting – the stories take place in Sicily, Greece, Egypt and Australia – they are also typical of White’s fiction in their combination of social comedy, inner quest and revelations of deep wounding. All engage modernist effects and concern melancholy and suffering.

I have read, struggled through, these stories. White’s work has layer on layer of meaning and intertextuality. They are mostly about older couples making do together, and White expresses his usual disgust with women’s bodies and with middle class Australians with deliberately ridiculous names like the Fazackerleys (A Woman’s Hand). The Full Belly is a short re-imagining of Greek life under German occupation, a period White was familiar with from his life with Manoly and the years he spent living in the Greek community in Egypt. The Night the Prowler Jones says strikes a false note. A couple attempt to come to terms with their daughter being raped, the daughter attempts to come to terms with being raped by becoming a sexual predator. This was made into a movie which I haven’t seen.

Let’s look at the final story, The Cockatoos. It’s a story of neighbours, people, middle aged couples mostly, living in the same suburban street, knowing each others’ names but hardly neighbourly. Mr Goodenough wears shorts at the weekend, showing his varicose veins. He and Mrs Goodenough have an only child, Tim, almost nine, who avoids other children, wanders streets and parks on his own. White makes fun of himself:

It bothered the father: what if the boy turned out a nut? or worse, a poof – or artist?

Mrs Davoren and her husband Mick, an Irish airman during the war, live amicably enough in the same house but avoid meeting, communicate through notes. Miss Le Cornu lives alone in the house left her by her parents. Mrs Davoren and Miss Le Cornu both cook tea for Mick who puts on his hat and walks up the street to eat his overcooked steak and bed Miss Le Cornu before wandering home again while Mrs Davoren scrapes the teas she cooks into the bin.

Cockatoos settle on the Davoren’s lawn, are offered food and water until they briefly accept a better offer from Miss Le Cornu. The Davorens bump into each other in a dark corner and briefly reconcile. Figgis, the neighbour everyone dislikes, brings his shotgun into the street, fires at the birds. Mick Davoren wrestles him for the gun, is shot, dies in the arms of Mrs Davoren and Miss Le Cornu, who afterwards sometimes speak. Tim spends a night in the park and beats a crippled cockatoo to death with a branch.

All very Patrick White. I’m sure it all means something.

 

Patrick White, The Cockatoos, first pub. 1973, this ed. Text Classics, 2019, Introduction by Gail Jones

Home is where the heart is

Journal: 051

Sunset country

Sunday. Here I am home, so no excuses for not keeping up with your posts, for a week or so anyway. I actually got to the outskirts of Perth last night, but it takes a few hours to run two trailers down to the yard, go back, get the other one, get the ute going, unpack my gear from the truck, and my body seems to prefer Victorian time to WA time, which just makes it all another two hours later, and I was already looking at midnight, so I pulled over, slept one more night in the truck and did it all this morning then wandered over to Milly’s, too late for pancakes but there’s always toast.

She of course wanted to go shopping, so I went home and got cleaned up. We both need new stovetops, mine’s not working at all, Lou making do with the oven and an electric frypan. I think we found what I want. I did the regulation traipsing while she looked at stuff she might want, then diverted her to a local Greek for an excellent lunch – saganaki, honey, walnuts how do I moan in text – (we did eat other stuff as well) and a bottle of white. I’m not properly home till I have that first bottle. I was feeling so mellow I drove half an hour to a native garden centre and helped her spend a couple of hundred hard-earned.

That’s boring I know. Stuff you do all the time. Well all the time there’s not a deadly virus raging through your community. But I spend days and weeks on my own (willingly!), on zero blood alcohol, and boring days doing stuff with Millie, the kids, the grandkids is what I look forward to. And sitting at the computer writing, reading. It might take me a day to talk myself out and after that I’m back to solitary stuff.

The other side of ‘home’ is that this trip, for the first time, I road trained through home territory, Victoria, where I grew up, the last mainland state to hold out. Going over, I dipped a toe in the water and crossed the northern tip, to Mildura, but coming back I went the whole hog, assembled the road train at Charlton north of Bendigo (map), ran straight up the highway through Berriwillock and Sea Lake where mum went to school, and her parents before her, and a cousin still farms, then Ouyen, Underbool, Murrayville, all tiny farming towns where a brother was born, dad taught, I went to school, Sunset country, Mallee country. Home.

My uncle Les, mum’s youngest brother (and father of the cousin who still farms there) ran trucks from the family farm between Berriwillock and Sea Lake, bought his first when he was 20 and I was 16, set me on the path I still follow. He married a year or so later, telling me that if I washed his stock crate I could come to the wedding. I did but Grandma vetoed me. If I came, all the cousins would have to come and there were too many. I’d been at my other uncle’s wedding a few years earlier aged 10 maybe, one of only four or five weddings I’ve been to in my whole life, though for my youngest aunty’s I was stuck in the car with my brothers, outside the church hall, fed sausage rolls through the car window by the ladies of the church auxiliary.

les's truck aaco

Les started off carting sheep. My first job as an owner driver was carting cattle. I ran into him a few times at Newmarket, the Melbourne saleyards across the road from Flemington, posh terrace housing now. I remember telling him one time I’d broken down and he was too busy to stop and help. He took over the family farm and we loss contact except at big family get-togethers but in later years I think his older daughter was happy to take over the tractor work and he ran a few trucks, trading and carting grain. It’s a while now since he died in an accident, but I think of him each time I run up that way, he could have hooked up a couple of trailers behind his biggest Mack and road trained right out the farm gate, and I’m sure he would have.

I should think of dad, too, though he was a very reluctant truck driver. Either the summer before he married mum, or the summer after, Granddad made him get his truck licence so he could take the old ex-army International 7 tonner, rocking and groaning with ten ton of wheat over the dirt roads to the Boigbeat silo, a few miles up the line from Berriwillock where coincidentally I took the ‘sunset’ photo above.

 

Recent audiobooks 

Loren Estleman (F, USA), The Sundown Speech (2016) – Crime
Paolo Bacigalupi (M, USA), Pump Six and other stories (2008) – SF
Erica Wright (F, USA), The Granite Moth (2015) – Crime
Elizabeth Aston (F, Eng), Miss Althea Darcy (2004) – Romance
Dan Simmons (M, USA), Endymion (1996) – SF
Dave Barry (M, USA), Tricky Business (2002) – Crime
Kirstin Chen (F, Sing/USA), Soy Sauce for Beginners (2013)
Will Wiles (M, Eng), Care of Wooden Floors (2012)
Lee Child (M, Eng), The Midnight Line (2017) – Crime

Currently reading

Patrick White, The Cockatoos
Martin Boyd, The Cardboard Crown
Christine Merrill, Regency Liasons. Milly’s working a few days a week at a Red Cross shop and brought this home so of course I started it while she was cooking tea and will finish it before I do anything else. Like choose a book for ANZLL’s Indigenous Literature Week (July 5-12, 2020) for instance.


“Home is where the heart is”. Proverb. Origin uncertain.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

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Parable of the Sower (1988) is deeply American SF, all guns and God. Well SF when it was written anyway, 3 decades ago, but now just another story of the US’s decline into hell in a handbasket. Trump, and McConnell’s GOP, too busy harvesting the spoils thrown up by the collapse of the once, recently great empire to offer leadership.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006), a Black American woman, is one of the greats of science fiction writing, deeply thoughtful about race, gender, and class, though not as prolific as many of her contemporaries.

In Parable of the Sower she posits the rise of a new religion, with the slogan “God is change”, and a young black female messiah, against the background of climate induced chaos as America falls back into the unregulated capitalism of mass unemployment, zero social services, corrupt police, and indentured slavery, not to mention roving packs of drug crazed pyromaniacs and walled, armed enclaves in the suburbs.

And I say ‘background’ because though economic and social collapse is central to the story there is not the clear economic analysis of the book’s forbears, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Jack London’ s The Iron Heel and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Instead, Butler focuses on what a new religion might look like, what sort of God would make sense of the ever-present danger and disorder of ordinary people’s lives.

A victim of God may,
Through learning adaptation,
Become a partner of God,
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s plaything,
God’s prey.

I don’t suppose only Americans substitute religion for logical economic analysis, though it feels like it sometimes, and the best of them, as here, make their way back to anarcho-syndicalism – that is, self government and equal opportunity – with some sort of synthesis of the teachings of Jesus and Buddha and a non-interfering God which seems to offer them comfort without causing us much harm.

Lauren, 13 when she starts telling her story, has already begun discovering not inventing the religion she calls Earthseed with a God it is up to us to shape. She, her college teacher parents and younger brothers live with four or five other families in a walled enclave in the suburbs on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Throughout the city and by implication, throughout the country, any unprotected building is occupied and ransacked by the masses of unemployed. Gasoline fuelled vehicles are a thing of the past, the internet is mostly down, schools are closed as it becomes too dangerous to leave the enclave, water is scarce and dirty, food is expensive and must be supplemented by home gardens and orchards. Police, fire brigades, ambulances must be paid to attend, are always late and often turn on the people who called them.

With no chance of a college education or employment, Lauren, already sexually active, faces a future of early marriage, constant child-bearing, crowded accommodation and grinding poverty. The father, a Baptist minister, trains the children of his community to shoot and organizes sentries but it is all for nought. By the time Lauren is 18 one brother has joined the gangs and been killed, the father has disappeared, and the enclave is overrun, ransacked, women and children raped, her mother and remaining brothers murdered.

She escapes with Harry (white), a childhood friend and Zahra (black), a wife sold into polygamous marriage by her prostitute mother. And so they join the long trek north, up the west coast to Canada, with tens of thousands of others, preyed on and preying on each other, slowly accumulating a few companions they can trust, children and parents with children.

The danger, shootings and deaths are a given in this brand of dystopian SF, but well done anyway. And the characters and relationships of the protagonists are filled out in a way not generally managed by the writers of boy-SF derived from war and wild west pulp fiction.

Among the people who accumulate in her train is an older black man, Bankole, to whom Lauren, though travelling as a boy, is attracted. They slowly become lovers and he, though sceptical of the religion Lauren is weaving around her little band, offers to lead them to 300 acres of remote farmland he owns in the mountains above San Francisco.

There they find the farm buildings all burnt and the bones of Bankole’s sister and her children in the ashes. And there with seemingly reliable ground water and arable land, remote from the worst of the marauders, they decide to stay. But that, as is always the case with SF, is another story, Parable of the Talents.

Perhaps to make her story more ess-eff-y, Butler gives Lauren and a couple of the lesser characters the ‘talent’, handicap really, of being able to feel the pain of others, so that if Lauren shoots someone she must die, or feel like she is dying, with them. But what is much more interesting is the feeling which people have, at least while they still have jobs and houses, until quite late in the story that this failure of the state is temporary, that after the next election or the one after, life will return to normal.

You get this feeling from America today. That the GOP, captured by the billionaires’ Tea Party, will be stopped from wrecking civilised governance, that the engineered failures of health, education and social security systems, the headlong rush to climate catastrophe, the hollowing out of the middle classes will all be reversed by a Blue Wave in November, when the opposite is clearly true. The Democrats are as captured by Big Money as the GOP; the South is already lost; the American dream is headed for nightmare as SF writers have been fortelling for decades.

 

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower, 4W8W, New York, 1988 (first ed. cover)


*Origin “Going to hell in a handbasket”
The phrase originated in the USA in the mid 19th century and the first print record is in I. Winslow Ayer’s account of events of the American Civil War “The Great North-Western Conspiracy”, 1865  (theidioms.com)

The suggested origin I liked best was being lowered down a gold mine shaft in a basket, which would have been quite common during the gold rushes from the 1840s on.

Miles Franklin, Majorie Barnard

Miles-Franklin-The-Story-Of-A-Famous-Australian-Marjorie-Barnard-OzSellerFast

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was born on her maternal grandmother’s property in the high country of southern NSW in 1879 – there’s a line I could write in my sleep, this might be my 25th Miles Franklin post – after an epic ride by her mother through the snow from the Franklin property at Brindabella, south of present day Canberra, up into the mountains to the Lampe property at Talbingo.

Marjorie Barnard was 18 years younger (ADB). As I wrote a week or two ago, the two met in the early 1930s at the Fellowship of Australian Writers when Franklin returned from years abroad, in Chicago and London, to keep house for her recently widowed mother in Carlton, an inner Sydney suburb, where she stayed for the rest of her life.

Barnard’s Miles Franklin: The Story of a Famous Australian was published in 1967, thirteen years after Franklin’s death in 1954, and three years after the release of her papers though she doesn’t appear to have made much use of them. This is a strictly literary biography with some reference to Franklin’s childhood and only such references to Franklin’s years in Chicago and London as Barnard gleaned from conversation with that unreliable witness, Miles Franklin.

The best references for Miles Franklin’s years abroad, apart from Jill Roe’s great work, are Verna Coleman’s Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career (Chicago) and Sylvia Martin’s Passionate Friends (London). Colin Roderick, who did have the advantage of Miles Franklin’s papers – in which he himself appears in a less than glowing light – also wrote an MF biography, though as I’ve written elsewhere, not one worth reading.

Barnard and Franklin moved in the same circles for twenty years so Barnard knew her well and it is this acquaintanceship which informs the biography and Barnard’s reading of MF’s works, rather than any great research.

[Franklin] was spirited and provocative in conversation but her audacity smacked of the 1890’s. All her daring had an antique air. She was, and remained, an enfant terrible. She might have shocked people by her forthrightness fifty years ago. She obviously thought that it would shock them still and felt a little snubbed when it did not.

Because she was vulnerable, Miles was secretive. There were other reasons too. She loved a mystery and used it partly as display and partly as cover… She was fiercely virginal yet even to the end of her life she was habitually flirtatious… She wanted to cut a figure in the world of literature, she wanted to hide… I am tempted to say that, like the spoilt child she once was, she still wanted everything her own way. The child lived on in the woman and was bitterly hurt by life.

All Franklin’s best work is rooted in her adolescence, in her exile from her families’ stations in the high country and in the lives of the men and women of her grandparents’ generation who pioneered that country.

Franklin achieved instant success with My Brilliant Career (1901), wrote two follow-ups in the next couple of years without being published, wrote the mediocre Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909) and then as far as Barnard is concerned, disappeared from view for decades.

In fact, Franklin was in the US from 1906 to 1915, where she wrote two books of which Barnard seems entirely unaware The Net of Circumstance (1915) and On Dearborn Street (1981); then in London and Serbia during WWI – which she reported on extensively I think, though again Barnard is unaware, and I’ve seen no evidence that MF ever revisited this writing to have it collected; and then London, with one visit home around 1927, until about 1932 [I’m writing without access to Roe!] when she returned to Sydney for good.

Barnard devotes the first couple of chapters to Franklin’s family and childhood with most of the material drawn from Franklin’s own writing, Childhood at Brindabella (memoir), and My Brilliant Career and Cockatoos (autobiographical fiction). She deals briefly with Franklin’s failure to find a publisher for My Career Goes Bung, and then moves on to the (mistaken) heart of her thesis ‘Thirty Years in Exile’. Barnard looks to Ignez, the heroine of Cockatoos and the absent centre of Back to Bool Bool for an explanation.

The days in [the USA] were, in so far as the development of her special talents were concerned, wasted. She had fallen among reformers, and that for an artist is more fatal than for a merchant to fall among bandits. Her heart was frozen by a secret tragedy. [Back to Bool Bool]

MF did fall among reformers, the National Women’s Trade Union League of America, and had to deal with the tragedies of the loss of her singing voice, which she had hoped to make her first career, and of the death back in Australia of her nearest sister, but she also continued to write both then and in London after the War.

I have written elsewhere that these were her middle years stylistically when she attempted contemporary fiction at which she proved to be less than good. Barnard treats the work written around 1925 and published much later as Prelude to Waking as Franklin’s first attempt at returning to writing after a long hiatus.

Perhaps this book had to be written to get Miles into the habit of writing again. It did not have to be published.

I’m not clear whether by 1967 it was known for sure that Brent of Bin Bin was Miles Franklin. Barnard surmises that ‘he’ was and goes on to analyse in some depth the five books of the Up the Country saga published under the Brent of Bin Bin name, and then the books published under Franklin’s own name: Bring the Monkey, Old Blastus and her crowning achievement, All That Swagger, all written in the space of ten years from 1926 to 1935.

At that point inspiration dried up. There followed her collaboration with Dymphna Cusack, Pioneers on Parade (1939), a biography of Joseph Furphy and a book of essays, Laughter not for a Cage arising out a lecture series at UWA, Perth. Franklin in fact quite often gave public talks in these last 20 years, but her career as a novelist was over.

This is a flawed work, the biographer too close to her subject, but nevertheless probably remains the best and most comprehensive treatment of Franklin’s work.

 

Marjorie Barnard, Miles Franklin: The Story of a Famous Australian, Hill of Content, Melbourne, 1967 (the cover above at the time of writing, is from a UQP reprint, but I will replace it with a photo of the dustjacket of my own first edition when I eventually get home).

For more of my (and other bloggers’) reviews and writing about Miles Franklin go to my Miles Franklin page (here)

Setting Out

Journal: 050

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I’m setting out on this post with no clear idea of where it will end up. It’s Sunday 6.46 am and in a few hours I am setting out on another trip to Melbourne (from Perth WA if you’re new here). Yesterday I was planning to go half empty but a truck came up on Loadshift, I tendered my usual price, within 15 minutes I had the job, within 3 hours the truck was loaded and back in the yard (my mate’s back paddock).

Today, I’ll run that trailer ‘up the hill’ to the assembly area on the highway south, go back for the other two, and head down to Esperance, 800 km away on the south coast, to load scrap steel. Then it’s off across the Nullarbor, to the northern outskirts of Adelaide, then for the first time as a road train in my old home state, across the north west corner of Victoria and down the river, on the NSW side, to Echuca (map). Break up, run one trailer into Melbourne, then the other two to Wodonga where the steel is remade in an electric arc furnace. Which should put me empty in Melbourne Friday too late to load out.

Sue (WG), who is flat out getting her elderly parents settled in new nursing accommodation (I think at 90 and 100 it’s safe to say elderly), says I should cherish my mother while I have her, so I guess it’s out to mum’s for the weekend.

If you follow Whispering Gums, and doesn’t everyone, you’ll see she’s running a series called Bill Curates, which is me choosing representative posts from her back catalogue – I’ve made my way so far from May to June 2009 – picking out items to repost. Lots of fun for very little effort. A good way, as Karen/Booker Talk suggested in her excellent A to Z of Blogging, of revisiting material not seen by most of her followers, and a good way too of keeping Whispering Gums ticking over while Sue is so busy.

I have to write Journals because I read so little, even when I have “days off”, which mostly involves moving trucks and trailers from one spot to another to get them repaired or serviced or new tyres, or a paint job and new guards (mudguards) as with the trailer immediately behind my ute in the picture above, white and light blue is going to be my new colour scheme, not to mention keeping my bookwork up to date, though none of that explains why I read only a few pages in the evening, catch up on the news, solve a killer sudoku and am fast asleep by 10pm.

Remember, four months ago, when ‘the news’ was that the Australian government was doing nothing about climate change, then bushfires across half the continent made even the Liberal Party aware that climate change was here now, and just when we thought something might happen Covid-19 wiped everything else off the front pages and the Morrison (and Trump) governments took the opportunity to begin sabotaging every remaining climate initiative they could think of, and now the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has wiped Covid-19 off the front pages, except for the relatives of 110,000 people killed by Trump’s willful negligence, but of course it couldn’t happen here. Except it does.

“there’s no need to import things happening in other countries here to Australia. I mean, Australia is a fair country … I mean, Australia is not the United States.” [Prime Minister Morrison]

African Americans make up 12% of the adult population, but 33% of the US prison population; in Australia the ratio for Indigenous people is 3% of the population and 29% of the prisoners. [Greg Jericho, Guardian Australia, 7 June 2020]

Do the maths. Black Australians are FOUR times more likely to be jailed than Black Americans and TEN times more likely to be jailed than white Australians.

Since 1991 and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 432 Indigenous people in prison or in the hands of police have died and not one person has been convicted of any offence in connection with those deaths.

That is the Australia we live in, whether we set out to achieve it or not, an Australia founded on the murder of its original inhabitants, as I have attempted to document, and in which those murders continue today, unpunished.

 

Remember: Indigenous Literature Week (July 5-12, 2020) on ANZLitlovers

 

Recent audiobooks 

Stephanie Laurens (F, Aus), Four in Hand (1993) – Romance
as far as I can tell, Laurens has lived in England for a long time, but she does have some reviews on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database. I should contribute another.
Janet Evanovich (F, USA), Seven Up (2001) – Crime
Camilla Lackberg (F, Swe), The Lost Boy (2013) – Crime
Anne McCaffery (F, USA), Damia (1992) – SF
Susan Choi (F, USA), The Foreign Student (1998)
Blake Crouch (M, USA), Good Behaviour (2016) – DNF
Belinda Alexandra (F, Aus), Silver Wattle (2007) – DNF

Currently reading

Patrick White, The Cockatoos
Majorie Barnard, Miles Franklin
Flannery O’Connor, Complete Stories
Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (I just bought it, I hope I start reading it)

 

The Foreign Student, Susan Choi

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Susan Choi, born 1969, is an American novelist who had a Korean father and a (presumably white American) Jewish mother. The Foreign Student (1998), her first novel, won the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction. Choi did her MFA at Cornell, and going by the dates, the novel was her Masters project. I tell you all that to provide context for what I want to say about the book, the audiobook version of which, read by Daniel Isaac, I listened to last week.

Further context is provided by the recent murder of Black American George Floyd in police custody and the ensuing riots. And if you wonder what my opinion is about them, then I think that setting fire to Minneapolis Police Headquarters is the least that the protesters should have done.

The Foreign Student is a discussion of race and ethnicity in the US masquerading as gentle, historical fiction, with a good, old-fashioned eternal triangle. The setting is the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, which Wikipedia assures me is a real place, in 1955-56. As you most likely know, I dislike historical fiction and one of the reasons is that feeling of the writer being in the now and writing of a period which is not-now. Choi amazingly avoids that feeling altogether. This is a novel which feels as though it was written in 1956.

And so we get to race. This is a novel which feels as though it was written in 1956 by a Southerner. As you can imagine, all the domestic staff at Sewanee are Black and they are invariably and without qualification referred to as ‘boys’. If you have been following along with Melanie/GTL’s Flannery O’Connor short stories series you will know what I mean about that feeling of privileged whites only slowly coming to grips with the early days of desegregation.

I read/discuss US novels about race to help get a handle on racism in Australia. The George Floyd riots have generated an impassioned response to the it-couldn’t-happen-here crowd with a reminder of our own disgraceful record of Black deaths in custody, including the “I can’t breathe” death of David Dungay. It seems to me though that the tremendous problem of anti-Black racism in America overshadows the disadvantaged position of First Nations’ peoples, while in Australia the two problems are of course combined.

The Foreign Student begins with a young Korean man being dropped off by his taxi at the beginning of the long uphill driveway to Sewanee and being picked up by a good looking young white woman in a little yellow open-top British sports car (I’m only guessing a 1954 MG).
1954 MG TF Right Hand Drive Roadster | Beverly Hills Car Club
The two are Chang (Chuck) Anh, 24 and Katherine Monroe, 28. Katherine lives in the house in Sewanee left to her by her father and which her parents gave up forever years earlier when Katherine, then 14, began an affair with her father’s best friend professor Charles Addison.

Chuck has been accepted at Sewanee as an international student on full scholarship; Addison, in his late fifties, is still at Sewanee, his career having stalled, his affair with Katherine having been renewed, is slowly moving towards marriage; Katherine never made it to college, has returned to Sewanee after years away, and now leads a pointless existence running errands for friends in her little yellow roadster.

Katherine and Chuck slowly become interested in each other and Addison is left more and more by the wayside. Which is all you need to know about the romance side. It would be interesting to know how much of Chuck’s story is Choi’s father’s story. Choi uses Chuck’s being Korean as a sort of bridge between Black and White. So that Chuck as a student is White and his attempts to communicate with the servants are knocked back. When Chuck is the only student staying on over summer it is organized for him to eat in the servants’ dining room, but he is so uncomfortable about being seated separately and waited on that he takes (and makes) all further meals in his room. But later, when he must be punished for a breach of the rules, he is treated by the Administration as colored and given a job in the kitchen where he is at last able to be friends with the staff.

For a short while that same summer he has a job with a bookbinder in Chicago where interestingly he is generally treated as Japanese, which language he speaks. Throughout the novel we work our way through Chuck’s back story, his father a professor in Seoul collaborating cooperating with the Japanese occupation when he was a child and then the dark years of the Korean War, communist occupation of Seoul (twice) and the corrupt US-supported dictatorship of Syngman Rhee. Chuck variously works as a translator for US Intelligence and is imprisoned and tortured by his own government.

Choi grew up in Texas and went to university at Yale and Cornell, so this is not home territory for her. If her father did attend the University of the South that would be interesting, but even if he did not, setting her story there enables us to contrast the experience of being Korean in America with that of being Black in America without having to paint it on with a trowel. Highly recommended.

 

Susan Choi, The Foreign Student, first pub. 1998. Blackstone Audio 2019, read by Daniel K Isaac

Melbourne and Sydney

This post went up yesterday as a guest post on Whispering Gums’ Monday Musings series.

Norman Lindsay

In the 1870s and 1880s Melbourne was both Australia’s largest and wealthiest city and its literary centre – around figures like Marcus Clarke, George McCrae (son of Georgianna), Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Kendall, Ada Cambridge, Tasma.

What I want to discuss here is the movement of the literary centre to Sydney and how that worked out, during the first half of the twentieth century. This is an opinion piece rather than the result of any great research so feel free to add to what I say and to correct my mistakes.

Sue (Whispering Gums) has always been interested in the women of this period of Australian writing, and over the past few years we, the Australian Lit.Blogging community, have done a lot to establish in our own minds at least, who the women writers were and to review their work. On my blog, I broke Australian writing into ‘Generations’ more or less in line with HM Green’s ‘Periods’ in his History of Australian Literature, so: Gen 1 1788-1890, Gen 2 1890-1918, Gen 3 1919-1960.

Gen 2 and the first years of Gen 3 were characterized by being both Sydney-centred and seriously misogynist. Gen 2 covered the years of the Sydney Bulletin magazine’s greatest influence, Federation, rising nationalism, WWI.  The Bulletin‘s stable of writers: Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, Steele Rudd, Joseph Furphy and a host of bush poets, and the drawings of Lindsay Norman (who moved up from Melbourne after leaving art school) followed by the War reporting of Keith Murdoch and CEW Bean left us with an indelible image of ourselves as resourceful bushmen, and larrikin fighting men. An image which both excluded women and around which they had to work.

The Bulletin openly scorned home life and dismissed the popular women writers of the previous generation as ‘Melbourne-based romance writers’.

“The Sydney Bulletin liked to believe that in ‘virile cultures’ where ‘home-life [had] not become so all absorbing: ‘men live and struggle and fight out in the open most of the time. When they go to their homes they go to beat their wives…’{3 Nov. 1888} According to the Bulletin, home life trammelled a man’s spirit and sapped his masculinity. And it robbed him of his independence.” Marilyn Lake, 1986

This bled into Gen 3 and the Lindsay-led Sydney Push of the 1920s, an antipodean Bohemia where women were only of use as models and for sex.

For those of us over say, 50 our history, including such literary history as got past the anglophile gatekeepers, was written and taught by returned servicemen, and they very much bought into the myths of the lone bushman, mateship etc. So it is important to realise that there is another history, that of strong, independent women, which is not taught. In the 1890s both Melbourne and Sydney had vibrant women’s movements focussed on (white) female suffrage, yes, but also on domestic violence, temperance, and women’s welfare. The Melbourne movement coalesced around Annette Bear and Vida Goldstein, and Sydney around Rosa Scott and Louisa Lawson, and Lawson’s newspaper, Dawn.

Miles Franklin is the prime example of a woman writer who was influenced by the nationalism of the Bulletin but wrote with a definite pro-woman and anti-marriage slant. After the publication and instant success of My Brilliant Career in 1901 Franklin was taken up by Rosa Scott, and then subsequently fell in with Goldstein’s lot when she moved to Melbourne and became life-long friends with Melbourne suffragists Mary Fullerton and Mabel Singleton. Her fictionalised biographies My Career Goes Bung and Cockatoos describe her year in the Sydney literary set, living with Scott, flirting with AB Paterson, and meeting Lindsay and (Bulletin editor) Archibald.

Franklin lived overseas for many years, from 1906 to the 1930s and when she came back for good, to her mother’s house in Sydney it was to a changed literary scene, one dominated by women. During the 20s women had been excluded from the Sydney Push’s literary magazine, Vision and maybe only Zora Cross with her erotic poems fitted in with the times. Anne Brennan, daughter of drunken poet Christopher Brennan, who hung around the Lindsay push for grog and sex, and tried to write, tried to fit in and failed. Christina Stead was tempted to join the Push, but her compulsion to earn enough to flee overseas saved her.

The Melbourne scene gathered around Nettie and Vance Palmer. Vance, originally a Queenslander, tried hard to be a writer in the Bulletin tradition but hasn’t stood the test of time. They were friends with Louis and Hilda Esson and with the poet Maurice Furnley. But more importantly Nettie and Hilda had been at school together at Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies College, and subsequently at university. Hilda had been neighbours with Katherine Susannah Prichard’s family and introduced KSP to Nettie. Earlier alumni of PLC included Vida Goldstein and Henry Handel Richardson who of course wrote about the school in The Getting of Wisdom.

Nettie, a poet and scholar, maintained an enormous correspondence with a great many Australian writers and was important in maintaining links with expatriates like Richardson.

Sydney women wrote from their homes, isolated from each other until the formation of the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1928 by Mary Gilmore, Steele Rudd and John le Gay Brereton. Later in the 30s the FAW’s most prominent members were Miles Franklin, Marjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davidson [Sue says I should include here that the FAW’s first female president was Flora Eldershaw in 1935].

So what can I say about that fixture of Australian life: Melbourne-Sydney rivalry. Melbourne ‘had’ Katherine Susannah Prichard, but she was living in Perth; Henry Handel Richardson, acknowledged for years as Australia’s best writer, but long since based in England; (the late) Joseph Furphy, writer of the Great Australian Novel, Such is Life; and Nettie Palmer.

Sydney, by the outbreak of WWII, had a blossoming of writers: Kylie Tennant, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, Dymphna Cusack, Eleanor Dark, Ernestine Hill, and Patrick White just setting out. You be the judge.

 

For a compilation of posts on Australian (mostly) women’s writing up to 1960 see

theaustralianlegend, AWW Gen 1, 1788-1890 (here)
theaustralianlegend, AWW Gen 2, 1890-1918 (here)
theaustralianlegend, AWW Gen 3, 1919-1960 (here)