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

32 thoughts on “Not Meeting Mr Right, Anita Heiss

  1. That does sound an interesting take on the genre (whatever you want to call the genre) – not something that looks easy to get here unfortunately but another on the look for it just in case I happen upon it list.

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  2. I really admire Anita Heiss. I met her in person over drinks at the NF festival and tried not to behave like a fan-girl, but it was a lost cause, She is so clever and funny and wise and a wonderful role model for girls and women of all colours.
    I have tried her choc-lit, but I didn’t get on with it for the same reason that I don’t get on with anybody’s chick-lit. But her historical novel Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom was brilliant. (Funny, I was just talking about it yesterday with a neighbour).

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      • Thanks to you for your support! I really thought that with the Black Lives Matter movement, there would be an upsurge of interest in #IndigLitWeek and (so far) it’s been disappointing that it hasn’t happened. But loyal supporters like you make it worthwhile anyway.

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  3. Ah, now I understand something Bill about why you’ve not liked some books like Too much lip – and it’s in your comment about the flow of words not feeling right, and Heiss’s statement that “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.”

    In a post a long time ago – and I just can’t find it – I mentioned that I thought there was a very particular Indigenous storytelling style, one that I’d heard first orally (by Indigenous guides, for example) but then read in books like Marie Munkara’s. I was a bit nervous saying it at the time, feeling it may sound critical or snooty (not like “ours” and all that) but I love it because it’s so distinctive and immediate sounding. I’m so glad you’ve quoted Heiss talking about this.

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  4. I find chick lit in which women have a long list of requirements before thy even set foot out the door incredibly depressing. To me, it demonstrates how selfish, demanding, and lacking in empathy we’ve become. Basically, these types of books suggest to me that the protagonist has no inkling that she’s going to meet other human beings. Wouldn’t she be just horrified if the men she dated had a hair color, dress size, make-up, or even income level requirement.

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    • She really did have a shopping list in this book. Heiss, the author, was I think trying to make the point to young woman that there are some things they shouldn’t put up with, but yes some of her criteria in practice were more than a bit superficial.

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  5. I’m looking forward to reading more posts about indigenous writers during Lisa’s July event, from the corner of the world that you and she and others also inhabit. As uncommon as it is for Australian writers to have work readily available in Canada, it is even less easy to find work by indigenous authors from the other side of the globe, but I really enjoy reading about their works all the same. I’m sure it’s the same, other way around (maybe you’ve got access to Thomas King and Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, maybe even Eden Robinson, but perhaps few others).

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    • I’m sorry, I’ve heard of Louise Erdrich, but as for the others ..
      The rise of Indigenous Lit. in Australia has been quite recent, but also of a very high quality, so that we are paying it a lot of attention.
      Do you have a review of Canadian Indigenous writing for Lisa’s Week?

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  6. I never mind different dialects from writers. It doesn’t usually take too long to get into the rhythm of it. I don’t like Chick Lit though. I recently bought her book Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms and it does appeal though haven’t read it yet. It’s sitting here on the shelf.

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    • I prefer chick lit, or should I say romantic comedies, ahead of historical fiction, but that’s just me. My daughter has set me some reading about not using the label ‘chick lit’.

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      • I’m glad I’m not the only guy who likes it. Luckily you’re separated from WG by quite a few comments so she won’t notice if I let on I’m listening to another Mr Darcy’s daughter this trip.

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  7. At the Oz Lit conference last week an academic said that she had tried to teach her students The Swan Book but they just couldn’t understand it. When they listened to it via audio book, however, it became much more accessible – I think that says something, as you mention, about oral literature transposed to the page.

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    • My opinion is that The Swan Book will be Australia’s book of the century. My other opinion is that if Literature students find difficult books too hard then there’s always Business Communications. I’m not sure Wright, or Scott with Benang were aiming for ordinary speech, maybe they are Indigenous poetry.

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      • Yes, Bill … agree totally. If you are a Literature student you are signing up to grapple with the best in writing, with the innovative in writing. Your Business Communication suggestion made me laugh.

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      • I did Business Workshop 101 for Accounting. In 1981 so a while ago. Insulting is one word that springs to mind. Though the whole dumbing down thing for overseas students (and Australians who barely passed Year 12), which I ran into while doing post grad business courses, is just concerning.

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      • I am more generous than you, Bill! English Lit is compulsory for a number of Arts students, so it’s not necessarily a case of them signing up voluntarily to think about books. It can be hard to engage these kinds of students and I maintain that some exposure to Indigenous literature is better than none at all. This was also a regional university, & students in the regions don’t always have the same opportunities as those in cities because of socio-economic backgrounds.

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      • Most people are more generous than I! I’m sorry that Lit has to be dumbed down so that Lit and non-Lit students can study the same unit. But if that is going to be the case then there is plenty of Indig.Lit with less complex writing. The Swan Book merits serious study not just ticking boxes. Ditto Benang but other Kim Scott works are more accessible, then there’s Claire Coleman, Marie Munkara, Ellen van Neerven if the lecturer wants Queensland.

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      • That’s interesting Jess (I don’t have a reply button to your comment so I hope you see this). I had no idea that in tertiary Arts courses anything was compulsory. I’d never heard of that in my day (haha!) Given that it is though, I completely take your point regarding choosing works that will draw students in rather than push them away.

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      • HI Sue & Bill,

        I too am struggling with the lack of reply functions! English lit is also often compulsory for Education students, which I think is a good thing. I agree that there are more accessible texts one could set – I hesitated over The Swan Book for that reason. I ended up setting ‘Water’ from Heat & Light, Terra Nullius & the poems of Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Interestingly many of the students didn’t think Terra Nullius was all that literary, although they liked the conceit – as did I. So they can make literary judgements, at least at UQ – this was a 3rd year Oz Lit course.

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      • I shut down indents so I could follow Comments on my phone.
        Water – good choice.
        Claire Coleman is developing in interesting ways. She’s not an especially literary writer, but I think her weaving of SF and Indig. themes (which Water does too) is innovative. Gets back to the definition of Literature, which for me is more than just good writing.

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  8. But, ebooks are quite a bit cheaper here than print books – certainly around half the price of a trade paperback. Maybe 2/3 of the smaller format. I prefer print, but in the interest of downsizing – I’ve cleared out too many houses in the last decade not to be sensitive to this issue – I try to mix it up a bit. Non-Aussie books I buy in e-format!

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    • I found a lot to agree with in your review. I don’t understand dating culture, especially years and years of going out and not settling for anyone, approaching 40 still single (looking at you, my two older kids). Get a partner and have kids in your late 20s is my opinion. Loved your PS –
      “PS: I was really surprised to find out that Not Meeting Mr Right has been translated into French. It seems unfair that this one is available to the French public but not That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott. *sigh*”

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