The Mountain, Drusilla Modjeska

The Mountain is a novel set in Papua New Guinea in the years before and after Independence (from Australia) on 16 Sept., 1975. Modjeska, born in England in 1946, went to PNG with her husband (I think) in the late 1960s, briefly attending the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, before settling in Sydney in 1971. ‘In 2006 Modjeska was a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney, “investigating the interplay of race, gender and the arts in post-colonial Papua New Guinea”‘ (wiki) all of which accords with the scenes and action in this book.

I started listening to an audiobook of The Mountain a couple of months ago, and found the beginning entrancing. But the cds – as is often the case with the Queensland Narrating Service – proved unlistenable and so I was prevented from finishing until I could source a paper version, which of course I now have.

There is a brief Prologue. Jericho, 36, lunching overlooking Sydney Harbour, with Martha who must be mid-50 ish. Martha remembers Jericho, then 5, being brought down the Mountain to her and Rika. Like most opening chapters, you file it away and hope subsequent chapters will make it make sense, though in this case, if you remember it at all, it has no context until much later in the book.

Martha is essentially the author character, but she often takes a back seat, and when the narration is from the point of view of her friends Rika or Laedi, who each have very different backgrounds, it is often difficult to tell them apart.

The core of the novel is that Rika, a young Dutch woman, marries Leonard, a stodgy Oxford anthropologist who accepts a position at the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. There she becomes friends with Martha – a young woman from Sydney who had given up her own studies and married her boyfriend, Peter, because he had been offered a job at UPNG “too good to refuse” – and with Laedi, a young, Australian private school educated, coffee coloured ‘hapkas‘ woman, married to another white ademic, Don. And they all live in houses in the university compound, and have a duty to employ locals as servants.

By the time the I gave up on the audiobook, the three young women were engaging in long, personal discussions; were getting to know all the university staff and senior students, in standard university town fashion; and Rika whose view was taking over, was being introduced to Port Moresby and to PNG. All very much, I’m sure, in accord with Modjeska’s own life at that time.

What bothers me, and it bothers me more because Modjeska is now, has long been, a distinguished (Australian) literary academic, is that as more and more Papuan characters are introduced, she purports to write from their point of view. Which is ironic, given that many of them are academic and/or literary, but also unnecessary, patronizing. In a word, it’s appropriation. I wonder what her reasoning is. This is an otherwise excellent novel; written largely out of Modjeska’s own experience; perhaps she feels PNG needs/needed a hurry on to produce its own literature.

Leonard finds Rika, a fine photographer, a job curating old photos in the university library; Martha enrols to complete her BA in English Lit. They get to know, the novel is expanded to include, Papuan men – Jacob, an ambitious law student; Milton, an English student finding his way writing anti-colonial drama; Aaron back from studying overseas. Jacob and Milton are roomies. Aaron and Jacob, both from Fjord country, have ‘history’. Michael Somare, leader of the new Pangu Party, floats in and out of the university. Gough is still in Opposition in Canberra, but Independence is coming.

Leonard goes up ‘the Mountain’ to live there for some months and to get local life and ceremonies down on film. Don is foisted on him by the university, and causes problems. Rika stays behind, is expected to come up later, falls into a relationship with Aaron.

Bark paintings recur throughout – these two are unnamed, just “PNG bark paintings sold at auction” – created by women, given as gifts, used as wall hangings. With no great importance, but symbolizing, I think, links between women on the Mountain and women in Port Moresby.

Rika can’t bear to tell Leonard. Laedi is unhappy with Don, but gets pregnant again. Martha observes. Eventually Rika goes up the Mountain herself, makes important connections with the women there. Don takes a young local as wife, she has a child.

Rika was angry. She was angry with Leonard. She was angry at his patience when she could not let him touch her. She was angry with herself for the night she had given in to him, and to herself, and for the dark pleasure of her double betrayal as Leonard sweated above her. She was angry at the kindness of the hand Leonard rested on her back when she turned from him on their hard sleeping mats. Most of all, she was angry that he had not told her about Don.

A page later, their marriage is over. Rika goes back down the Mountain. Aaron gets a beating from the white men who have been tailing him, observing him. A warning that white women are not for Black men. Leonard eventually goes home to Oxford.

Rika and Aaron get a house, outside the university compound, in the new suburb of Hohola. Soon, and for many years, they are surrounded by friends. Their house has a “shaded verandah where people gathered, crowding around table, or sleeping on the old bed against the wall. Aaron’s kin came from the fjords – no one was turned away. Rika sang as she cooked coconut rice and banana bread, food for many.”

And so begin the middle years, Aaron now working for Somare; Martha and Laedi also living in Hohola, Martha and Peter living largely separate lives; Laedi eventually a single mother with daughters Bili and Daisy.

In the sixth year a hapkas boy is brought down from the Mountain for his education and he effectively becomes if not Bili’s brother then her constant playmate. This is Jericho (not that I remembered the Prologue at the time), and much of the rest of the novel is his story.

For someone who in a lifetime in literature has produced only three novels, Modjeska is a very fine writer. I’m sorry that she did not find a way to tell this story just through Martha’s eyes, or even through Martha and Rika’s, because accounts of PNG life are rare, but they deserve to be told by the Miltons and Laedis and Jerichos who lived them.

And yes, despite myself, I enjoyed this book and heartily recommend it.

.

Drusilla Modjeska, The Mountain, Vintage, Sydney, 2012. 426pp. The map, presumably hand-drawn by Modjeska, is taken from the book.

see also my reviews of:
Modjeska’s first novel (set in England), Poppy (1990)
and, from her PhD at UNSW, Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925–1945 (1981).

The Great Australian Loneliness, Ernestine Hill

You know that I am fascinated by intertextual geography. So, for instance, last month’s AWWC subject, Ada Cambridge, on her first excursion into the bush, was caught up in exactly the same loops of the Murray River in 1870 as Tom Collins (Such is Life) a decade later.

Ernestine Hill (1899-1972) is one writer who intersects many others. The journey around northern Australia she describes in The Great Australian Loneliness criss-crosses the paths of a number of notable Australian writers and books. She hitches a lift with Michael Durack, father of Mary (Kings in Grass Castles) and Elizabeth (“Eddie Burrup”), in northern WA (and later becomes friends with both, and her son Robert maybe becomes Elizabeth’s lover); she hears about the Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence girls in a pub in Marble Bar, and their epic walk home to Jigalong; Daisy Bates owned a cattle leasehold near Jigalong, to which she had famously driven cattle south from Roebuck near Broome, 900 kms north (“3000 Miles on Side-Saddle”); Hill later catches up with Bates at Ooldea in outback South Australia and does the work on Bates’ papers which leads to the publication of The Passing of the Aborigines; four or five years earlier, Katharine Susannah Prichard had been at Turee Creek, a couple of hundred kms south west of Jigalong, writing Coonardoo; later, Hill and Henrietta Drake Brockman travel in Hill’s ex-army amoured personnel carrier to Kalgoorlie to catch up with KSP who is there writing her Goldfields trilogy.

Then there is the mystery of who did Kim Scott’s aunty (Kayang & Me) see driving an apc across the Nullabor to meet with Daisy Bates? Hill’s condemnation of Aboriginal slavery in the WA pearling industry; Chris Owen’s excoriation of the Duracks’ complicity in Aboriginal massacres in Every Mothers’ Son is Guilty; Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis’ account of her family coming in from the desert (Pictures from my Memory) – she was at school for a while at Karalundi mission where Daisy, one of the Rabbit Proof Fence girls was working, in 1972; and of course, Robyn Davidson’s journey by camel across the desert (Tracks) whose beginning and end points, Alice Springs and Hamelin Pool, Shark Bay, mirror those of Hill, who started from Hamelin Pool and ends her account two years later riding a camel into Alice Springs.

This is all by way of an introduction to my review this month of The Great Australian Loneliness on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site. Read on …

So Far, So Good, Aaron Fa’Aoso with Michelle Scott Tucker

Aaron Fa’Aoso (1975- ) is a Torres Strait Islander man who has been a professional (rugby league) footballer, dancer, bouncer, a remote community health worker, an acclaimed actor and now has his own media production company.

As I follow/watch neither rugby league nor television I had no idea who he was when Michelle said that she was going to be co-writing this autobiography. I was in touch with her off and on over the three years it took and it was obvious that she was getting a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from the process – described here – and now the book is out, you can see that the collaboration worked well and does them both credit. And I now know a bit more about Aaron.

He snarled, full of menace yet pale and sweating in the tropical Cairns heat, saying something like, C’mon xxxxx, I’ll have ya. …

At 15, I already had years of martial arts experience behind me, regimens of barefoot running and full-bodied sparring that these days would be considered more like child abuse than training. Add to that my fitness from footy, basketball, pushbikes and swimming … And thanks to my Tongan dad, I was a big, solid kid.

And so we start as we mean to go on. Aggressive. Not taking a backward step. I could say ‘unapologetic’, but that is not quite true. Aaron lays his life out before us, with all its aggro and mistakes, and at least implies that he wishes he had done things differently, and that those who follow him would take heed of the lessons he has learnt.

Aaron was brought up by his mother and his mother’s mother (his Nan) after the deaths of his father and his mother’s step-father when he was 5 or 6. They lived in Cairns, for the educational and work opportunities, and because his Nan’s home island, Saibai, which is just 4 km south of Papua New Guinea, is low-lying and subject to flooding. Torres Strait Islanders are Melanesian. Aaron explains the various (complicated!) elements of his parentage, but he was brought up Torres Strait Islander and that is what he is proud to be.

He is also Seventh Day Adventist, his father’s religion, though it is difficult to see what part this plays in his life, not that he doesn’t keep telling us – after each failure – that he has resumed going to church. This highlights a problem I have with a lot of writing, not just Indigenous, and that is the part played by spiritual and religious belief. I have to accept that people do believe that stuff, and mostly just let what they say about it pass over my head, or if it is playing an important part, then treat it as I would any premise in SFF ( or for that matter, in C19th fiction), as a motivational power which works within the confines of the book.

The next problem I have is how to review a book about someone whose work I don’t know, and whom you may not know either. I know it’s infra dig to just retell the story, but I’m going to head down that path anyway and we’ll see where we end up.

Aaron grew up in Cairns, showed some promise as a rugby league footballer, went down to Sydney to try out with one club, then another, it didn’t work out – and don’t get me wrong, I found going up to the city for uni hard enough, and that was only 140 km. Sydney – Cairns is 2,400. He got into grog; the Indigenous community picked him up; there was a stint in Koori Radio; an Indigenous dance troupe where he met and married his first wife, Gina; they had a kid, a boy; work took them in different directions, different cities; it was all too hard and he went home to N Qld, to his Torres Strait Is community; got into community work; Gina came up a couple of times, but that marriage was over.

I’m just writing this as I remember it after finishing reading, so it’s not gospel. After a couple of years SBS came up to FNQ to film Remote Area Nurse; Aaron auditioned and got a part; got the acting bug; gave up his community work and went back to Sydney. There’s another wife, another child, a girl; they fight and get back together, fight and get back together, endlessly, between Sydney and Cairns. He batters doors and walls; she takes out violence orders on him; they (he says) ignore them; the police are called; after some years they have a marriage ceremony; they’re happy; they fight; she commits suicide; her family continue the fight, attempt to keep custody of the daughter; he is suicidal; his son feels neglected.

Aaron’s acting/film career progresses; he continues to take up and discard women – “relationships without ties”; his children, but especially his son, become involved in his community.

Scott Tucker has done a wonderful job getting Aaron’s voice down on paper, while building a very readable narrative; weaving in plenty of detail about the Torres Strait Islander community, about everyday life, about historical and everyday racism.

Australia is a deeply racist country but few people care to admit it. Instead we try to hide this uncomfortable fact – placing it firmly in the past or pinning it on a few bad apples. Racism is a series of constant, random and uncalled for jolts to the psyche that, over time, can be absolutely debilitating. Apathy and despair is, in the face of such unremitting attacks and the resulting damage, a logical response.

If you look at Aaron’s life, he probably faces racism with bravado – but also with practical efforts to make life better for his fellows. Sometimes bravado wears thin, and Aaron turns, or turned, to drink and to rage. But his practical efforts, his telling the Torres Strait Islander story, here and on film, must bear fruit.

Today, Aaron has a Masters degree in filmmaking; is in a committed relationship; is dealing with the issues brought up by telling this story; is full of plans for the telling the stories of his home, Zenadth Kes. And his Nan and his mum are still going!

I admire his bravery putting all this on the record. I am looking forward to So Far, So Good – The Mature Years.

.

Aaron Fa’Aoso with Michelle Scott Tucker, So Far, So Good, Pantera, Sydney, 2022. 353pp. (I saw on Michelle’s blog that Aaron was recording an audibook version, so look out for that too).

AWW Gen 5 – SFF

Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

AWW Gen 5 is the generation of women who began writing in the 1990s up till now. It is, or I find it to be, difficult to pin down the characteristics of this current generation, but two trends stand out: the rise and rise of Indigenous Lit; and the amount of writing which in earlier days would have clearly been SF – but which now is generally characterised as Climate Fic., Dystopian, or less frequently, Fantasy/Surreal/Postmodern.

Women’s Indig.Lit does deserve an overview, especially the world class writing of Alexis Wright, surely our next Nobel laureate, but there are Indigenous women writing in the climate/dystopian stream, which for the sake of brevity I will deem SFF, so for AWW Gen 5 Week 2023 let’s start there.

Of course our Canadian friends will argue that this stream can only be discussed with reference to Margaret Atwood’s “not SF” The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and its sequel, The Testaments (2019). But Atwood’s implied claims that she invented dystopian fiction, or even just its American religious subset, or was the first person to bring dystopian writing into Literature, are all easily disprovable

This arbitrarily restrictive definition [not science fiction] seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.

Ursula Le Guin talking about Atwood, 2010

Don’t mention SF seems to be the model preferred also by most Australian women (or their publishers), though Wirlomin-Noongar woman Claire G Coleman, at least, is clear about where she is coming from.

Following is a list of AWW Gen 5 – SFF works I have read/reviewed to date:

Georgia Blain, Special (2016)
Claire G Coleman, Terra Nullius (2017)
Claire G Coleman, The Old Lie (2019)
Claire G Coleman, Enclave (2022)
Melissa Ferguson, The Shining Wall (2019)
Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus Lost (2007)
Linda Jaivan, Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996)
Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace (2017)
Krissy Kneen, Wintering (2018)
Rosaleen Love, The Total Devotion Machine and other stories (1989)
Catherine McKinnon, Storyland (2017)
Sue Parritt, Pia and the Skyman (2016)
Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013)
Jane Rawson, Formaldehyde (2015)
Jane Rawson, From the Wreck (2017)
Jane Rawson, A History of Dreams (2022)
Elizabeth Tan, Rubik (2017)
Elizabeth Tan, Smart Ovens for Lonely People (2020)
Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light/Water (2014)
Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things (2015)
Alexis Wright, Carpentaria (2006)
Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (2013)

In making this list and looking over my shelves for works I might have missed, I see that I have passed over Australian Grunge which was a distinctive part of 1990s writing at least and which may in fact have been a precursor to the dystopian trend of the 2000s. So Justine Ettler misses out; Linda Jaivin is in, for one of her minor works; Fiona McGregor, who is often mentioned in this connection, I don’t know at all; and Nikki Gemmell, whom I would like to write about at length, is also out. And Heather Rose too, despite The Museum of Modern Love being one of our great books.

I have also reviewed a couple of YA-ish books which have a grungy feel and which I would like to have discussed again in the context of Gen 5 – Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island and Madeleine Ryan, A Room Called Earth, but I can’t see any way of squeezing them into SFF.

I hope I’ve chosen a theme which you will find engaging – I’m not sure where we’ll take AWW Gen x Week after this – and I really hope you can add more/make a case for the inclusion of works I have forgotten/excluded. As usual, over the course of the Week I will attempt to post one review a day – a couple of my own, a guest maybe, and reposts of yours.

.

Pic. above: Anmatyerre woman, Bronwyn Payne Ngale (1970- ) holding ‘Antyarlkenth [native tuber] story’, 2008

Thirty Years in Australia, Ada Cambridge

Thirty Years in Australia (1903) is Ada Cambridge’s memoir of … well you can tell what it’s of. I have read it for my contribution this month to the AWWC site, which I hope you read! Over there I am concentrating on her life and times and writing. Here, I thought I would write a little extra about her travels.

“Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) was born on 21 November 1844 at St Germans, Norfolk, England, daughter of Henry Cambridge, gentleman farmer, and his wife Thomasina, née Emmerson, a doctor’s daughter. She grew up in Downham, Norfolk, a perceptive and cherished child, learning little from a succession of governesses but reading widely and delighting in the fen country of her birth… On 25 April 1870 at Holy Trinity, Ely, she married George Frederick Cross, a curate committed to colonial service.” (Jill Roe, ADB)

For a month they honeymooned in a rectory just a few miles from their homes, from a sister who would walk over each morning to visit, then it was down to London for a few days, then the train from Paddington to Plymouth where they boarded a sailing ship on her maiden voyage, the Hampshire, at a time when steamships must already have been taking over (years ago I read an account of the last commercial sailing ship from Australia to England, a clipper laden with wheat which arrived after the commencement of WWII).

At other times we lay becalmed, and I had my chance to dress myself and enjoy the evening dance or concert, or whatever was going on. But at the worst of times—even in the tremendous storms, when the ship lay poop-rail under, all but flat on her beam ends (drowning the fowls and pigs on that side), or plunged and wallowed under swamping cross-seas that pounded down through smashed skylights upon us tumbling about helplessly in the dark—even in these crises of known danger and physical misery there was something exhilarating and uplifting—a sense of finely-lived if not heroic life, that may come to the coddled steamer passenger when the machinery breaks down, but which I cannot associate with him and his “floating hotel” under any circumstances short of impending shipwreck.

They arrived in Melbourne on 19 Aug. 1870, after a voyage of 77 days. Melbourne, at the height of its post-goldrush glory, was impressive, with wide paved streets, fine buildings. They were taken to “the Fitzroy Gardens—saw the same fern gully, the same plaster statues, that still adorn it; and to the Botanical Gardens, already furnished with their lakes and swans, and rustic bridges, and all the rest of it. And how beautiful we thought it all!”

Soon however they were in the bush. George’s first position was a curacy in Wangaratta (Cambridge only ever gives the town initial, but the positions are listed online and other towns may be deduced). The Sydney road was so wet and muddy – “Bridges and culverts had been washed away, and the coach-road was reported impassable for ladies” – that they took the train, a “railway which ended at the Murray” (Echuca).

The railway to Echuca was established in 1863. The Sydney line further to the east, was commenced in 1870 and the house they lived in in Wangaratta was a couple of years later demolished to make way for the station.

From Echuca they took a little paddle steamer, intending I think to sail upriver to Wodonga and thence get a coach back to Wangaratta. But the winding of the river is so tortuous (remember Tom Collins?) and the journey so slow that they disembarked “level with W____”, probably near Yarrawonga, and got a lift in a farm cart.

the steamer passed on and vanished round the next bend of the river, which was all bends, leaving us on the bank—in the real Bush for the first time, and delighted with the situation. The man with the cart had guaranteed to get us home before nightfall.

Nothing is ever that simple. They spend a great deal of time bogged and for the first of many times she and George experience the unstinting hospitality of the Australian Bush. “I came in, an utter stranger, out of the dark night and that wet and boggy wilderness, weary and without a dry stitch on me, to such a scene, such a welcome, as I could not forget in a dozen lifetimes.”

And so their Australian life begins. Read on …

.

Ada Cambridge, Thirty Years in Australia, Methuen, London, 1903. Serialized in The Empire Review 1901-2. Available from Project Gutenberg.

Conversations with Grandma: Genealogical Journeys in Wangaratta has a great deal more, over nine parts!
Ada Cambridge and the Wangaratta Story, Part 1 (here).
The author, Jenny Coates, does not provide links from one post to the next so I will leave it to you to search on ‘Ada Cambridge’ and find the others for yourself.

Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)

AWWC: extract from Chapter X, Our Fourth Home (Ballan) (here)

Enclave, Claire G Coleman

Claire G Coleman routinely reposts reviews of her books on Twitter (as does Nathan Hobby of his). She even reposted my recent review of her Lies, Damned Lies (via a Liz Dexter post). I think they’re both brave to read them in the first place!

But, CGC, don’t repost this one, I don’t think it’s your best work.

Not that I think anyone should be deterred from reading it. I loved Terra Nullius (2017) and I loved The Old Lie (2019). Indigenous.Lit and especially the current wave of women’s Indig.Lit, to which Coleman belongs, seems to me to be both innovative and full of life.

Like her first two, Enclave, which was released just last month, is Science Fiction, though falling easily within ‘Dystopian’ which all you regard as safe, not-really SF. But for me, this one did not flow as easily – the descriptions felt forced and there is a concentration on just one character – a privileged young white woman, Christine – where the other two had a wider cast.

She stared, half-blind,at the cold screen of her smartphone. Safetynet told her the news: updating her on the crime Safetynet and Security were protecting her from; informing her of the dangers outside, the bad people and dangerous criminals being kept outside the city Wall; of the terrorists threatening her life, buildings falling, people dying. Safetynet told her she had no emails…

Christine, a university student in the last year of a maths degree, lives at home with her parents and younger (year 12 ish) brother. Her father is on the committee which runs the walled city in which they live. Her mother, notionally a designer, is an alcoholic, one of the women who lunch, all plastic-surgeoned into near identical faces. The city is patrolled by black-uniformed security forces who live in their own walled compound outside the Wall. Servants, non-white of course, come in by train each day to do all the work. Outside the Wall is a wasteland of broken buildings and scrublands.

The news from outside is of wars, desperate populations, burning cities. No one travels.

Surveillance within the city is constant, by fixed cameras, inside and out, and drones.

A new year starts; her brother begins a Business course which will lead him into the ruling elite; Christine enrols to do her Masters. Her father buys her an apartment which she allows her mother to furnish. Her (platonic) best friend Jack has disappeared and she is lost without him; her mother encourages her to drink.

Coleman seems to have the trick of building the story up in one direction for a while, and then surprising us by taking it down another. This is more muted in Enclave but still, having spent the first part establishing Christine’s life of privilege, she then snatches it away.

Christine takes increasing notice of one of the servants, Sienna. They kiss.

Chill and heat chased each other up and down her skin, fought for the territory of her face.
The hand fell away from her neck. The mouth she would die for pulled away from hers and she chased it, almost caught it before it spoke.
‘Christine’, Sienna warned. ‘We can’t get caught.’

But they do, captured on cameras in Christine’s bedroom.

I currently have two other works of women’s SF on the go, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994). Piercy in a later Introduction discusses women’s SF at some length and I’m going to have to get hold of a written copy (mine is on Audible), before I write a review.

SF is quite often bursting with ideas, and that is true of Enclave, and the whole literary thing suffers at least a little. But Piercy and Ogawa both write smoothly, while developing the characters of their respective ‘heroines’ with some depth – often a strength of women’s SF compared with men’s. Coleman has interesting characters around Christine, but they are not fully developed and I don’t feel that she uses the resulting space to fill out Christine as much as she might have.

I’m also not sure what Coleman was trying to achieve by having a white heroine. Yes, she wanted, as she always does, to highlight racial inequality. But the depictions of Black-white relations are sketchy, and incidental to the main theme which is surveillance and authoritarianism. In my opinion her Indigenous heroines are more effective.

Enclave has two changes of direction, so is a novel in thirds rather than halves. The middle third is an adventure, a struggle to survive, and the last third is – well not a utopia as I’ve seen it described – but Coleman’s current home and my old home, Melbourne, as a model society (and CGC, I love the trains!).

A short review, but what can you do when any description of Christine’s progress must necessarily be full of spoilers. We’ve discussed before that books whose writing I found awkward (Lucashenko!) you found lively and real, so you’ll probably all enjoy this one too. You’ll certainly enjoy the ideas Coleman discusses. Ignore me and give it a try.

.

Claire G Coleman, Enclave, Hachette, Sydney, 2022. 307pp.

For a much more thoughtful review than mine try Alexander Te Pohe’s in Kill Your Darlings 14 July 2022 (here).

A Mere Chance, Ada Cambridge

Here I am, doing a second Perth – Mt Isa, unloaded last night. Luckily, I wrote this review for my AWWC gig before I left. Right now I’m negotiating for a load home, which may or may not involve me in running to Townsville over the weekend. Meanwhile I can sit in the (mild – 26C) tropical sun and read and write.

You might see that I had last week’s Australian Legend post on my mind as I wrote this one.


It’s a tragedy that Australia’s early women writers were denied their place in the canon by the rabid misogyny of the turn of the (C20th) century Bulletin, and by its fellow travellers Colin Roderick and Vance Palmer who dominated what we were allowed to know about Australian literature right up to the 1960s. With the consequence that important writers like Catherine Helen Spence, Catherine Martin, Tasma, Rosa Praed and Ada Cambridge were dismissed as romance writers and remained out of print for up to a century.

Read on …

The Australian Legend, Russel Ward

I should of course have written up my ‘namesake’ book years ago, though if you wished, if you had the fortitude, you might always have read my Masters dissertation, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature, which is one of the pages above.

This book attempts to trace the historical origins and development of the Australian legend or national mystique. It argues that a specifically Australian outlook grew up first and most clearly among the bush workers in the Australian pastoral industry, and that this group has had an influence, completely disproportionate to its numerical and economic strength, on the attitudes of the whole Australian community.

Ward, Foreword

The Australian Legend (1958) arose out of Ward’s PhD thesis, and it’s themes must have been ‘in the air’, as it followed Vance Palmer’s much less well argued The Legend of the Nineties (1954). It had an immediate impact, I think, crystallizing the thinking around Australia’s view of itself as a nation of knock-about, rugged, bush-savvy (white male) individualists despite the great majority of us (around 80%) living quiet suburban lives in the cities on the coastal fringes of our ’empty’ continent.

Feminist Gail Reekie wrote in 1992 that “Russell Ward’s Australian Legend has since its publication in 1958 constituted an almost irresistible magnetic pole of historical debate about the nature of Australia’s difference.” That is less true today, I think, as the multicultural (and multi-gendered) nature of modern society belatedly makes its way into our literature; but is still important, to decode the dog-whistling of right-wing politicians who use the themes of mateship, independence and (laughably) lack of respect for authority, to valorise military service; and to secure our placid acceptance of their post 9-11 incursions into our civil liberties.

I had intended this post as an ‘open letter’ to Marcie/Buried in Print, who is of course Canadian, to introduce her to Australia’s master of the short story, Henry Lawson. But that brought up so many other things – in my mind, anyway – that I decided to start from here.

Marcie, however, would recognise the foundations of the Australian Legend which begin with North America’s “Noble Frontiersmen” – fur traders, buffalo hunters, and then cowboys.

The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin … he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness …

FJ Turner, The Significance of the Frontier, 1893 (Ward, p.239)

In the C19th, in Australia as in America, the proportion of native-born was very much higher in the interior than on the eastern sea-board. Following Turner, the two most important effects of the frontier were to promote nationalism and to promote democracy. The US then was already a nation. I don’t know about Canada, but in Australia the outback (the “frontier”) was where the seeds of nationalism, independence from Britain, and the labour movement all took root.

Popular culture – from ES Ellis to Zane Grey to Hollywood – glorified the ‘wild west’, and while we outsiders always associated the US and cowboys, I imagine most Americans had a more nuanced self-image. The bulk of Ward’s thesis explores why in Australia this didn’t happen. Why we stayed fixated on the ‘frontiersman’.

He suggests that the difference is Australia’s aridity. In the US homesteaders headed out into the plains for their 160 acres of land, where their values were those of the small businessman. Australia however was taken up initially by squatters on runs of tens and hundreds of square miles, which only later were partially broken up so that settlers could take up square mile (640 acre) blocks. So by the recession of the 1890s there were great bands of itinerant workers roaming the interior seeking short term work – shearing, mustering etc, – and with a common ‘enemy’, the squatter, often an absentee living in luxury in Melbourne or London. Hence our real national anthem, Waltzing Matilda.

From the 1880s onwards, the Bulletin picked up on this, actively fostering nationalism, and providing a platform for descriptions of bush life. And so we get back to Henry Lawson, whose stories in the Bulletin provide much of the basis for the ‘Lone Hand’ myth or archetype; back also to my own thesis, and to Henry’s mother Louisa Lawson – born and married into poverty in the bush, single mother, raconteur, newspaper publisher, suffragist, Independent Woman.

I have written at some length in the past about both Louisa and Henry –
Brian Matthews’ biography, Louisa (here)
Louisa Lawson vs Kaye Schaffer (here)
My Henry Lawson by (his wife) Bertha Lawson (here)
Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson (here)
All My Love, Anne Brooksbank (here)
The Drover’s Wife, Frank Moorehouse ed. (here)

Henry Lawson (1867-1922) was born on the bush block in Grenfell, NSW where his father scratched out a living fossicking and droving, often away for long periods until Louisa got sick of it and moved to Sydney in the early 1880s. Henry’s education was greatly restricted by deafness, but he read widely. While working with his father as a labourer he had some poems published, notably A Song of the Republic in the Bulletin in 1887.

Meanwhile Louisa had purchased a small newspaper which in 1888 became Dawn, a newspaper for women, mixing housewifely tips with suffragism. In 1894 she published Henry’s Short Stories in Prose and Verse. I can’t see when his stories began appearing in the Bulletin, but in 1896 they brought out the collection which made his name, While the Billy Boils.

If you read Lawson closely, you can see Louisa almost as much as you can see Henry. So, The Drover’s Wife is a story Louisa recounted and embroidered on while Henry was growing up; in the Joe Wilson stories leading up to Water them Geraniums Henry redraws a young Louisa and Peter falling in love and then falling apart. Louisa has made Henry aware, in a way that adopters of the myth of the Lone Hand generally are not, that the lifestyle of the itinerant bushman is based on the subjugation of women. Henry just doesn’t know what he can do about it.

Ward concludes that “admiration for the simple virtues of the barbarian or the frontiersman is a sentiment which arises naturally in highly complex, megalopolitan societies.” Maybe. In any case, the Bulletin took Lawson’s “mates”, made them archetypal at a time when Melbourne and Sydney were still very conscious of the ‘frontier’ just over the ranges; united them with the nationalism which led to Federation in 1901; and then had them caught up and incorporated into the new myth of the brave, ruffian ANZAC, created in 1915 and which has proved ‘the last refuge of scoundrels’ ever since.

.

Russel Ward, The Australian Legend, first pub. 1958. OUP, Melbourne, 1981. 280pp.

Lies Damned Lies, Claire G Coleman

ANZLitLovers First Nations Literature Week, 3-10 July 2022

I first really got to Indigenous Lit just seven years ago when WG persuaded me to read Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, which I would say now was an almost perfect introduction. Shortly after, a letter appeared in the West, our local newspaper – now a Murdochesque rag – which I reproduced and subsequently revised/expanded on as Pinjarra Massacre (1834). That began two important (belated!) streams in my blogging – reading Indig.Lit and documenting Western Australian massacres.

A year or so later when I got to Scott’s Benang, I wrote to him and he sent me some newspaper cuttings from which I was able to write up the Cocanarup Massacre. The central figure of that novel is the matriarch Fanny (Benang) of the Wirlomin-Noongar people. She marries a white sailor and they have a son and two daughters. Scott tells and retells this story over a number of books, each time with variations on the names, in one of which he discovers that Benang is his own great-grandmother.

Basically, Wirlomin country is on the WA south coast east of Albany , around the (small) towns Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun. Benang’s two daughters marry twin brothers, named Coolamon (in Benang) or Coleman. The Cocanarup Massacre, which is witnessed by Benang, occurs on the Dunn bother’s Cocanarup Station, west of Ravensthorpe, in the 1880s after John Dunn rapes a Wirlomin girl and is killed by her relatives by spearing.

Claire G Coleman appeared on the literary scene with the clever Terra Nullius in 2017. She is a Wirlomin-Noongar woman and a descendant of one of Benang’s daughters. She writes that “the Coleman name came from my dad’s grandfather, a free settler from Ireland via South Australia”, and later refers to her (paternal) grandfather’s mother Harriette, and grandmother Binian.

The place of my grandfather’s birth was said to be taboo. No blackfellas ever dared to go there these days, not for a long time, my dad used to tell me, too many ghosts, he said, too much death, too many bones in the ground … My dad told me that blackfellas drove through that town with their windows closed tight, not to breathe the air, not to get the bad stuff, the ghost stuff, on them.

For some reason, I had expected Lies Damned Lies to be a collection of facts about the settler project in Australia, but it begins at least as a passionate memoir: “I am furious about colonisation, that fury is perhaps all the qualification I need to write a book excoriating it.”

Coleman, born in the 1970s, grew up in Perth not knowing she was Wirlomin-Noongar, still not knowing when she left Perth in her twenties to move to Melbourne (Naarm). She was not/is not white – though she has written a lovely poem about ‘passing’, Forever, Flag – her father told her she was Fijian, a fiction begun by his father to prevent his children being taken away under the (WA) Aborigines Act, 1905. So her family weren’t Stolen Generations; she refers instead to ‘Hidden Generations’, people forced to deny their Aboriginality by the Aboriginal “Protection” laws.

My grandfather was so scared to lose his sons he hid us from the government by hiding us from ourselves; from our families; from our Country.

I see Coleman on Twitter. She is fierce, gets in lots of blues. Trolls for some reason respond to her by questioning her skin colour. She writes a chapter Not Quite Blak Enuff where she interrogates this: “There can be no doubt that all mixed-race Aboriginal people are a product of colonisation; and the attempt to define us as not Aboriginal enough is also part of colonisation.”

She writes else where that she automatically identifies with the underdog, but here are the three reasons she gives for identifying as Aboriginal
1. Who would you identify with? the bully/murderer or the victim
2. Pride in being able to identify with the first people, the ones who belong;
3. The colonisers were attempting genocide. “If I identified with my wadjela ancestry at the expense of my Aboriginality, the colonisers win.”

Colonisation, and to be precise, settler colonisation – the occupying of a land by settlers replacing the original inhabitants – is not an event, does not occur at one particular date, it is a process, a process which in Australia is ongoing. Coleman offer us the hope that if we cease attempting to take over, we might earn a place here in “a postcolonial society, a new Australia that is connected to Country”, born of a dialogue between wadjelas and First Nation people.

I’m not going to spoil Coleman’s novel Terra Nullius for those of you who haven’t read it, but is (surprisingly) dystopian SF. Coleman says all novels about the history of Australia are dystopian – post-apocalyptic for the original inhabitants. And writes further that the inspiration for HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds about an invasion from Mars was the invasion by the British of Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) and the near-genocide of the Palawa people.

Coleman uses the central part of her book to debunk myths; from the obviously ignorant like (former) prime minister Morrison’s assertion that Cook circumnavigated Australia; to the odd belief that Australia was first settled by ‘negrito’ pygmies (an hypothesis attributed to Tindal and repeated by Windshuttle); to the original inhabitants benefitted from being colonised (also Windshuttle); to ‘you were lucky it was the British’; to Australia Day, “an annual vitriolic and excited spasm of settler colonialism and white nationalism”.

There is a long chapter about Grog; depression; the Intervention; Grog bans enforced only on Black people; but this quote struck me: “Remember how well Prohibition went in the US. All it did was lead to organised crime. Already white crime gangs smuggle grog into Aboriginal communities, even the government knows about that ..”

Towards the end, Coleman writes: “It can be hard work being an Aboriginal writer, columnist, activist, it’s hard work and risky work sticking our necks out in this increasingly polarised, dangerous, and in my opinion, increasingly white supremacist society we call Australia.” But she sticks at it! This, she says, is her compilation albumn, a book of all her greatest hits from years of writing. Not as fierce as Chelsea Watego, but in some ways more thoughtful, offering at least the possibility of a way forward.

.

Claire G Coleman, Lies Damned Lies, Ultimo Press, Gadigal Country, 2022. 270pp

Coleman’s latest novel, Enclave was released a few days ago. My copy awaits me at Crow Books. See my reviews of her two previous novels:
Terra Nullius (here)
The Old Lie (here)

Out Here, Alan Wearne

I know, the top half of the cover photo is warped. Blame my phone. But to the best of my memory, that house, just around the corner from Mum’s retirement village, is the one the Wearne’s lived in when I was at school in Blackburn South (Melbourne) and where I would occasionally deliver the newspaper when I worked at Pentland’s newsagency in Canterbury Rd, putting the rounds together for the paperboys at 5.00 in the morning.

Alan was a couple of years ahead of me, in his little arty clique, but I was good friends with his brother, so knew him to say hello to, saw him occasionally later on as we made our separate ways through uni.

Out Here (1976) is Alan Wearne’s first verse novel. The Nightmarkets followed 10 years later (when Out Here was reissued and I’m guessing, revised) and after that The Lovemakers (2001,4). He has other titles, collections of verse, I think, some of which I own. I recently saw a new title, Near Believing (2022) in the bookshop, and bought it, but it’s just a best-of of old stuff, so I thought why not go back to the source.

Out Here is one story from multiple points of view. Brett Viney, 17, has stabbed himself in the stomach in the school toilets and nine people around him have a say. The first is Lucy Martinson, deputy principal [From memory, our headmaster at Blackie South was Mr Martindale, and his deputy, whose name I don’t remember, was a woman at of around 70]: “I viewed the eddies of the Viney maelstrom.”

Some small crisis; at once
with bandages, the ambulance completed,
I rang adults: Brett’s mother and father, home
and, as they say, ranting.

In the staff room a teacher tells her “Viney seemed attached to/young Tracey Izzard. Tell her?/Before rumours, it would be best,/you know how women …”

Brett’s parents, Marian and Russell, have just broken up. Alan is quite clever, both at giving them different voices, and in showing through their inner monologues, and that’s what each section is, how Brett is only one of, and probably not even their main concern. First Marian: “I held to Russ,/had kids not opinions”

O Brett, son, we were, are crazy for
playthings, and pocket money, but
your father and I, until recently, held,
we tried. Try and care Brett. Care.

So, to my son’s Tracey: she has a long
pale neck, slight ginger hair and
this unnerving abundance, poise.

Then Russell, on the road to stay with his “has-been brother: ex-league-star and slob” [‘league’=NSW, so he’s heading interstate]: “Could say: ‘You did a fool thing,/call him mate, the stock/ ageing man response to/ sonny Brett”; but then goes back to thinking about his girlfriend Cheryl, and good times past with Marian.

Segue to Cheryl: “Calls me Chezz, too often now/ and I join his his school at times/ knowing they want to touch me up,/men, ten, fifteen years older, wishing/and hoping”. She’s told about Brett, but Russell leaving his wife is her big chance, her only thought to grab it with both hands. “You know, I’ve many men/Miss Cheryl Browne’s had many men,/but this is the, what, first starring role.”

We go on to Marian’s father, a millionaire house builder living in an expensive bayside suburb, and then Marian’s ‘commo’ younger sister; all of the voices reflecting not so much on why Brett may have harmed himself but on their own relationships and interrelationships.

Nothing halts, when Brett took out
the blade, lives continued, parents
kept their spar and interchange
boiling: the rest, I, his
sister and brother, you Tracey, stood
not knowing.

Tracey and then Brett follow, and I am still not clear what Brett was upset about – his parents, Tracey, life? Is that deliberate, or is it just me? Tracey suggests that Brett was depressed, “the Viney gloom”, and that she had had to take a week off during term, which may have led to: “I suppose pregnancy rumours/ have flung my name and Brett’s/ around the school.”

She turns to her father:

You know what I like, liked the best
apart from being with Brett, you know?
Dad’s greenhouse, Saturday morning.
Where we’ve talked about Brett
and Mum, her delicate problems ..

Brett speaks from some time in the future, from another suburb: “My childhood terminated hunched up/ in Martinson’s office, bleeding,/ it seems so long ago and/ such a mess.” He remembers his family visiting him in hospital – “no never ‘how could you do this to us etc’/never that, rather a wallow/ that they enjoyed their blame.”

And finally Mr Izzard, Tracey’s father: “I may be asked to, as were, round off/ though don’t expect some he did this,/she said that, happy ever after slice.” Though, perhaps he does: “O Tracey, it’s all right/ everything is going to be, all right.”

My feeling, having read and reread and written this far is that Out Here is not a novel (or novella), so much as a suite of voices telling a story, no not even a story, and certainly not Brett’s story which is largely lost in the voices washing over it, but a feeling for parenting in 1970s suburbia. Which is interesting, as Alan grew up in 1950s and 60s suburbia, matriculating in 1966. And The Nightmarkets which he wrote next, is definitely the story of his, my, generation, the boys made to go to war – or jail – in 1968,69,70.

I read Alan Wearne because he, his subjects are familiar. But I like his poetry too, that slightly awkward mixture of poetic rhythm and vernacular is both unique and reminiscent of CJ Dennis and AB Paterson – but without the galloping ryhmes!

The last lines of Miss Martinson’s, section, the ‘Miss’ is mine, but none of our teachers was ever ‘Lucy’, are perfect:

‘But why Brett (isn’t it?) why?’
Oh his shrug and oh just, just
mucking around with a knife.

.

Alan Wearne, Out Here, first pub. 1976. This edition, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle NSW, 1986. 50pp

see also my reviews:
Alan Wearne, The Nightmarkets (here)
CJ Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke (here)