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 …
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).
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.
Research tells me [Please correct my mistakes!] that there are three distinct indigenous peoples in Canada – First Nations, Metis and Inuit. Mini Aodla Freeman (1936- ) is an Inuk woman which is to say she is a member of the Inuit. The Inuit live across northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland; there are related peoples (‘Yipuk’) in Siberia and Alaska; and a third related people, the Aleut, from the Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Siberia. .
Life among the Qallunaat is basically the memoir of a woman looking back a decade or so on her first venture south, to ‘civilization’, as a young woman. The title has the meaning Life among Whitefellas, or as I live in (Western Australian) Noongar country, Life among the Wadjela.
I subsequently found ‘qallunaat‘ literally means “people who pamper their eyebrows”’. I’ll leave Marcie and Naomi to answer that! (I’m no linguist. The best I can say is that that ‘q’ sounds something like the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’). Incidentally, the author’s name, ‘Mini’, in Inuktitut, means “gentle rain”, and the best I could gather, ‘Inuk’ and ‘Inuit’ mean one human and more than one human.
Towards the end of the book she says she is now – at the time of writing – married to a white anthropologist, so I guess that is where the ‘Freeman’ comes from.
The book was released in 1978 to excellent reviews, but half the print run – around 3,000 copies – was bought up by Northern Affairs and stored away in a basement while they checked it for criticisms, specifically of Residential Schools. It wasn’t particularly critical, and I think now that Freeman wishes it had been, but the government were no doubt happy to stymie sales and the book didn’t take off until it was re-released – with a lot of earlier editing reversed – by the University of Manitoba Press almost 40 years later.
Having listened to it last week, I can only give you my impressions of the work, and of the author. The reader, Taqralik Partridge, has a lovely soft voice which conveys exactly Mini’s shyness and gentleness. We begin with Mini arriving in Ottawa in 1957, aged about 18, to commence working for the Northern Affairs Dept as a translator.
She is driven to a residence for 300 women from where she can walk to work, and her impressions of life and work from there on are conveyed in a series of brief chapters with vivid headings.
The invariable question she gets is “How do you like the weather?” not that Ottawa seems so far south of Moose Factory on James Bay where she comes from – not to me anyway; followed by “Where are your clothes?” ie. sealskins.
Which of course leads to “Eskimos”. Inuit are rare ‘down south’ in 1957. Mini gets called Eskimo without complaining and only later explains that Eskimo is a Cree put down meaning disgusting people (who eat raw meat). They say it something like SquishMo while pulling the appropriate face. Conversely, Freeman uses ‘Indian’ throughout unless she is explicitly talking about the Cree.
Over time, Mini begins to make friends, settle into her work, and to be flown to remote centres to interpret. She discovers that there are dialects of Inuktut, which she hadn’t known, though through moving around northern Ontario and Quebec she is well aware of, and fluent in, a number of dialects of Cree. Through her schooling, especially with French Catholic nuns, she is also fluent in French and English.
After these first two years we return to Mini’s beginnings, and what was looking like being an amusing coming of age in the big city, reverts to an ordinary childhood memoir. That’s an ordinary memoir, it’s a far from ordinary childhood.
Yet, the life Mini describes seems perfectly comfortable, despite the snow and tents (no igloos!) and canoes. She and her brother are brought up by their grandparents, after the death of their mother. The father, who in any case is away throughout the summer as the navigator on a trading ship, seems remote, though he plays a bigger part later, after the grandfather dies.
Throughout, which I keep forgetting, and Mini too, is the young man to whom Mini was betrothed at birth. She is meant to pay him small attentions during their childhoods, then, at around 14, she should be married. Luckily, Grandmother regards the young man as unsuitable, “too lazy”, and sends Mini off to school, and later, to work down south, to keep her out of the way of his family.
Mini goes away to a residential school at Fort George (now Chisasibi) where she is taught by French nuns. She is not always happy, there is a girl she calls ‘the Instigator’ who goes out of her way to make trouble for her, even into adulthood. But the school, as described, seems no better or worse than all the middling boys boarding schools in the books of my childhood. In particular Cree – although not Inuktut – is spoken, and the children have frequent contact with their families.
I do not doubt the horrors of the residential schools system, but I cannot tell from this account whether the relatively small – around 40 pupils – Fort George was an exception, or if Freeman chose not to highlight the worst aspects. School ends at year 8, as it did for most rural people I’m sure, in Australia and in Canada. Mini goes on to a hospital where she begins training as a nurse, which is interrupted by her getting TB. It is not made clear why she goes back to Fort George as a teacher rather than completing her nursing. But there we end, just as Mini is more or less shanghaied into working for Northern Affairs down south.
The closest parallel to Life among the Qallunaat in Australian Indigenous.Lit that I know is Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis’s not very well known Pictures from my Memory: My story as a Ngaatjatjarra woman, which describes her traditional childhood on the border of WA and NT, her schooling at Karalundi mission (850 km north of Perth) and her life as a nurse in Alice Springs.
There are other, better known works – Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence and Sally Morgan’s My Place – both also Western Australian, but neither of which captures the disconnect between remote Indigenous childhood and adulthood in the big smoke.
After its uncertain start, Life among the Qallunaat is now a classic in Canadian Lit. and Freeman is apparently a well known poet and playwright, and of course, Inuit elder.
Next month (later this month) I will definitely read Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Mini Aodla Freeman, Life among the Qallunaat, first pub. 1978. University of Manitoba Press, 2015. Audible version read by Taqralik Partridge. 14 hours.
see also: Mini Freeman, The People and the Text (here) Revisiting a Classic, Atticus Review, 3 June 2016 (here)
Back in 2015, when MST told me she had started a blog, Adventures in Biography, I started following the people she was following – Whispering Gums, ANZLitLovers, Nathan Hobby (then A Biographer in Perth), The Resident Judge, Stumbling through the Past, Historians are Past Caring (Marion Diamond and my favourite blog name ever). They were kind enough to follow me when I started blogging and soon, mostly of course through WG and ANZLL, I had met all of you.
It has been a great privilege to follow the progress of Michelle (MST) and Nathan as their books, first Michelle’s and now Nathan’s, in 2015 only a gleam in their eyes, have made it through to publication.
Before I link to my review on the AWWC site, I want to update you on my ongoing interest in Prichard’s trip to Turee Creek in 1926 to gather the material for the novel Coonardoo, which I first wrote about in one of my earliest posts Ventured North by Train and Truck (1 Jul, 2015).
From The Red Witch I get that KSP’s husband, Hugo Throssell, had worked on neighbouring station Ashburton, in the Peak Hill region, before WWI. And it was the Ashburton Road, past Peak Hill that I travelled last week, taking me to within about 50 km of Turee Creek. Nathan writes, “Joe Maguiure [Turee’s owner] described the location of Turee in a letter to a British newspaper: ‘We are just 198 miles from Peak Hill, our nearest post office. Our nearest neighbour is 80 miles away, our nearest railway 267, and nearest port 300 miles …'”
I can only imagine Maguire was prone to exaggeration. And that Prichard was mistaken when she wrote (and her son Ric later repeated) that she “travelled four hundred miles beyond the end of the railway” (Meekatharra according to Ric, who was at the time aged 4) in the station’s T-model Ford Truck to reach Turee Creek.
The distance from Meekatharra to Turee is near enough 320 km (200 miles). Peak Hill is roughly half way, so 100 miles. The nearest ports, Carnarvon or Onslow (KSP went home via Onslow), might be “300 miles”, they’re about 400 km/250 miles as the crow flies.
I was hoping Nathan would find something to clear up this little obsession of mine, but sadly, not.
by Bill Holloway
A comprehensive literary biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) is long overdue. We, Nathan’s fellow bloggers, have waited long years through his PhD, fatherhood, being taken up by Melbourne University Press, and finally a year’s delay due to ‘Covid’, for this month to arrive. We have learnt a lot about Prichard in the meanwhile, but that doesn’t compare with finally seeing the book in the hands of readers. Read on …
This month’s post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge is of a similar period to my last (Gertrude the Emigrant), the 1850s through to the 1870s, though the letters were in fact not collected and published until the 1950s and only after being severely pruned and polished. Which is what you might expect, but in fact the extent of David Adams’ editing was not largely understood until quite recently.
by Bill Holloway
Rachel Henning (1826-1914) came out to Australia, in the wake of her brother Biddulph and sisters Annie and Amy, for the first time in 1854. Torn between England and Australia, she eventually settled in Australia, writing regularly to her sisters, particularly Etta who remained in England, all the while.
Her letters were offered to the Bulletin by her family almost forty years after her death. Edited by Bulletin editor David Adams into a continuous narrative and illustrated by the Bulletin‘s most famous artist, Norman Lindsay, ‘The Letters’ when published in 1954, was an immediate and ongoing success. Read on …
Continuing on from Melanie’s essay, Malcolm X was one of those names emblematic of the great revolution occurring in America in the sixties when I went up to university in far away Melbourne, Australia. But my interest was in the anti-Vietnam War movement and I couldn’t have told you anything about Malcolm X the man except maybe the words ‘Black Rights’ and ‘Nation of Islam’.
So basically it has taken me half a century, and a big shove from Melanie, to rectify that, to listen to Malcolm X’s life on Audible (read by Laurence Fishburne).
Although the cover above – I wonder if it is the original – doesn’t say so, the autobiography is an “as told to” compiled by Alex Haley, a decade later the author of Roots, from interviews conducted with Malcolm X in 1963,4. Haley was a journalist and the style of writing reflects that, clear and straightforward with no literary flourishes. Wikipedia (here) gives a very good account of the “as told to” process, and while it is clear Malcolm X maintained control over the content, the construction and writing is all Haley’s.
Malcolm Little was born in 1925, the fourth of seven children, and grew up in Lansing, Michigan. His father, a preacher, had his his house burned down and was subsequently bashed and pushed under a streetcar, officially suicide, but more likely the work of white racists. This was the Depression and without the father’s income the family were in desperate poverty. Under constant harassment by state welfare, the mother had a breakdown and the children were dispersed to orphanages and foster homes.
As an older teenage Malcolm moved to Boston, to his older half-sister Ella who lived in the relatively middle class Black suburb, Roxbury. Malcolm I’m sure appreciated Ella’s support, but throughout the book he is scathing about Blacks with even a little bit of money, who are ‘Tame Negroes’, if I remember the wording correctly, more concerned with integrating into white America than they are with asserting themselves.
Malcolm got into the fringes of the Black music industry, graduating from a shoeshine stand to marijuana supplier, becoming a notable lindy hop dancer, hooking up white men and black women and vice versa, and ending up with a white (later married) middle class girlfriend of his own, of whom he is completely contemptuous.
When the US enters WWII he manages to dodge the draft, dope dealing becomes difficult, and he forms a burglary gang, with his white girlfriend and her teenage sister scouting for likely targets, until they are finally caught. Malcolm believes that the appropriate sentence would have been two years but because white women were involved he got ten.
In jail he resumes his education, mainly through extensive non-fiction reading, and becomes a follower of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, which preaches obedience to Allah with Elijah as his most recent prophet. There’s a lot of sciency stuff about the origins of mankind, Black of course, in Africa, to which I paid little attention. As a religion it seems unexceptional, arguing against Integration for a separation of the races. Socially, it was very conservative, the husband ruled his family, and adulterers and pregnant single women were expelled.
Interestingly, Malcolm and all the preachers, were given the surname X to signify their disowning of the surnames which their slave forbears had taken from their owners.
Malcolm rose through the ranks, setting up new congregations throughout America. Eventually he was made the leader of the Harlem congregation, and there became a prominent spokesman in the national press, while Elijah Muhammad and his sons established The Nation of Islam’s headquarters in Chicago.
Malcolm X’s increasing prominence, and the discovery that Elijah Muhammad had been getting all his secretaries pregnant led to a break, followed by Malcolm making a pilgrimage to Mecca and being taken up there by ‘official’ Islam.
The autobiography ends with him still speaking highly of Nation of Islam but attempting to set up his own organization while living in anticipation of attacks from his former fellows.
Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, first pub. 1965
On February21, 1965, Malcolm X was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when a man shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun and two other men charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns. MalcolmX was pronounced dead at 3:30pm, shortly after arriving at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The autopsy identified 21 gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, arms and legs, including ten buckshot wounds from the initial shotgun blast.
One gunman, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer (also known as Thomas Hagan), was beaten by the crowd before police arrived. Witnesses identified the others as Nation members Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. These three were convicted and given life sentences. Hayer disputed Butler and Thomas’ involvement and named four others who were never charged. Butler and Johnson were finally pardoned in 2021, well after they had been released on parole. (Wiki) (NYT).
My friend Melanie at Grab the Lapels is an American, a generation younger than me and was for some years a professor teaching creative writing where she would use Malcolm X’s story “as told to Alex Haley” as a teaching aid. She persuaded me to include it in my reading North American Black and First Nations writers project this year with the promise to write up her own experience. And here it is…
In the U.S. we are incapable of acknowledging our history and healing from it. When the oppressed have had enough, they make a lot of noise, leaving conservatives confounded. After so many years of Confederate soldier statues scattered throughout the country, especially in the South, why are protestors mad now? Does it desecrate the memory of a war leader whom some revere that others see as a symbol of hatred? History belongs in a museum, activists said. And when conservatives did not listen, activists turned to property damage, toppling monuments and leaving them in pieces. Is not a decorated white leader someone to turn to when racism makes a racist feel bad?
I began my education in 1990, and not once during that time can I recall hearing the name Malcolm X. A contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X could not be packaged nicely like the wise Southern pastor who included men and women, black and white, Southern and Northern in his group of supporters. In contrast, Malcolm X felt that African Americans do not want to live where they are not wanted and advocated for reparations in the form of land for the descendants of slaves. Any effort to integrate was a ruse, he thought, a way for “the white man” or “the white devil” to infiltrate black neighborhoods, steal their resources and abuse the residents, and then leave for the white side of town.
The fight over Critical Race Theory raging in the U.S. today appears to lean into the idea that white children will be made to feel bad if they learn that adults who look like they do were also adults who did everything in their physical, legal, and financial power to exploit human beings based on the darker color of their skin. Malcolm X begins his autobiography, as told to Alex Haley, with a story from before he was born. While his father was out of town, the local KKK attacked Malcolm’s mother and older siblings. Only her pregnancy — that was Malcolm — kept them from murdering the family. Later, under suspicious conditions, Malcolm’s father is found beheaded, but because it was set up to look like a suicide by train tracks, the insurance company did not pay out on the father’s life insurance plan. Plummeting into starvation and incessant visits from white social workers who attempted to pit the children against their mother left Malcolm’s mom in a mental health crisis from which she never recovered.
Sometimes life is so awful it’s hard to believe the stories of those who experience blatant discrimination, but Malcolm X writes a convincing narrative explaining how his youth, from his parents being torn apart to teachers discouraging him from learning because he’s just a black kid, led him into a remorseless young adult life of crime. Righteous folks like to claim we always have an option, but a person’s environment has loads to say about his level of education, empathy, and experience. After his time as a numbers runner, drug dealer, and then thief who dared cavort with white women, Malcom X was sent to prison where he learned to read, devoured the well-stocked prison library, and found the Nation of Islam. The NoI, developed by a black African American man from the South, is a form of Islam that Malcolm later realizes Middle Eastern Muslims to not recognize as true Islam.
Between his studies in prison and discovering that the NoI was not what he thought, Malcolm X developed intellectual political, economic, and social theories about how “the white man” is “the devil” harming the black community. Nothing he saw nor experienced proved contrary. Using the rhetorical savvy of a lawyer and supported by ten years of intense study of languages, history, and philosophy while incarcerated, Malcolm X exploded into the media, terrifying white people with his “hateful” statements about white communities. He served as an antithesis to Dr. King, an example of what an “angry black man” looks like when folks should just all get along (and be compliant). For as much as Malcolm X was in the media, to not know his name after I attended public education is baffling until I think back to how Malcolm X supported segregation. He doesn’t fit into a warm and fuzzy narrative about slavery being over, about how the Civil Rights Movement made everything alright and we can now feel good about our white selves.
After Malcolm X took his first trip to Mecca and learned about true Islam, which had worshippers from every country and skin color, he completely changed his mind. The white man is not the devil, he realized. “White” is a state of mind, not a skin color, hence the “Uncle Tom’s” in politics. And so why did I, a white woman in her thirties, teach The Autobiography of Malcolm X for five years, semester after semester? What would compel me to give this book as a gift at high school graduation parties rather than the expected $20? The ability to change with more information.
In the U.S. change is a slur we use to shame people we don’t like. We call them wishy-washy, flip-floppy, and even suggest they are lying. We hold a record of change against public figures, especially politicians and how they voted, even if it was twenty years ago. But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that with more information comes a need to change. Doubling down on facts from last year, last month, last week, even, could kill us. But looking at the bigger picture, holding fast to outdated information has led Americans to a stubborn place marked by ignorance. And if I can teach change through the narrative of a prolific American leader and thinking like Malcolm X, if only one person at a time, I’ll do it for as long as I can.
Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X , first pub.1965
Thank you Melanie. I’ll put up my own review in a couple of days, Bill
Drusilla Modjeska (1946- ) is an Australian writer and academic, born and bought up in Hampshire – there’s a comment somewhere that Jane Austen posted her mail in a market town nearby – and university educated in PNG and Australia.
Poppy (1990) is a fictional biography of her mother, and of her mother’s influence on her, though I didn’t realise that it was fictional until I began this review and read Modjeska’s ‘My Life’ on her website. Despite, I’m sure, having read a number of reviews on other blogs over the years.
Modjeska’s first book was Exiles at Home (1981) which was the basis for my write up of AWW Gen 3, and I also have, unread, the anthology, Sisters (1995), but I haven’t read any of her – other – fiction (Wikipedia has Poppy under ‘Novels’).
Reading, I was impressed, willing to compare Poppy favourably with Brian Matthews’ Louisa, my gold standard biography (sorry MST), but “fictional” … now I am up in the air. The style is biographical, there is none of the sizzle of my other gold standard, Normal People, perfect autofiction. And the introspective elements, the views of the daughter through the eyes of the mother, can either of these be trusted, how are we to know to what extent they are self-serving?
I just don’t find Poppy – the name Modjeska assigns to her mother – particularly interesting as a fictional character.
You will say that the things that this fictional author in Modjeska’s place writes about her mother, her mother’s catholic priest lover, her father, her sisters, herself and her lovers would be impossible in a biography at this little distance from the events described/invented. You might even say that the then young, well 40-ish, academic Modjeska was subverting our expectations by using the forms of biography for a work of fiction.
Miles Franklin, for instance, wrote a series of ‘autobiographical’ fictions – My Brilliant Career, My Career Goes Bung and Cockatoos – and by comparing them, with each other, with her other works, and with what we know of her life we can learn a great deal about her, as a person and as a writer. Should I do all this work for Modjeska too? I think not. Poppy will have to stand alone.
So when I read through what I’ve written, as one does a letter before it is posted, I realize that it is the story of the life I live off the pages of this book that pleases me, the glimpse of a present and daily reality I never intended to reveal.
I will describe the work, and say that I read it with a great deal of interest, as an insight into a difficult life and the effect it had on the daughter. I struggle to say why I feel so betrayed discovering that it is all (or part, but which part) made up. When Modjeska writes ‘my mother did this, I felt that’ I cannot help but accept it as truth, that’s the way the biographical form works. Yes, we write routinely ‘all biographies are fiction’, but they purport to be true, and that’s the difference. Here, the made up bits cast doubt on the whole.
Poppy, the daughter of a rich scrap metal dealer, and an uncaring mother (‘China’) marries Richard, an upper class lawyer. They raise three girls in the south of England where Richard can commute to work; Poppy has a breakdown and spends a number of years in a sanatorium; the author is sent away to school. Poppy gets out; Richard leaves her for Cicely; the author marries straight out of school and moves with her husband to Australia (Sydney – the two are treated throughout as synonymous).
Poppy gets closer and closer to Roman Catholic priest Marcus, becomes a probation worker, opens a home for deliquent boys, visits Sydney, goes on a pilgrimage to India, visits Sydney again, collaborates throughout, somewhere between unwillingly and resigned to being misunderstood, with the writing of this biography. Marcus dies of cancer. Poppy dies of cancer.
I’ve written all of the above with a chapter to go. It’s called Friends, and while the underlying theme of the book is Poppy’s search for a meaningful, spiritual life – against Richard’s failure of understanding and Marcus’ controlling and self-serving certainties – this last chapter is of the finding of friendship in love.
Whatever has happened to me, or has not, with husbands (de facto and de jure), continuity and security have been built on the excellence of friendship; and when I look at Poppy’s life I can see that this was so for her too. Yet these connections between women are taken for granted, a backdrop to the real business of life: Husbands, children, jobs. It takes only the slightest change of focus to see that these neglected intimacies, independent of more passionate demands, can offer the terms on which we best learn to be ourselves.
I must say I am tempted to let Modjeska have her cake and eat it too; to let her be Lalaj, her mother ‘Poppy’, her lovers ‘unnamed’ and G and Thomas; to let her hide behind ‘fiction’ and nevertheless let this be her own coming of age; to accept her account of 1950s and 60s England, to accept that the pressures and difficulties she describes are the pressures and difficulties she grew up with.
Melbourne journalist and communist Helen Razer is one of my favourite people. I used to always be able to read her in the daily political newsletter Crikey, and later in the (related I think) arts newsletter Daily Review. Her opinions are always incisive and quite often funny. Unfortunately, however often I subscribe, the Daily Review never actually arrives in my inbox, so I haven’t been sure for the last year or so whether it has survived and if so if Razer is still writing for it.
The Helen 100 (2017) is a memoir of the year when Helen was 41 43 and the woman who had been her partner for 15 years has left her. The memoir – it’s described as Memoir, so I suppose it is – begins with Helen lying on a table getting a bikini wax and it only gets more graphic from there. This may well be the most scatological work I have ever read. Ok. you are warned.
Be more specific. Well, I was more specific. As I felt him pull on my hair and resume his interest, by which I mean cock, I was able to say some really specific shit … a great stream of Kerouac Kink written on a single sheet of longing … All I can remember is that it involved a lot of ‘arse’, ‘fuck’ and ‘hurt me, Georges’, and possibly an offer from me to clean his kitchen in my scanties.
The woman waxing her ladyparts has persuaded Helen that the only way to get over a failed relationship is to go on as many dates as possible, Helen determines to go on 100, men or women, and no.12 is into bondage and sado-masochism. She asks him for more than he is willing to give.
Wanting sex, I have since learned, is a fairly standard middle-class female response to the shock of separation. I believe it comes a close second to going to Italy and Finding Oneself.
This is an astonishing work if it is indeed memoir as I’m sure many of the people represented here, not least Helen’s ex-partner, would be instantly recognisable in Melbourne’s inner suburban media/artsy set. It’s all told in that snappy, smartarse way of professional colour piece writers in the weekend pages, which I mostly despise, but Razer gets a leave pass from me for her fierce communist politics (only evident in passing here). And it feels true. I’ve been in a messy relationship breakup -not Milly! – and this is what it feels like.
Helen breaks into her ex-partner’s PC and discovers the break up, her partner’s involvement with other people, has been coming a lot longer than she realised.
I should have brushed my hair. I should have done my nails, I should have taken the best advice of all marriage manuals and not worn elasticised waistbands for months in the company of my spouse. I had worn elasticised waistbands for months and for months. I had been tolerably miserable.
She blames her horrible job, coming up with a constant stream of copy for an online discount advertiser. A job which early on she stops doing. A job which it turns out she was using to support her partner, a not very good artist. Going so far, in an effort to save their marriage, as to pay for a threesome. In a posh hotel. In New York.
On a dating/instant sex website after lots of truly bad exchanges (as a pedant she’s mostly upset by the bad spelling) she starts talking to John, a witty, intelligent text messager, but it’s a while before they meet. Meanwhile she’s busy racking up her 100. Sort of. Anyone she interacts with ticks the counter over.
She has a cat, Eleven, with whom she shares fried chicken. The fried chicken delivery man counts as a date. She has a therapist, Cheap George, who advises her no one ever gets over divorce, they just do something different and pretends that’s “growth”. Anyone she spends any time with she lectures on workers rights.
There was a spectre haunting my vagina. It was the spectre of communism. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I think you’re cute. But you really need to shut up.’
It’s a while before she actually scores. John occasionally reappears and they do good conversation. They meet. He has his faults. By date 53 she’s getting into the routine of it all, but Cheap George is right, “What you need is just one mild truth: you’ll never get over your fucking divorce.”
And where did I find this amusing memoir? On my ex-wife’s shelves, where I was idly pulling books out in preparation for boxing them up for her big move. I don’t know about you, but I can’t box books up without inspecting them as I go. Neither Milly nor I remembers, but I’d say I bought it on spec two or three years ago then gave it to her for xmas thinking I could read it later. Which I now have. I wonder who else of you would like it. Neil@Kalaroo maybe. He’ll read anything.
Helen Razer, The Helen 100, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2017. 305pp.