Room for Reflection: Annette Marfording Reviews ‘Here Where We Live’ by Cassie Flanagan Willanski

Here Where We Live by Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Wakefield Press 2016

here where we liveWillanski has extensive experience as an environmental volunteer and campaigner as well as a degree in environmental studies from the University of Adelaide, and this collection of short stories, which won the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript award in 2014, reflects this interest. The collection includes eight short stories and one novella. Rather than falling within the traditional short story genre, however, her stories are offerings of moments of life, often those where mostly female characters face uncertainty, are at a turning point and come to a realisation about what it is that they desire from their lives and how that may affect their relationships. In addition to these environmental and human concerns – which ground the title of the book –, many of the stories are linked to Willanski’s research for her Master of Arts degree ‘about the ways white Australians have written about (and for) Indigenous people’ and her discoveries about white people’s attitudes to Indigenous people, as she explains in her author’s note. As a result, in several stories characters ask each other or themselves whether they are racist, in others, white characters learn about Indigenous history or historical events affecting Aboriginal people.

In ‘Oak Trees in the Desert’, the narrator, an elderly white woman, is the only white woman attending an international women’s conference against radioactive racism with many indigenous delegates. The story addresses the universal problems of uranium and nuclear testing and is the most political. At the end of the conference the narrator has enough courage to disclose that her late husband worked at Maralinga. In ‘Karko’, children on a school excursion learn about the Ibis man who carried his nephew’s body down the coast, his tears creating a series of fresh water springs in the sand. In ‘Some Yellow Flowers’, a young man tells his girlfriend about the Maria shipwreck and the subsequent massacre of the surviving white colonists by local Aborigines.

All stories are set in South Australia – where the author lives and grew up –, mostly in remote places near the coast or in the country and she evokes the landscape very skilfully. All are written in spare prose, often with poetic and rhythmic elements, contemplative in nature, which contributes to giving them a haunting quality, as her creative writing mentor Brian Castro says in comments quoted on the book cover.

The first story in the collection, ‘My Good Thing’, illustrates these elements strongly. This is how it begins:

This is my daughter’s country. That mallee sea with the undulating dunes and the rockholes where we take her back to camp. Twice a year at least, but sometimes more. This is her house, hear near the sea where the bay sparkles beside one window and the mallee grows straight up to the back door. This is the yard where she plays. These are the dogs, her friends and guardians. These are her dark brown eyes, her chubby bronze hand on my pink freckled arm. These are her father’s eyes, her grandmother’s eyes, back to the Dreaming, looking out of a face just like mine. Her expressions are my expressions. I carried her, but she comes from this land.

The final story in the collection, ‘Some Yellow Flowers’, is the novella and requires a patient reader to solve the puzzle as to who is who. It interweaves two couples whose paths intersect: one elderly with a first-person narrator addressing their beloved, one young who have to decide whether to marry, written in third-person. Those who persevere with the puzzle will be rewarded with an emotionally affecting story about the meaning of love and the potential conflict between love and individual freedom. It hones in on the author’s preoccupation with the theme of women’s lives and how to resolve that tension between love and individual freedom, especially if there are children – or potential children – in the picture.

With the exception of ‘Oak Trees in the Desert’, the story about the international women’s conference against radioactive racism, which reads in part like a list of biographies of the delegates, each story in Here Where We Live provides much room for reflection about our own lives and our reactions to climate change and – for those who are white – our attitudes to Aboriginal people. Equally importantly, each is beautifully written.

To keep readers engaged, single-author collections mostly vary in voice, theme, setting, character preoccupations, etc, but Willanski’s Here Where We Live does not. So while I recommend the book, it is best not read sequentially.

  – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, blogger and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authorshttp://www.annettemarfording.com/celebrating-australian-writing/ features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Here Where We Live is available from http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1283

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Intensity and Focus: Annette Marfording Reviews ‘Griffith Review 54, Earthly Delights: The Novella Project IV’

Griffith Review 54, Earthly Delights: The Novella Project IV, edited by Julianne Schultz, Text Publishing


gr54-novellaAs the subtitle suggests, this is the fourth year in which Griffith Review has dedicated its annual fiction edition to the novella, ‘those stories’, as editor Julianne Schultz put it in her introduction to the first edition in 2012, ‘that are longer and more complex than a short story, shorter than a novel, with fewer plot twists, but strong characters. Condensed tales that are intense, detailed, often grounded in the times, and perfectly designed for busy people to read in one sitting.’ By undertaking its novella project, Griffith Review has made a significant contribution to the revival of the novella form. Seizure runs an annual Viva La Novella competition, publishing its first winner in 2013 and some individual short fiction collections now include novellas, such as Here where we live by Cassie Flanagan Willanski and Australia Day by one of the contributors to Earthly Delights, Melanie Cheng, which won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.

From its inception, Griffith Review’s novella project has presented a mix of contemporary and historical fiction, of well-known and emerging authors. It has delighted readers especially with its novellas’ intensity, achieved in part as a result of their strong focus on character. It is that intensity and focus, I suggest, which makes these novellas linger in the mind long after they have been read the first time.

This year’s edition, entitled Earthly Delights, features five novellas selected from 177 entries, and all are contemporary.

In her novella ‘Muse’, Melanie Cheng focuses on an elderly man who grieves for his late wife Lola. Cheng hooks the reader in her first lines by displaying her skill at detail, simile and alliteration:

I’ve neglected her. Her ceilings are soft with cobwebs. Her garden is choked with weeds. Her fence leans, like buckteeth, out onto the footpath. She is getting old, and noisy. Like me, with my snorts and grunts and farts that catch even me by surprise. Her doors creak, her heating claps itself to life, and her pipes splutter up their rusty sputum.

The first person narrator is somewhat estranged from his daughter Bea. One night Bea brings her lover Edwina for dinner, and Edwina, an artist, sparks in him a renewed interest in creativity, and he joins a life drawing class. His focus on the model in turn propels his reflections about his late wife and his former lover. A moving story about family and an elderly man’s life and memories.

Graham Lang is a writer and visual artist who grew up in South Africa and Zimbabwe. His novella ‘A fulcrum of infinites’ explores the meaning of home, ownership and belonging. A terminally ill Aboriginal man, Saul, travels to the Australian outback to die on the land of his ancestors. He settles on the ground under the only tree he can find, close to the house of an elderly farmer who wants him to leave, especially after Saul explains that his ancestors once roamed this land. Lang’s story focuses on the changing nature of the relationship between these two men.

In its focus on an Aboriginal man, ‘A fulcrum of infinites’ does, however, raise the issue of cultural appropriation (http://www.annettemarfording.com/cultural-approriation/) which raged recently in response to Lionel Shriver’s opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of whether authors should be free to write from any perspective and point of view, for those who create an Aboriginal protagonist it is crucial to make him or her authentic, and I’m not sure whether Saul fulfils that criterion. Apart from that reservation, this novella is haunting and well written. Lang’s skills as a writer are particularly evident in his creation of a strong sense of place and in his development of the two characters through their dialogue.

Interestingly, Daniel Jenkins’ novella ‘Those boys from Jalaan’ gives rise to a related issue of authorial freedom. This is not because his novella is set in rural Oman – Jenkins uses his own teaching experience there to good effect, and his main characters are Australian and American teachers –, but because his two protagonists are women, one of whom is sexually assaulted. Despite a small niggle in that respect, ‘Those boys from Jalaan’ gives a good insight into the lives of expatriate women working in an Islamic country.

Although the quality of the writing is high in all these novellas, it jumps to another level with the utterly compelling novellas by Suzanne McCourt, ‘The last taboo: A love story’, and Stephen Orr, ‘Datsunland’, which at more than 100 pages is the length of a short novel. Both McCourt’s and Orr’s latest novels were longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and both were on the respective lists of my top ten reads in 2014 and 2015 (www.rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/12/12/annette-marfordings-best-reads-of-2015/) respectively.

In Suzanne McCourt’s case that novel was her 2014 debut The Lost Child, in which McCourt excelled at creating the voice, world and wonder of a young child growing up in an environment of fear, poverty and her mother’s mental breakdown in the aftermath of domestic violence. In her novella ‘The last taboo: A love story’ McCourt shows herself to be equally masterful in immersing the reader in the inner and outer life of a woman in search for – and eventually reunited with – the son she gave up for adoption at birth. Her use of the rarely used second person point of view is wonderfully suitable because the directly addressed reader is pulled even more strongly inside the narrator’s emotional turmoil of grief, guilt, fear, joy and love.

How does a mother greet a son she has not seen for twenty-three years? Are there rules for such occasions? Accepted etiquette? There is a moment after he closes the door when you’re both standing in the entry hall with barely room to move, and neither of you knows what to do. Your face feels tight with shyness, your mouth dry. But there is a strange recognition pushing into your brain: you are looking at yourself; you are looking at Jim; why hadn’t you expected this? And suddenly you are in each other’s arms.

You can feel the focus, the intensity. And in terms of where she takes this mother’s love, McCourt shows herself to be as fearless as Peter Goldsworthy in his novel Wish in creating an utterly plausible result of overwhelming love.

Stephen Orr’s latest novel was The Hands: An Australian Pastoral (https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/05/19/the-politics-of-the-australian-pastoral-jonathan-dunk-reviews-the-hands-by-stephen-orr/). In that poignant and haunting novel Orr explored the impact of the drought on the family of a cattle farmer. His accomplishments as a writer were evident in his psychological insight into his characters, the sparkling dialogue between them, and the spare, vivid detail he brought to conveying the dusty, barren landscape. He displays the same skills in his novella ‘Datsunland’. This time the setting is urban and the relationships he explores are those between a teenaged boy and his father and especially between the boy and his guitar teacher at the private Catholic school which both of them loathe. Orr cleverly makes use of the ongoing child sexual abuse scandals, especially at private schools, to make the reader worry for the teenager’s safety as the relationship between him and the guitar teacher grows ever closer.

Earthly Delights finishes with a special gift to the reader: an extract of the novel The White Experiment which Cory Taylor was writing when she became too ill from her melanoma-related brain cancer to continue. The book Dying: A Memoir she wrote instead – in a few weeks – was published six weeks before her death and gained international acclaim for its power, courage and clarity. The novel extract is bittersweet because every reader will mourn the loss of this immensely talented writer even more while reading it.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, blogger and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors http://www.annettemarfording.com/celebrating-australian-writing/ features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Griffith Review 54, Earthly Delights: The Novella Project IV is available from https://griffithreview.com/

Telling Their Story Straight: Annette Marfording Reviews ‘Not Just Black and White’ by Lesley and Tammy Williams

Not Just Black and White: A Conversation Between a Mother and Daughter by Lesley and Tammy Williams. UQP 2015

not just black and whiteThe David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writing was established in 1988, named after the political activist and scientist to become the first indigenous author to be published in Australia in 1929. The award is given annually to the best unpublished manuscript in any writing genre by an indigenous writer and supported by University of Queensland Press. I’ve read the David Unaipon award-winning books for many years, including Larissa Behrendt’s first novel Home, Dylan Coleman’s Mazin’ Grace, Nicole Watson’s crime novel The Boundary, and Kate Howarth’s memoir Ten Hail Marys. All have been wonderful and important books, which have enriched the literary landscape in Australia and given white Australians an insight into the injustices imposed upon and affecting Aboriginal lives. And so it is with the 2014 winner of the David Unaipon Award, Lesley and Tammy Williams’ Not Just Black and White: a conversation between a mother and daughter.

Many indigenous authors write poetry, fiction and non-fiction that is steeped in history: personal history, Australian history, as it has affected them. Unsurprisingly, given the number of Aboriginal people touched by it, the Stolen Generations policy and its effects have often been the focus: Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Larissa Behrendt’s Home, and Ali Cobby Eckerman’s Too Afraid to Cry are powerful examples.

Lesley and Tammy Williams’ memoir Not Just Black And White: a conversation between a mother and a daughter focuses on a different aspect of the so-called Aboriginal Protection legislation: its absolute control on every aspect of the lives of those removed from their traditional lands and relocated to life in Aboriginal settlements or missions.

Lesley Williams’ and her family’s life was governed by the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld). She grew up in Cherbourg, a government-controlled settlement for Aboriginal ‘inmates’ founded as Barambah Aboriginal Settlement in 1901, where Lesley’s family had lived ever since the removal of both sides of her grandparents from their traditional lands. The beginning of her narrative hits the reader in the solar plexus when Lesley describes a tourist bus touring the settlement, white faces pressed against the windows, people disembarking with cameras ready, flashes erupting: the ‘inmates’ as zoo animals.

Lesley tells the reader much about the conditions and the way of life of Aboriginal people within the settlement during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Houses were overcrowded, poorly insulated, with an outside tap for washing bodies and clothes. The government officials in charge controlled their movements within the settlement, restricted contact with relatives and friends who lived outside, read their mail, strictly rationed quantities of food and other necessary items. ‘Permission to marry’ certificates were required, necessitating proof of ‘good character’, ‘freedom from disease’, ‘thriftiness with money’ and the ‘capability of maintaining a wife’. Somewhat ironically, Christianity, or at least attendance at Sunday School was compulsory. So was work: carpentry, plumbing, farmwork for men; sewing, cooking, cleaning for women. An analogy with a jail does not seem far-fetched.

After eight years of school, boys were sent to the settlement’s training farm or to work as stockmen in the area; girls had to do a year of domestic-science training. At the age of sixteen, girls were then ready to be sent away from home and family to work as domestic servants at a farm or city home with no say over location or conditions of the contract. The law required that wages under a set rate be paid into a state-owned bank account. It was only many years later that Lesley found out about this, never having been paid a cent of the wages she had earned, except for whatever pocket money her employers had seen fit to pay her. Similarly, a portion of the child endowment payments Lesley’s grandmother was entitled to as a result of bringing up nine grandchildren was held back and ended up in the Queensland government’s coffers. The grandchildren meanwhile growing up in abject poverty, the grandmother constantly at risk of the children being removed from her care for child neglect.

Lesley Williams describes her life in chronological order, interspersed with comments and questions by her daughter Tammy, which increase as Tammy gets older. Lesley takes us from her childhood on the settlement in Cherbourg to her various jobs as a domestic servant, some on farms, one in the city of Brisbane, with employers ranging from cold to kind to the wealthy Mrs Andrée Roberts in Brisbane, with whom she works for seven years from her early twenties. Here Lesley was treated not only humanely, but as a friend. Perhaps most importantly, Andrée boosted Lesley’s self-confidence and taught her about her rights and entitlements. Andrée also encouraged Lesley to make contact with Aboriginal friends who worked in Brisbane, but their meetings often had to be during the day or if at night, at Andrée’s house. The reason? In those days a night curfew within Brisbane’s city boundaries was imposed on Aboriginal people, which meant that they were not allowed to go to certain areas after dark. It was also in Brisbane that she met the young man whom she would marry and have children with.

The way in which Lesley transcended the difficult conditions of her young life, the poverty, the self-doubt, pain, and anger caused by racist taunts, the loss and tragedy she suffered as an adult, all the while working hard to keep her three children fed and educated, is truly inspiring. One day, after Tammy had gotten into trouble at school following a severe racist taunt against her, Lesley told her, “‘There are two ways to fight racism… The first way is to fight with your fists. But if you keep on fighting that way, sooner or later you’ll end up in goal… [The other way is to f]ight the bastards back… Except, this time, you fight ‘em with your talents and achievements…’”

In 1991 Lesley began her fight for justice. Research had found that the total amount of wages withheld from Aboriginal workers’ wages was about $200 million, with evidence of fraud and faulty bookkeeping by government officials. Her long campaign for the return of these wages included correspondence with the Minister for Family Services and Aboriginal and Islander Affairs, suing the Queensland government, and speaking to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights about the issue. She tells her story straight, not omitting in-fighting about strategy among Aborigines. This amazing, feisty woman ended up winning several awards and gaining her community a significant proportion of the wages that had been stolen from them.

This 2014 winner of the David Unaipon Award, Not Just Black and White: a conversation between a mother and daughter by Lesley and Tammy Williams is a wonderful and enlightening addition to the series of David Unaipon award-winning books, which gives an insight into yet another two major injustices imposed upon and affecting Aboriginal lives: completely controlled lives in missions and the scandal of the stolen wages. Highly recommended.

Not Just Black and White has been short-listed for the 2016 NSW Premiers’ Literary  Indigenous  Writer’s Prize along with Ghost River by Tony Birch, Inside My Mother by Alice Cobby Eckermann,  Dirty Words by Natalie Harkin, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe and Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven. The winner will be announced on 16 May 2016.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Not Just Black and White: a conversation between a mother and daughter is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/Book.aspx/1361/Not%20Just%20Black%20and%20White

Not Just Black and White: a conversation between a mother and daughter also has its own website http://www.notjustblackandwhite.com.au/

Great Humanity and Human Decency: Annette Marfording reviews ‘The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey’ by Alex Miller

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey (selected and arranged by his wife Stephanie Miller) by Alex Miller,  Allen & Unwin 2015.

simplest wordsThere are many Australian authors who are good writers, but there are few who, in addition to bringing the reader enjoyment – and incidentally – teach the reader something about how to be a good person, show the reader the impact of racism and other injustices, and thus demonstrate their deep humanity. In America, one of the most famous authors to do so is Harper Lee, whose novel, To Kill a Mockingbird through her character Atticus Finch, teaches her readers the meaning of empathy and the injustice of racism. In Australia, that author is Alex Miller. And for those who are not familiar with all of his work and especially his most award-winning novels The Ancestor Game, Journey to the Stone Country, and Landscape of Farewell, in which those teachings of his are the strongest, his deep humanity is starkly illuminated in this book The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey.

Although Alex Miller has written short stories and essays, some included in past editions of The Best Australian Essays and The Best Australian Stories, he is best known for his novels, for which he won multiple literary awards, including the Miles Franklin award for The Ancestor Game and for Journey to the Stone Country. Apart from the Miles Franklin, his most prestigious literary awards are the Commonwealth Writers Prize (for The Ancestor Game) and the Annual Foreign Novels 21st Century Award from the People’s Literature Publishing House in China (for Landscape of Farewell). He has also been awarded the Melbourne Prize for Literature and the Manning Clark Cultural Award for his outstanding contribution to the quality of Australian cultural life.

In individual pieces, written mostly for newspapers – especially the Melbourne Age – and in short stories, selected and arranged for this book by the author’s wife Stephanie, and with the addition of significant photographs with family and friends, The Simplest Words presents a kind of autobiographical journey of the author in chronological order, which ends with a surprise poem. That the book emerges as an autobiographical journey is interesting in itself, because at the symposium on his novels, organised by Professor Robert Dixon at Sydney University in 2011, he began his own contribution by saying, “I’ve been asked for a memoir for this occasion yet I am uncomfortable writing directly about myself. I prefer the mask of fiction. In this preference it is self-deception I fear most, for who but the self-deceived would claim to be able to write with moral detachment about themselves?” The last sentence is, of course, an immediate demonstration of his deep humanity, his morality, his modesty: “who but the self-deceived would claim to be able to write with moral detachment about themselves?”

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey begins with the desire for storytelling in his childhood, takes the reader through the impetus for each of his novels and shows their profound link to his own life, includes brief extracts of each of those novels, and introduces the reader to his special friends, his thoughts about writing and issues he feels passionate about. For those who are new to Alex Miller’s work, this book is thus the ideal introduction to, and overview of, his body of work.

For this reviewer, who is intensely familiar with his novels, has reread most of them, some more than once, who was one of the only non-university people to attend the above mentioned symposium on his novels, and who learned yet more about him in her in-depth interview with him for her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, there were several highlights in this collection. The first, the ability to read ‘Comrade Pawel’, the story that was his first publication in Meanjin in 1975. The story is based on an incident that happened to his friend Max Blatt in the Second World War. Reading the story as written by Alex prompted Max to say, “You could have been there,” and with those words launched his writing life and career.

A second highlight of The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is a previously unpublished novella, ‘The Rule of the First Prelude’, in which Alex Miller imagines the life of the child of his protagonist Emily in his novel Conditions of Faith as an adult, and her grief at her mother’s absence. It is an eloquent and extremely powerful story, though written, indeed, in the simplest words.

A third highlight of this book are the essays on issues the author feels passionate about; foremost ‘Australia Today’, in which he writes in disbelief about the Australian government’s shocking turn-away from asylum seekers, and yet, remains hopeful that Australia will return to humane refugee policies. Another is ‘Chasing My Tale’ on the labelling – such as revisionist historian – that he has received by academics following his novels and his resulting bewilderment, causing him to say, “I believe a novel is like a painting or a piece of music, at least in the sense that it cannot be explained but can only be experienced.” Another is ‘Sweet Water’, an outstanding essay on the need to preserve the Urannah Valley, and thus the land and pristine wilderness of the Birriguba people of North Queensland, from damming and consequential destruction. The Urannah Valley is part of the landscape in his novel Journey to the Stone Country and in this essay Alex Miller explains the significance of this land to its original owners, and makes a passionate argument against the focus of Western culture on acquisition: of land, of knowledge, of consumer goods, and in favour of preserving the sacred. And, while in the interview with me he stated that his novels Journey to the Stone Country and Landscape of Farewell were not written as books about Aborigines and the issues they face, but were the stories of his personal friends, which they had asked him to write, towards the end of ‘Sweet Water’ he nevertheless points to the importance of writing about things affecting Aboriginal people: “Some critics assure us that our novels are irrelevant to the important issues facing our society. I don’t share that view. As well as entertaining us, our novels have always explored the individual’s relationship to the great moral questions of the day. Not answers, but an awareness of the questions we need to face. Something, dare I say it, such as an image of the Urannah Valley…., intact as yet and just as filled with mystery as the deepest and most hidden part of the great Amazonian forest. A fragile and precious reality of ours that we are about to destroy in order to provide water for coal mines and crop irrigation.”

A fourth highlight of The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is the inclusion of ‘The Writer’s Secret’, a piece on parental love and advice and writing, which he read at the 2014 Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival and which held the entire audience in a suspended hush for the duration.

A final highlight of this book are Alex Miller’s pieces about his friends, including the aforementioned Max Blatt, the late Frank Budby, elder of the Barada Barna people, who became his protagonist Dougald Gnapun in Landscape of Farewell, Col McLennan, elder of the Jangga people, and his wife Liz Hatte, who became his protagonists Bo and Annabelle in Journey to the Stone Country, biographer Hazel Rowley who became his soul mate by daily email correspondence, and philosopher and author of Romulus, My Father and After Romulus, Raimond Gaita. And in words I would use about Alex Miller, he finishes the Hazel Rowley Memorial Lecture ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ as follows: “Rereading her books these last few weeks I have known myself to be in the presence of Hazel Rowley’s great humanity… Her great books are for life. To read a great book for a second time, just as to listen to a great piece of music for the hundredth time, is to be in the presence of a new creation.” Gerard Windsor, in his review of The Simplest Words for The Australian refers to this praise as “quite starstruck admiration” for Hazel Rowley, and the same might be said of this review for Alex Miller, but I see it as simple gratitude for those people in our lives, be it primarily only through the written word, who remind us of the existence of such great humanity and human decency in this increasingly self-centred world.

Buy The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey, buy Alex Miller’s novels, and reread each of his books for perpetual new pleasure, awe and gratitude. It’s no surprise that this book was my book of the year 2015. It was published by Allen & Unwin in a sturdy hardback edition with a hauntingly beautiful cover image designed by Lisa White, which you will enjoy looking at for years to come.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is available from  https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/literature-literary-studies/The-Simplest-Words-Alex-Miller-9781743313572

An Eclectic Range of Subject Matter: Annette Marfording reviews The Best Australian Essays 2015 by Geordie Williamson

Black Inc, The Best Australian Essays 2015, edited by Geordie Williamson, Black Inc, 2015

Best-Essays-2015

As a regular reader and lover of these annual collections it is fascinating to see the different choices the respective editors make for the year’s best essays, and how sometimes they confound your expectations. A prime example is a comparison between the 2014 and the 2015 collections of the year’s best essays. The 2015 editor was Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic of The Australian and primarily a reviewer of fiction, who followed in the footsteps of Robert Manne, a former professor of politics and author of many non-fiction books and essays. Knowing these backgrounds, a reader might expect an emphasis on political essays in Robert Manne’s edition The Best Australian Essays 2014 versus an emphasis on literary reviews and creative non-fiction and memoir in Geordie Williamson’s edition The Best Australian Essays 2015. Yet, that is not so.

The eclecticism of Geordie Williamson’s edition The Best Australian Essays 2015 is apparent in its inclusion of essays on climate change, new science, terrorism, sexism, the mining industry, political history, the dangers of so-called alternative medicine, Aboriginal issues, cricket, gambling, musicians and music critics.

Political essays include Guy Rundle’s take on the absurdity of the political reactions after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris; Sebastian Smee’s analysis on the direct relevance of Goya’s art to terror and mass killings today; Rebecca Griggs’ opinion on the mining industry and its FIFA workers in Western Australia; and Mango MacCallum’s obituary of Malcolm Frazer, which considers his history and policies before, during and after his Prime Ministership. The strongest essay is perhaps Noel Pearson’s ‘Remote Control: Ten Years of Struggle and Success in Indigenous Australia’ which reports on the present state of Aboriginal affairs after the Northern Territory intervention and on native title in the face of the mining boom. The essay causes you to weep at successive governments’ ineptitude and to marvel at the resiliency of Aboriginal people who rarely seem to lose hope.

Maria Tumarkin, poet, critic and essayist, contributes a strong and passionately argued piece on the treatment of first-generation migrants and refugees in Australia with regard to their professional expertise, knowledge and skills, which are all too often not acknowledged or recognised as useful.

Alison Croggon’s piece ‘Trigger Warning’ begins as follows: “The first time I was raped, a stranger climbed into bed with me while I was sleeping at a friend’s house…” It is a strongly argued essay on the ways in which men treat and position women in society.

Both Helen Garner’s and Anna Krien’s personal/memoir pieces are humorous. Anna Krien’s subject matter is her past and present life in a Holden panel van and Helen Garner’s is ‘The Insults of Age’, though the latter also brims with outrage, and rightly so.

Felicity Plunkett’s ‘Sound Bridges: A Profile of Gurrumul’, its title a convenient short hand for its subject matter, is a highly thoughtful and beautifully written contextual analysis of Gurrumul in the light of his Aboriginal background and cultural inheritance, policies and politics over Aboriginal people and assessments of his music made by music critics.

Tim Winton’s ‘Havoc: A life in Accidents’ examines the history of traffic accidents in his own and his father’s life and how these shaped them as men. In the last paragraph he says, “My old man survived his career in havoc. … And now I’ve been a writer longer than he was a copper. Both of us have tried to avoid trouble, and yet it’s been our business. Without strife, the cop and the novelist have nothing to work with.”

Other personal highlights are essays on reading and writing, Mark Mordue in ‘The Library of Shadows’ highlights the dark novels that capture and make us. Ceridwen Dovey’s ‘The Pencil and the Damage done’ is a brilliant dissection and lament of the lack of ethics amongst many authors. As a prime example, she uses the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard and his autobiographical so-called fictional work My Struggles in which he uses his words as a sword to pierce friends and family, including his children by expressing boredom, resentment and other negative emotions. The damage was catastrophic, Knausgaard had to move to other countries, most of his family have stopped communicating with him and his writing triggered manic depression in his wife. Ceridwen Dovey’s powerfully argued piece should remind all authors of the damage they may cause.

Overall, the 2015 edition includes an eclectic range of subject matter, and that is how it should be with these annual collections of The Best Australian Essays.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

The Best Australian Essays 2015 is available from  http://www.bestaustralianwriting.com.au/essays/

“It takes time and patience to be a good detective”: Annette Marfording reviews Detective Work by John Dale

Detective Work by John Dale. Xoum 2015.

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John Dale is a Sydney based author of three previous novels and a novella, as well as of non-fiction including essays, the memoir Wild Life about the fatal shooting of his grandfather in Tasmania. His award-winning book Huckstepp, about the former prostitute and whistle-blower about police corruption Sallie-Anne Huckstep who was found dead in a lake in Centennial Park, is probably is best-known work. Judging by his body of work, it is fair to say that crime and police corruption are of major interest to him.

And so it is in Detective Work, his latest novel. Young protagonist detective Dimitri Telegonus and Detective Senior Constable Gale Ryan are part of a new task force which re-investigates serious unsolved crime. Their assignment is the unsolved disappearance of 21-year-old escort Renee Summers in 1994. During the course of their investigation they re-interview Summers’s friends, her former boyfriend, the escort business managers and the last known client she had visited, one Gregory Samsa. Samsa has always been the prime suspect, but nothing could ever be pinned on him. After he vanishes, their search for him leads them to Tasmania, including Bruny Island where Telegonus’s mother lives.

Dale opens the novel skilfully, introducing the protagonist as an insomniac on one of his regular night drives through Sydney. The beginning of the second paragraph reads: “He crossed into Double Bay with the wind blowing at his tail lights, eyes fixed on a lycra-clad jogger, checking out the man’s sweating face. Not that he expected to find him here…” And immediately the reader is hooked with the suspense of who this man is he’s searching for and why is he searching for him.

As a teacher of creative writing at UTS the author is likely to tell his students about the essence of conflict in the creation of drama, and the novel is full of it. Telegonus knows that Ryan, who is in his fifties, “had worked Major Crime South West at a time when the Commanding Officer … was found guilty of seventeen counts of corruption.” The protagonist’s pairing with a senior officer whom he suspects of being corrupt himself immediately sets up one such conflict. Furthermore, there’s discord between the two detectives, not only about the direction their investigation should take, but also in terms of their personalities. Ryan thinks Telegonus is stuck-up, telling him, “Rule number one. Detectives don’t read books,” when Telegonus links Samsa’s name to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Telegonus thinks Ryan is an ogre because of his stream of racist and sexist comments.

Most other conflicts are internal ones: Telegonus finds an envelope with money on his desk, which creates the dilemma whether to report it; he wonders whether to continue his relationship with his academic girlfriend; he has a fraught relationship with his mother; and when the investigation stalls, he fears he is incompetent, and the bosses threaten to pull the plug.

The novel is written from the third person point of view of Telegonus as the protagonist, which works well to show his internal conflicts. Both Telegonus and Ryan are complex characters and the author uses quick brushstrokes and dialogue effectively to enhance characterisation. Here is one example involving Ryan when they are told to work together early on in the novel: “Ryan lumbered over to him. ‘You the Greek kid, right?’” The verb ‘lumbered’ suggests Ryan’s body type, ‘Greek’ suggests Ryan’s prone to stereotype, and ‘kid’ could imply a patronising attitude or at the very least suggests that he thinks he’s got to teach Telegonus how to do detective work. This is reinforced a few pages further on, immediately after he’s told him that detectives don’t read fiction: “Well, when you do this shit, you gotta do a lot of things right. You have to be a first-rate interrogator, you have to be articulate in court, you need to gather evidence, all the forensic stuff. You gotta work the street. You gotta work the phone. It takes time and patience to be a good detective. There’s set rules. You can’t learn them sitting in an office comparing the name of a suspect to some character in a book. Muster up, son, we’re going for a drive.”

Another plus is that John Dale’s Australia reflects the multicultural and multi-class society in which we live, which is still rare among non-indigenous Australian writers – Christos Tsiolkas and Maxine Beneba Clarke being two notable exceptions. Furthermore and crucially, he does not adopt a painting-by-numbers approach to crime fiction, and indeed dispenses with the formula in one critical respect. The protagonist’s girlfriend’s work as an academic gives him the opportunity to fling some barbs at academia – something that this reviewer and former academic particularly enjoyed.

The one aspect of John Dale’s writing that did not impress this reader was a sense of place. A focus on naming suburbs and landmarks does not evoke place; that requires imagery provided in vivid detail. But it is a rare author who excels at all aspects of writing, and Detective Work is definitely a novel that I would highly recommend.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Detective Work is available from http://www.xoum.com.au/shop/detective-work/

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Annette Marfording’s Best Reads of 2015

Annette & bookThis is the time of the year that everyone publishes their “best of 2015” list – mainstream and social media has been full of the 10 best coffees of 2015, the 10 best red carpets and of the course the ten best books. Not wanting to be left out Rochford Street Review turned to Annette Marfording for her views on the best reads of 2015.

Annette is perfectly positioned to provide such a listing having been a voracious reader all her life. After arriving in Australia in 1985 Annette fell in love with Australian writing. In 2007 she became a broadcaster at Bellingen’s community radio station 2bbb FM, where she created a program on Australian writers and their work. From 2011 to 2015 she was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more.

Annette’s top reads of 2015 were all reviewed on her radio program and are focussed on Australian fiction. She points out that a list of top reads will always be subjective, and while she read about 100 books during 2015, there will always some that are still on “to read pile”. Joan London’s The Golden Age and Tony Birch’s The Ghost River, for instance, are high on her list of books yet to be read.

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Annette Marfording’s Best Reads of 2015


alex millerBook of the Year: Alex Miller, The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey
(Allen & Unwin), a collection of novel extracts, memoir pieces, short stories and passionate essays, plus a wonderful novella linked to Conditions of Faith and a surprise poem   (https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/ general-books/literature-literary-studies/The-Simplest-Words-Alex-Miller-9781743313572)

 

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soulsGregory Day, Archipelago of Souls (Picador), the dualist story of Wesley Cress as a soldier under British command on the Greek island of Crete in WWII, and his life on King Island after his return, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. (http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/9781743537190)

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chimesAnna Smail, The Chimes (Sceptre), by a NZ author who has drawn on her skills as a poet and classical violinist to compose a symphony in a dystopian world and society ruled by “the Order” through its vast musical instrument, the Carillon, which has the effect of destroying people’s memories and making it impossible for them to form new ones. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. (http://www.annasmaill.com/the-chimes.html)

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where's there smokeWhere There’s Smoke: Outstanding Short Stories by Australian Men (Black Inc), which presents the crème de la crème of short fiction written in the last fifteen years or so by Australian male authors. (http://www.blackincbooks.com/books/where-theres-smoke)

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the world without usMireille Juchau, The World Without Us (Bloomsbury), set in an alternative community in northern New South Wales (http://www.bloomsbury.com/au/the-world-without-us-9781408866504/)

 

 

 

 

 

The HandsStephen Orr, The Hands: An Australian Pastoral (Wakefield Press), a novel set on a cattle farm in South Australia, experiencing severe drought, and featuring an extended family undergoing tragedy and betrayal. (http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1238&cat=0&page=&featured=Y)

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certain circlesElizabeth Harrower, In Certain Circles (published in 2014 by Text Publishing), her first published novel since the famous The Watch Tower in 1966, tells the story of the son and daughter of a wealthy academic couple and an orphaned brother and sister, and once again demonstrates her great psychological insight. (https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/in-certain-circles)

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eye of the sheepSofie Laguna’s 2015 Miles Franklin winning novel, The Eye of the Sheep (published in 2014 by Allen & Unwin), a story about domestic violence, general family dysfunction, social disadvantage and a mother’s strong love for her autistic and difficult son. (https://www.allenandunwin.com/ browse/books/fiction  /literary-fiction/The-Eye-of-the-Sheep-Sofie-Laguna-9781743319598).

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joe's fruit shopZoe Boccabella’s memoir Joe’s Fruitshop & Milk Bar (Scribe), in which she plays tribute to her Italian ancestors, the first of whom migrated to Australia in 1926, and which is a fantastic record of social history. (http://www.harpercollins.com.au/9780733333828 /joes-fruit-shop-and-milk-bar)

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a piece of my mindProfessor Gordon Parker, A Piece of My Mind: A Psychiatrist on the Couch (Macmillan), the 2012 memoir by the founder of the Black Dog Institute, which is an eye-opener about mental illness and how it should be treated. (http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/9781742610740)

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 –  Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording runs a program on Australian writers and their work on 2bbb FM (Bellingen, NSW). Her book, Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. Authors interviewed include literary authors and poets (David Malouf, Cate Kennedy, Peter Goldsworthy), crime writers (Michael Robotham, Barry Maitland), commercial fiction authors (Di Morrissey, the late Bryce Courtenay), and narrative non-fiction authors (Robert Dessaix and Kate Howarth). All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors is available in Sydney from Gleebooks, Berkelouw Books, Better Read than Dead, Abbey’s Bookshop, Dymocks George Street, as well as the city, Uni Sydney and UTS branches of the Co-op Bookshop and online at www.coop.com.au. It is also available at Bookface in Port Maquarie, the Book Warehouse in Coffs Harbour and Lismore, and at the Alternative Bookshop in Bellingen.It can also be purchased from  http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html