• History,  Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    Wonderful serendipity: “The Good Girl Song Project”

    In last week’s post I mentioned being at the Cobargo Folk Festival recently, and having the pleasure of meeting Gabrielle Stroud after reading her book ‘Teacher.’

    At the same festival, I had another of those wonderful moments of serendipity. Also on the festival program were several performances of “The Good Girl Song” Project. A song cycle called “Voyage”, it was written by Helen Begley, based on research by Liz Rushen and eyewitness accounts of the voyage.It presents in  musical and theatrical form the story of young single women who emigrated from England to Australia, in the 1830’s. The show was performed by Helen, Penny Larkins, Penelope Swales and Jamie Molloy.

    I just loved this presentation. It was Australian history, brought to life. The hopes and dreams of poor women searching for a better life, who sailed halfway round the world to be met by several thousand men on the Sydney dock. The colony was starved of eligible young women, at that time in it’s history. So did the women receive a warm welcome? Hardly. They were greeted by jeers, catcalls and filthy remarks from the assembled men. Imagine the women’s distress and disappointment. And the resilience they needed, in order to lift their heads, endure the humiliation and jeers that their ship was a “floating brothel” and walk down the ship’s gangway, to somehow make a new life in this strange land.

    The show brought me to tears. It evoked thoughts of my own ancestors, some of whom I am writing about in my current fiction project. Some arrived as convicts, others as free passengers, but all of them would have experienced the hardships of the voyage here, and the same trepidation as they stepped ashore.

    To hear more about the project go here:https://vimeo.com/130713977

    or visit their Facebook page:https://www.facebook.com/thegoodgirlstory/

  • Books and reading

    Book Review & Reflections: ‘Teacher’ by Gabbie Stroud

    A copy of this book should be handed to anyone who expresses the view that “Teachers get so many holidays”, or “Teaching must be an easy job – look at the hours they work – 9 to 3 Mon to Fri and no weekend work.”

    For much of my working life, I was a teacher. Mostly in adult education, but a couple of years as a casual primary teacher, working across ages from kindergarten to year six. So I read Gabbie Stroud’s memoir of teaching in primary schools with interest. It might surprise you to know that much of what she describes about her experiences in working in primary education in Australia and the UK, is increasingly relevant to the vocational education and training situation as it currently stands, here in Australia.

    The tag line on the front cover of ‘Teacher’ reads: One woman’s struggle to keep the heart in teaching. The author’s heart shines out through her portrayal of her childhood years, her decision  to train to become a teacher, her first job in an East London school, teaching in Australian schools, including in socioeconomically disadvantaged regions and in a brand new school. Her approach to teaching was all about relationship – with her students of course, and also with parents, colleagues, and her schools’  communities.

    She describes her experience of burnout – an overwhelming workload, juggling time with too many things on the “to do” list, and the “stealthy encroachment of more and more demands for accountability, “evidence”, assessment grids and rubrics…A teacher could literally spend their working week creating the documentation required to teach.

    You might be thinking: Other occupations have these sorts of pressures. And you’d be right. Many people – nurses, social and community workers, doctors, aged care workers, people who work in childcare, would nod in recognition of the issues discussed in this book.

    For me, the fact that these workplace issues are so widespread, makes the arguments  put forward in this book more important, not less. Ms Stroud describes struggling with unsympathetic systems imposed from above, usually by people with no experience or understanding of education or teaching, and very little knowledge of what teachers, schools and students need to excel. The  introduction in Australian schools of  “NAPLAN” testing (standardised testing in literacy and numeracy), and a National Curriculum, are two examples examined here.

    One of my favourite lines in the book is a quote from one of the author’s colleagues: “All this collecting of evidence. Evidence for everything. I feel like I work for a crime squad.” (p.221)

    Sadly, this reliance on standardisation of teaching and assessment practices and “evidence” (a belated effort to stem the rise of less than reputable training organisations) has crept into the vocational education and training sector in Australia. It’s a lucrative market nowadays.

    What is often lost, is the importance of relationship and heart in the teaching and learning process. Teachers and students can get so focused on their grades and on completing assessment tasks that they have little time to think about actually teaching and learning. They lose sight of what they have achieved and what they can do. As the author states, it becomes a deficit approach to teaching and learning.

    I’ll leave the final word to Gabbie Stroud:
    We need to contemplate not only what we should teach our children, but also how we should teach them. And we must start valuing our teachers.” (p334)

    Postscript: Over the first weekend in March, my husband and I went to the Cobargo Folk Festival. It’s a lovely little festival in a beautiful part of the south coast of NSW. I was pleased and surprised to see in the program, a discussion panel called “What’s Happened to our Education System?” The three speakers were all enthusiastic, creative, professional teachers – who had all left teaching. (Though one of them, Nick Thornton, is about to return to the classroom, to focus on the educational needs of children who have experienced trauma.  And the second, Kate Liston-Mills, has completed a Librarian Studies course.) The third speaker was none other than Gabbie Stroud. It was a delight to meet her and hear her speak about her experiences and what prompted her to write the book.

    If you are interested in finding out more about her work, check out her website (I love the retro illustrations! Classic 1950’s twee) https://gabbiestroud.com/

  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘Terra Nullius’ by Claire Coleman

    This is the debut novel from Claire Coleman, a Noongar woman from southern Western Australia. The book was published in 2018 by Hachette Australia and it won the black&write! Fellowship in 2016, from the State Library of Queensland.

    It’s a hard book to describe, being one of those books that bend or fuse genres. The first half reads as historical fiction, based on all-too-real stories of the invasion and colonisation of Australia by Europeans, the bloody frontier wars, the massacres, the church run Missions and the Stolen Generations. It’s hard going, difficult and uncomfortable reading, but important reading for all Australians.

    Given that these awful events in our nation’s history have been told through story and in non-fiction works,  in films and songs, it is astounding to me that so many non-indigenous Australians can still plead ignorance, or worse, disinterest, in these darker parts of our history. While many of us are now proud to acknowledge our connections to other challenging periods of the Australian story, for example, our convict heritage, it does seem strange to me that some remain unable or unwilling to acknowledge the reality of what happened to indigenous people in this country. Let alone to respect the resilience and tenacity that enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to survive.

    Halfway through the book, we realise that what we are reading is, in fact, speculative fiction. It switches our viewpoint in a way that feels quite disconcerting, at least to begin with. It is cleverly done.

    The writing is at times clunky, with some repetition and  laboured sentences. But the overall effect of this book is to leave you thinking and wondering. What if? What would that be like? How would that feel?

    Which is, I believe, one of the best things that good fiction can bring: an increase in empathy.

    Have you read other fictional works that do this?
    Let me know in the comments below.

  • Writing

    The joys of writing: Discovery

    You know the story is working when the story is leading you, rather than you leading the story. Arnold Zable, author.

    I’ve been pondering the question:  what are the most satisfying things about writing?

    In a previous post I wrote about enjoyment I’ve had with the research process. (It’s on my ‘Books and Projects’ page if you’d like to see it.)

    One of the  surprising pleasures of writing for me has been the process of discovery. I’ve had a general idea of my characters, major events in their lives, and where they end up (some of these dictated by the historical records, as my major characters are based on real life people from the 1800’s)

    Within those broad parameters, it’s been astonishing, and great fun, to sit at my keyboard and have ideas just develop, as if from nowhere. I’ve heard some writers say their characters ‘tell them’ what they’ll do and say. I’m not sure that applies to me, but I have to say there have been times when, after writing for an hour or so, I have to admit ‘I didn’t know that was going to happen!’

    As a new writer it’s easy to either get anxious about this, or get carried away by it. Overall I prefer to stick to my general plan, but it’s fun to allow a bit of leeway and explore roads and lane ways that open up unexpectedly. It doesn’t mean that all of these make it past the first draft, of course. But it’s fun, certainly.

    I think I ‘m coming to see the writing process as more like consulting a map. I know where I’m starting, and where I want to get to. In between, I can take the most obvious route, but I can also take interesting little detours or twists and see what comes of them. Being open to the possibilities is the thing.

    Kind of like life, don’t you think?

  • Life: bits and pieces

    The romance of beauty: ‘Love & Desire’ exhibition at National Gallery of Australia

    In January I had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery in Canberra for the exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate. The exhibition is on until the end of April 2019 and if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d encourage a visit to Canberra (if you don’t live too far away, that is.) It’s a beautiful experience.

    Information about the exhibition is on the NGA website https://nga.gov.au/exhibitions/default.cfm

    I was somewhat vague about this group of artists, who produced their works in the nineteenth century.  I’d expected images of beautiful women in flowing robes, flowers floating on lakes,  Biblical stories and medieval legends brought to life. I found all those things, and  more. Incredibly accurate representations of nature in landscapes, alongside detailed scenes of everyday life of the times. Portraits, works about tragedy and love, goddesses and strong, powerful women, and – most surprising of all to me – the works of William Morris of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement.

    So much colour and romance, so many powerful stories. For a small group of artists working (as many do) in relative poverty and obscurity, the Pre-Raphaelites produced work that packed a solid artistic and cultural punch.

    It reminded me that stories aren’t always told in words alone. Colour, shapes, images, rhythm, music – these are all ways to tell stories.

    If you’ve seen the exhibition in Canberra, or been lucky enough to see the works at the Tate or elsewhere, let me know in the comments below.

     

     

  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘The Invention of Wings’ by Sue Monk Kidd

    What a glorious book this is.

    Published in 2014, this beautiful, engrossing novel by American author Sue Monk Kidd (author of the best selling ‘Secret Life of Bees’) tells the story of the Grimke sisters. Sarah and Angelina were born into South Carolina’s ‘aristocracy’ – the slave owning, wealthy, pious and cultured families of Charleston in the early 1800’s. Yes, before the Civil War. But not, as I learnt from this book, before some people in both Northern and Southern states began speaking out against the evils of slavery.

    I also learned that the Grimke sisters were among the most reviled women in America during their long campaign for abolition – and also among the earliest feminists in that country.  They campaigned, not just for the abolition of slavery, but against racism in all its forms, and also for the right of women to have a voice and a vocation.

    Why had I not heard of them before now? I felt better on learning that the author herself – Southern raised and living in Charleston – had also not known about them until she went to an exhibition commemorating historical women of note. There, she read about Sarah and Angelina and a little seed of an idea she’d had for a novel (‘I want to write about sisters’) grew to encompass their extraordinary story.

    Another woman’s story is told alongside the sisters’. Monk Kidd learned that Sarah had been ‘given’ a slave named Hetty, a girl of the same age as herself – for her eleventh birthday. The real Hetty’s life was not a long one- she died young- but in the novel, she becomes the girl called ‘Handful’ by her mother Charlotte, also a slave. Handful and Sarah grow up together across a seemingly insurmountable divide – the free and the enslaved. The two women’s stories weave around each other throughout the book, with chapters alternating between the voices of Sarah and Handful.

    I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, which gave me the added pleasure of hearing it narrated by two different women – one with the cultured Charleston accents of Sarah, and the other the ‘slave voice’ of Handful.

    This book did for me what good historical fiction should do. It made me wonder, imagine – and seek out more information on the real Grimke sisters, their lives and the society in which they lived and tried to change. Monk Kidd does not shy away from the brutal realities of the laws and practices of slavery as they were then, nor does she romanticise the relationship between Sarah and Handful. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the book is ultimately about hope.

    Here’s a quote from the novel which absolutely sums up how I feel about historical fiction and, really,
    history in general:
    If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you came from.

    This is Handful’s mother Charlotte speaking to her daughter as she relates the stories of  ‘Granny Mama’, her African grandmother, about their history and culture before enslavement.

    If you are looking for a novel to inform, inspire, educate and entrance, I’d suggest ‘The Invention of Wings’.

     

     

  • Uncategorized

    Short Story: ‘Straws’

    This was my January ‘Furious Fiction’ entry. Good fun as always.

    The rules for this month were:

    500 words or less.

    First word must be ‘new’.

    Story must include a list of some kind, and the words ‘present’ and ‘desert’.

    For more info on Furious Fiction, go here: https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/

    And here’s my little story:

    STRAWS                                                                    by Denise Newton

    “New wife, new life, New wife, new life, new wife…” I mutter the words from Ed’s email like an evil mantra.

    His new partner, his new life. I’m stuck here in this endless loop of single parenting, unless Ed stoops to the occasional visit; grocery shopping (also endless); laundry and housework (ditto). Nineteen years of marriage and guess who drew the short straw?

    “Where’s the list?” I ask Elsie now. She’s wriggling in her seat belt like she wants to escape. It’s hot, the temperature gauge tipping 42 degrees. The Saturday morning traffic belongs in one of Dante’s circles of Hell. The backs of my legs are sticking to the car seat. A mistake to wear a skirt today. I thought it’d be cooler. But no, my legs are in their own special desert under the dash, manufacturing sweat like we truly are arriving at Inferno Central.

    Elsie whinges.
    “I’m thirsty.”
    I grit my teeth.
    “I’m thirsty, Mum,” she says again, in that particular tone that is like pressing on a bruise. “Can we stop at McDonald’s for a slushie?”
    “Elsie, have I ever taken you to McDonald’s?”
    A small silence.
    “No.” Grudging.
    “Well, then.”

    I pull into the car park and let out a quiet groan. The only free space is a long walk from the cool of the air-conditioned shopping mall. I rummage in the messy back seat of the car, retrieve the shopping list, grab some bags, turn to Elsie.

    Grit my teeth again.
    “Come on, let’s go in and get this over with.”
    She scrambles out, a little monkey in her purple shorts and blue Peppa Pig T-shirt.

    Forty minutes later we are through the checkout, shopping bags stacked in the trolley. I stop at the automatic door, turn to look at my daughter.
    “Hey, before we go out and get hot all over again, what say we get milkshakes at the cafe?”
    She gives me a huge smile.
    We order chocolate milkshakes and I lean back in my seat, looking at Elsie.

    “You know Charlotte?” she says to me through the straw. I nod. Charlotte is Elsie’s third best friend. When you are in Year One, there is a strict pecking order of friendship that must be observed.

    “Charlotte’s birthday is in three days and she can’t stop talking about the presents she wants.”
    “Oh?” I know where this was leading – a wish list, a none- too- gentle hint for her own upcoming birthday.

    Elsie says, her mouth all chocolatey, “I told Charlotte that I don’t want lots of presents for my birthday this year. I want to have a day with you at the mall, shopping and stuff. And milkshakes.” She beams. “I really like shopping with you.”

    Oh.

    Now I know who got the short straw.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Author Talk at Springwood Library: Sulari Gentill

    I spotted another terrific author talk organised by Blue Mountains Libraries and I confess, I booked myself in immediately.

    For those who haven’t come across her work yet, Sulari Gentill is the Australian author of the Rowland Sinclair series. Beginning with the first title, A Few Right Thinking Men, published in 2011, the (to date) nine books relate the adventures of Rowland Sinclair, “an artist and a gentleman…with a talent for scandal”.  (from the cover blurb)

    Along with his friends Edna (a talented sculptress and Rowland’s model for his many nude portraits as well as a possible love interest), Clyde (Communist Party of Australia member) and Milton (wannabe poet) Rowland  travels Australia and further afield, stumbling into crimes that need solving.

    The books are all set in the 1930’s, the time of the Great Depression, battles between the Far Right (The New Guard and  Antipodean Nazi sympathisers) and Communists; seances and spiritualism; stockmen, gangsters, and bitter politics. Gentill immerses the reader in the thinking, politics, places, fashions and fads of these turbulent times.

    The settings of the novels are wonderful: from the leafy Sydney suburb of Woollhara to the grimy streets of Sydney’s slums; from the new national capital of Canberra to the heart of the ‘squattocracy’ at Yass; from the opulence of the Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath ( my fellow Blue Mountains readers will know this one) to sailing on the Aquitania; Shanghai; London; even to Munich as Hitler rises to power.

    Gentill has the knack of weaving  compelling crime stories with spot- on historical detail and wry humour, all told through the eyes of her very likeable character and his chums.

    I greatly enjoyed this series and can’t wait to hear the author talk about her newest title, All the Tea in China, published January 2019.

    I might see some other Blue Mountains readers  at the Author Talk on 9th March at 2pm. Let me know in the comments below if you are planning to come.

  • Workshop,  Writing

    Progress report: ‘Write Your Novel’ program

    Last year I wrote a post about a new online program I was about to start with the Australian Writers’ Centre, called ‘Write Your Novel.’ I’m now almost half way through this six month course and I’m pleased to report that it is proving to be a worthwhile venture.

    When I began the program I had a first draft manuscript of over 119,000 words. Yes, I know, far too many words. I knew I needed to redraft, edit, cut and whittle away a whole lot of those words…words that I’d sweated over and celebrated as the word count mounted. Odd, now that I’m celebrating as the word tally goes down

    Anyway, as this was my first novel, I was a bit lost as to how to set about this (mammoth) task. How to critically examine my story’s plot, structure, characters, dialogue, description. How to make sure all the parts work together to make a satisfying whole. What are the themes of my story and how to ensure they shine through? And of course, how to tighten the language.

    This is where the ‘Write Your Novel’ program has been invaluable. I’m in an online classroom with eight other aspiring authors. We have an online tutor, Cathie Tasker, an editor with many years of experience in publishing. Cathie gives each of us feedback as we take turns to submit segments of our manuscripts. And, we all workshop each others’ work and provide feedback on what works well and what needs more work. Already I have learnt so much – from giving feedback and receiving it, and reading the comments given by my classmates on others’ work as well.

    I’m happy that I’ve already trimmed over 14,000 words, mainly through tightening language, deleting those pesky repetitious or unnecessary words and checking my overuse of adverbs! And  I’ve been able to write more convincing characters by getting closer to their point of view.

    Lots more work to do, of course. But I’ve been pleased at the things I’ve learnt so far and confident that I can keep applying this to my writing, even after the program finishes.

    To find out more about the ‘Write Your Novel’ program or other classroom and online courses at Australian Writers’ Centre, go to their website: https://www.writerscentre.com.au/

    (I promise I am receiving no payment of any kind for this mention! I spent ages online trawling through writing courses and was happy to discover the AWC, so I’m sharing the love. 🙂 )

    I’ll be back in another few months to update my progress.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘Cedar Valley’ by Holly Throsby

    This is Holly Throsby’s second novel, following her debut Goodwood. Like it’s predecessor, Cedar Valley is set in a small Australian country town. In an interview I heard with Throsby, she admitted that she’d not lived in rural Australia, but is drawn to small towns in her writing. She does capture the feel of small town life very well in this novel.

    The book’s plot is an interesting mix of ‘coming of age’ (the story of Benny, a young woman seeking information and connection with her lost, dead mother by returning to the town where her mother once lived) and gentle mystery/police investigation story (local cops trying to figure out the identity and story behind a man who arrives, and dies, in the town on the same day.)

    I say ‘gentle’ because this is not a crime novel. There is no blood, no murder weapon, no tense climactic scene. The stories of Benny and the mystery man gently unfold throughout the book. Seemingly unconnected, there is a ribbon of plot that ties them together in the end. The conclusion is nicely done.

    Throsby’s style is almost ‘naive’, if that’s a term that can be used in literature. The book moves slowly, as Benny absorbs the sights, sounds, and people of the town she has come to live in for a while. The mystery plays itself out in a measured, thoughtful way, never taking over from the emotion of Benny and the other characters, but somehow, in odd ways, drawing the town’s population together as they variously try to puzzle out the story of the man who died in front of the Antiques shop.

    I enjoyed this book. I read it in between Kristina Olsson’s Shell (slow moving plot but exquisite language) and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (an important but harrowing book). It contrasted nicely with both.

  • Uncategorized

    Short Story: ‘Emma’

    This is a short story I submitted in the ‘Furious Fiction’ at the Australian Writers Centre in August 2018.
    The prompts for that month were:

    The story had to be 500 words (or less)

    The sentences “The door was locked” and “It felt familiar” and “She laughed” had to be included.

    To find out more about Furious Fiction, go here:  https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/

    It’s free, fast and fun.

    Here’s my story.

    EMMA

    By Denise Newton

     

    I didn’t know what to do. The door was locked. I rattled the handle, twisted it hard. Emma, behind me on the step, jostled my elbow. I turned to her, scowling.

    “We can’t get in,” I muttered.

    She laughed. “What’s it matter?” she called as she bounced back down the stairs, landing on the pavement with a “Ta da!”

    Emma always found the laughter. It’s what most people love about my sister. She is slow, and a bit chubby, and her face has that flattened look. And she knows how to be happy.

    “Emma, it’s not funny.” I tried to scold, and failed as usual. Emma never allows words to penetrate when she is in her happy place.

    She said “Let’s go to the park!”
    “We promised Dad we’d clean up this afternoon,” I reminded her.
    “We can do that later!” She was off, running down the street towards the park; one of her favourite places.

    Sometimes, Emma can be very tiring.

    Mum’s house was too far to walk to, and she wouldn’t be back to pick us up for another two hours – which would’ve been plenty of time to clean up the mess in Dad’s kitchen that we – or really, Emma – had made yesterday. He’d been angry when he got home. I could understand why. It couldn’t have been great, getting home after work to find Emma, dusted head to foot with flour, looking like a walking snow cone, with egg shells, vanilla essence, mixing bowls and dirty spoons scattered all over the bench tops. The look on his face… poor Dad.

    Mum had arrived then, and the tension between them was a razor blade, invisible but deadly. It felt familiar. I’d said, quickly “We’ll come tomorrow after school, Dad, we’ll clean it up, promise!”

    And now, here we were: locked out.

    I heard the low throb of Dad’s car and spun around, grabbing Emma’s elbow to steer her back to the house. She beamed at Dad and rushed to him, her little arms hugging his legs as he tried to get out of the driver’s seat.

    “Hey, Daddy!” He put his hand out to smooth her hair, his eyes meeting mine above her head.
    “Hey, baby,” he said softly. I could tell he had forgiven her. That felt familiar, too.