• Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘Heart of the Grass Tree’ by Molly Murn

    Heart of the Grass Tree by Molly Murn (2019, Vintage Australia) is a novel which tells several stories over multiple timelines. All of them are interlinked by place: Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia. The island today is known for its wildlife, pristine beaches, beautiful scenery, a thriving arts scene and tourism. In the time of the earliest story told by Molly Murn in the book, the1820’s, it was a place with a darker, bloodier purpose—sealing.

    We learn about the white men, who gravitated to the island to hunt seals for the lucrative skin trade, and the Aboriginal women from the mainland and Tasmania who lived with them. The author wrote that she wanted to tell the story of the women in particular because their history is in large part, lost to time. Most, if not all of those indigenous women were taken against their will and lived as slaves. They were stolen for the obvious reasons—white women being in short supply in the colony at the time, especially in such remote locations—but also because of their skills in hunting and skinning the seals which gathered around the waters and beaches of the island. Murn’s narrative allows the reader to imagine the brutalities to which these women were subjected, but we also get glimpses of their strength and the skills they possessed.

    Another plotline in the novel is set in the present-day and involves a family of two sisters, Pearl and Lucy, who with their mother Diana, their husbands and children, come together on the island to mourn the death of their grandmother, Nell. We learn of their personal struggles, and the role played by Kangaroo Island in their lives.

    It was Nell who had shown Pearl the quiet private things of her childhood island. Not the ‘grand swathes’,as Diana mockingly called Nell’s constant imparting of local history, but the small gleaming things.

    p.133

    And we learn of Nell’s own history. Nell was born and raised on the island, and her first love was Sol, a boy from the farm next to Nell’s family. Sol is Aboriginal. When Nell falls pregnant she is sent away to Adelaide to have the baby—and her son is taken away for adoption. Her parents insist on this not just because of Nell’s youth, but also because they cannot live with the shame of their daughter bearing a mixed race child. Such were the attitudes of the time. This loss haunts Nell for the rest of her life. Its effects are felt by the children she has later, her daughters who mourn her death in their different ways.

    I love fiction with dual or multiple timelines. Novels like this allow me to look at a place, familiar in our own time, through a different lens. I can get a deeper sense of the way in which ‘history’ is never just in the past—it’s tendrils can be seen and felt in our own time, if we are open to that.

    Molly Murn’s novel is beautifully written, imbued with a deep sense of place and poetry.

    I’ve not yet been to Kangaroo Island. This novel makes me want to visit. And while I’m there, to watch out for the small gleaming things.

    Have you been prompted to visit a place because of a novel you have read about it? Let me know in the comments.

  • Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    Some (reassuring) advice from a best selling author

    We’ve all heard of Markus Zusak, right? The Australian author of the runaway best-selling book of 2005, The Book Thief. It’s won numerous awards, been translated into multiple languages and made into a feature film. His new book, The Bridge of Clay, was published in October 2018, amid high anticipation. So the author would be well entitled to consider himself as having ‘made it’ in the world of publishing, surely?

    I was listening to a podcast today (Writes4Women) recorded at a fundraiser for the inaugural 2019 StoryFest Festival to be held in Milton, on the beautiful South Coast of NSW. Markus Zusak was the guest speaker at this event and the talk was recorded for the podcast. You can listen to it here:

    http://writes4women.libsyn.com/bonus-storyfest-2019-launch-with-markus-zusak

    Some of what Markus Zusak says in this talk came as a bit of a surprise to me. For example, the author says:

    I don’t think of writing (for me, anyway) as an art form. I’m a tradesman and I go to work and I just keep chipping away, waiting for the moment to come…but it won’t come unless you’re there, doing the work. The biggest effort can be just getting to the desk, and making that commitment and being prepared to fail. It’s a trade that you’re always working on and trying to get right…I can love the effort even if I don’t always love the result.  Markus Zusak

    These words are balm to the soul of anyone having more of the “I can’t believe I wrote this mess!” days than the “Wow, look at what I wrote!” ones. Just turn up. Keep plugging away. Commit. Learn to do it better. And then do it all again, on the next draft, and the next…

    It doesn’t have to perfect or even very good. Be proud, still, of the effort and the improvements you make.

    And actually I think this can apply to any endeavour in life. Art, music, writing, gardening, a profession, a job.

    As Markus Zusak says, “Love the effort.”

  • Writing

    Short Story: “Three”

    My ‘Australian Writers’ Centre’ Furious Fiction entry for February. The parameters for that month were: 500 words or less; the first sentence must have three words only; there had to be a candle; and a “first” of some sort in the story.

    Here’s my effort:

    THREE                                              by Denise Newton

     

    “Three, three, three!” Lily punctuated each word with a clap. She skipped around the room, her pink tulle skirt fanning out around chubby knees.

    The chant was becoming annoying. Sandra tried to breathe through her irritation. Like in yoga: breathe… in…and… out. Mustering patience. Birthdays were thrilling when you were turning three. When had she stopped being excited by them? She couldn’t remember. She put the third candle on top of the pink icing and placed the tiny ballerina in the centre of the cake.

    “There, what do you think?”

    Lily executed a clumsy pirouette, hands fluttering. “Beautiful, Mummy!”

    Sandra started to say, “Let’s show Daddy…” but stopped, bit back the words in time. That familiar swooping inside. Like on a scary ride at the funfair, without the fun. This was another of those hideous “firsts” that had to be endured for a year. An entire, damnable year. And then another, and another, and another…

    She glanced at her mother, seated at the table. Eleanor was watching her granddaughter dance her excitement across the kitchen. There was a fond smile on her lips and a tiny furrow between her brows. Sandra arranged her own face into a matching smile.

    Her mother wasn’t fooled. “All right, love?” she said.

    Sandra nodded. Her smile widened, cracked, dissolved. The tears came.

    “Damn!” She tried hard to swallow them, force them away. They were disobedient, not to be stopped. They tickled as they ran down past her nose. She wiped her cheek with the back of one hand, furious with herself.

    “It’s to be expected, you know.” Her mother’s voice was soft. “Times like this, birthdays and anniversaries. They’ll be hard for a while.”

    Sandra gave a small sigh. “I suppose so.” She looked at Lily, who was still twirling. “You’ll make yourself dizzy, Lil.”

    Lily stopped mid-turn, breathless, laughing up at her. “It’s fun!”

    “It looks fun.” Sandra attempted another smile. “Come on, help me make the fairy bread. Everyone’ll be here soon.”

    Together they buttered bread. Lily hummed as she shook the ‘hundreds and thousands’ container, sprinkling the tiny coloured pebbles over each slice. Every now and then a rush of them spilled out, forming a little kaleidoscopic mound, stuck to the butter. Lily squeaked in delight each time. Sandra cut the fairy bread into triangles and arranged them on a plate.

    The smell of the fresh, buttered bread, the sugar in the toppings, the cake…The scene transported her to when she was a small girl, helping her mother prepare for a birthday party. The fizzy excitement. It was all so real.

    She looked at Lily, giving her a proper smile this time.

    “Come on, Lil. Let’s put up the balloons.”

    As she passed the kitchen dresser, she touched the photo of Dan in its frame, and knew they’d be OK

  • Writing

    Update on ‘Write Your Novel’ program

    It’s in!

    Back in January I gave an update marking the halfway point of the ‘Write Your Novel’ program I’ve been working through, with the Australian Writers’ Centre.

    This week my classmates and I have to submit our full manuscript for workshopping in small groups. So, we each submit our manuscript, and we have a month to read and comment on manuscripts submitted by two to three of our classmates.

    A few minutes ago I clicked the ‘Submit’ button. How did it feel?
    Scary – no one has as yet read my full draft. Will they like it? Hate it? Feel indifferent?
    Exciting – the workshopping and feedback process in this program has been so useful to date. I just know I’ll get back comments that will help me make my story stronger.

    There’s also a sense of responsibility to my classmates: to provide honest, worthwhile feedback to assist them in the way I hope to be helped along by them.

    The feedback I’ve received on this program has been very worthwhile and certainly helped me to improve my writing.

    As our online tutor, Cathie Tasker, has said:

    It’s the arrogant authors who don’t make it.

    Find the Australian Writers’ Centre programs here:
    https://www.writerscentre.com.au/

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Words and their origins: ‘Listless’

    My husband and I have a little riff between us, where if one of us says a “mood” word in a sentence (such as ‘I’m feeling disgruntled / listless’, etc) the other will say something like ‘Yes, but what does it feel like to be gruntled? Or listful? (I know, you probably have to be there for it to be funny.)

    Funny or not, these moments usually have me thinking about the word itself. Where on earth does a word like ‘listless’ come from, anyway?

    So I did me some searching…

    We all know what ‘listless’ means, right? The Macquarie Dictionary defines it as Feeling no inclination towards, or interest in, anything. After our spate of super-hot days in the NSW summer, I’m sure many of my fellow Australians will understand this feeling. Who wants to do anything remotely energetic on a 45 degree Celsius day?

    OK, so that’s  ‘listless’. But take off the suffix ‘less’ and it makes no sense, surely? No one says “I’m feeling listy (or listful) today.

    No, they don’t. But if we understand the origins of the word ‘listless’, it starts to make more sense. The website for the podcast A Way with Words https://www.waywordradio.org/origin-of-listless/describes ‘listless’ as sharing a root with the English word ‘lust’. Ah! Now we get it. Back to the Macquarie: ‘lust’ means desire, passionate want for something, sexual desire…So to be without those, we can well be described as ‘listless’.

    I love the way our English language is full of words that can appear to be nonsensical –  until you dig down into their roots. Then they can have a magic of their own.

  • 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’.