• Books and reading,  History,  Uncategorized

    One woman’s experiences of wartime incarceration: ‘Cilka’s Journey’ by Heather Morris

    I was introduced to the character of Cilka Klein in Heather Morris’ first, best selling book The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

    Morris, New Zealand born but now living in Australia, met Lale Sokolov and told his story of surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp in WWII. Cilka appears in Lake’s story because in 1942 she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was 16 and beautiful and chosen by one of the camp’s Nazi commandants to perform a role that was essentially to be his sex slave. She survived Auschwitz- Birkenau and Cilka’s Journey opens with the liberation of the camp in 1945.

    Now 19, Cilka can scarcely believe her ordeal is over and as it turns out, fate deals her a cruel hand. Instead of being given her freedom, she is charged by the Russians for the crime of ‘collaborating with the enemy.’ Once more she is herded onto a railroad truck along with women of all ages and many nationalities, to endure an arduous journey north – to the prison camp of Vorkuta, inside Siberia’s Arctic Circle.

    The conditions she faces there are appalling. Prisoners, men and women alike, are forced to labour in the freezing conditions of the coal mine there. They sleep at night in huts with only one blanket each for warmth and a single bucket for a toilet. Meals are a thin watery gruel. Much of this is a repeat of Cilka’s experiences at Auschwitz- Birkenau.

    To add to their degradation, the women are subjected to brutal attacks by male prisoners, who regularly force their way into the huts and assault and rape who they please.

    The theme of rape – as a weapon of war, as a tool to pacify male prisoners, as a threat to ensure compliance by women – is starkly presented. A horrifying fact of a horrifying life. Cilka, after all, is in this second prison camp because the repeated tapes she endured at the hands of a Nazi officer are seen by Russian authorities as evidence of ‘fraternisation’ and collaboration with an enemy. She is Czech, not Russian, but subject to the laws of the then USSR. And so on top of the three years in a Nazi camp she spends another eight long years of a fifteen year sentence in Vorkuta until her early release after Stalin’s death.

    Morris has received some criticism for her telling of Lale’s and now Cilka’s stories. However she maintains that she was not trying to tell the Holocaust story or the Russian gulag story: rather the stories of two individuals. Also, Cilka’s Journey is fiction, though fiction inspired by the story as told to her by Lale Sokolov, recollections of female prisoners of Russian camps of this era, and by research in Germany, Slovakia and Russia. A lengthy author’s note makes clear the line between historical fact and fiction and an additional information section gives more detail about the Russian prison camp system.

    The story is beautifully told. It is tragic, frequently harrowing, but also a compassionate and sensitive examination of the depths and heights that humans can reach, and the varying ways in which people respond to circumstances which are to modern minds, unimaginable. It’s also a story of friendship, strength and survival.

    After reading this book I will never hear the quip ‘Sent to Siberia’ in quite the same way again.

    Cilka’s Journey was published in October 2019. I heard the Audio version which was narrated by Louise Brealey and published by Macmillan Audio.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A beautiful marriage of crime and historical fiction

    Tara Moss is a Australian-Canadian author of many bestselling books, including the non fiction titles Speaking Out and The Fictional Woman, and her crime fiction and paranormal series. She is also a journalist, former model, documentary maker and presenter. In 2015 she was a recipient of an Edna Ryan Award for her significant contribution to feminist debate, speaking out for women and children. Oh, and she is UNICEF national ambassador for child survival. Probably all this keeps her pretty busy.

    Luckily for lovers of crime and historical fiction, she has found time to begin a new series that is a happy marriage of the two. Dead Man Switch (published 2019 by Harper Collins) is the first in the Billie Walker series and features a terrific new female protagonist. Billie is a ‘PI’ (Private Inquiry agent) who returns to Sydney at the end of WWII to re-open her deceased father’s agency. She is stylish and courageous and, I was happy to note, compassionate.

    Her experiences as a journalist, following the events of the war in Europe, have left her with some difficult memories and current challenges, not least of which is her photographer husband, Jack, who disappeared on a mission towards the end of the war and has been missing since. Also, Billie needs to make a living, which she does by taking on cases for people needing evidence of spousal infidelity in order to get a divorce – hardly satisfying work. So when she is approached by a woman to find her missing 17 year old son, Billie jumps at the chance of getting her teeth into a challenging case.

    And challenging it proves to be. The sinister tentacles of the murderous Nazis have found their way to Australia and Billie gets caught up in a much bigger and nastier plot than she could have expected.

    The author weaves a whole lot of history into the fabric of her story. Social history (the return of women to the home after having done important jobs during the war, changing fashions, the lingering effects of wartime rationing), events of the war (the shocking cruelties of the Nazi concentration camps), the inhumane treatment of Aboriginal people during the period, and attitudes to women, are all encapsulated in a vivid portrayal of post war Australia and the world.

    I was especially thrilled when the action moved to my own territory: the Blue Mountains including Katoomba, Mt Victoria, Colo, Bilpin (where I grew up) and Richmond. It’s not often I read about these places in contemporary fiction, so that was fun!

    The plot has enough twists to keep a reader turning the page, and some interesting and likeable characters: Sam (Billie’s assistant), her mother Eva and Eva’s ‘ladies’ maid/companion’, women police officers (very unusual at that time), and a courageous young Aboriginal woman who I hope to see more of in future books in the series.

    Dead Man Switch introduces a new player in the Australian historical crime genre. It’s a little noir, though Billie is certainly no Sam Spade – thank goodness. She’s very human and relatable even while up to her stylish hat in adventure. I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

    You can find out more about Tara Moss and her books here:
    https://taramoss.com/

  • Books and reading

    When a book surprises: ‘The Trauma Cleaner’ by Sarah Krasnostein

    For reasons I don’t quite understand, I avoided this book for some time. When it was published in 2017 (Text Publishing) I read and heard a lot of praise about it, but I didn’t rush to get a copy. I’ve puzzled over the reason why: possibly, thinking it was simply a book about the work of a trauma cleaner, I was reluctant to indulge in what I’d thought of as a kind of ‘morbid curiosity’. How wrong I was!

    This book is so many things. A biography, yes: it tells the story of Sandra Pankhurst, a woman who runs a cleaning company that specialises in trauma cleaning. For those new to this term, this includes the obvious sorts of scenarios: buildings in which a murder or suicide has taken place, or where someone has died and been undiscovered for a long time…you can imagine the sort of mess resulting from these situations. But trauma cleaning, I learnt, also includes residences that would be described as sites of ‘hoarding and squalor’, where a council or community service has stepped in to order the removal of rubbish or to offer help to a resident unable to cope with household hygiene and maintenance.

    The author shadowed Sandra on many of her jobs, and describes the scenes into which Sandra and her staff set foot, and the residents/clients, when they were present. We come to understand that there are many, many reasons why people become overwhelmed by the tasks of daily life, frequently involving their own personal traumas, or ill health (physical or mental), or a combination of these things. And we come to understand that these situations are much more common than we may like to think.

    So, that was my first surprise with this book – it taught me about the job of a trauma cleaner in a way that did not titillate or shock, but portrayed the lives of Sandra’s many clients in a manner that was both compassionate and matter of fact – exactly the way that Sandra herself approaches each cleaning job she embarks upon.

    But the biggest surprise was that the book told so much of Sandra’s own story. She is a remarkable woman who has herself experienced deep and profound trauma and loss, and who now draws on the well of her own humanity to offer care and respect to the people for whom she works: families of deceased, people living with severe mental ill health, or in squalid situations.

    Sandra’s story begins with her adoption – as a baby boy into a Catholic, working class family riven by domestic violence and alcoholism (well done, Catholic adoption system of the 1960’s!) and goes on to include her rejection by her adoptive parents when they have two biological children after adopting Peter, as baby Sandra is known in the book. The little boy was dealt levels of cruelty and neglect that were breathtaking, and which spark the uncomfortable thought that such childhood experiences are more common than many of us could know. Peter grew up, was kicked out of the family home, married, had two children, then discovered the gay scene of the 1970’s, and embarked on a path of self discovery (and self abuse via illicit drugs and alcohol), thinking all the while that the ‘difference’ for which his adoptive parents rejected him so vehemently in his childhood, was that he was homosexual.

    Peter eventually realised that the truth was more complicated. He was not gay, but was a female born into a male body. With enormous courage, he decided to do what he could to right that wrong, by beginning a course of medications and hormones to change his outward appearance to a more feminine one, and then to endure sex reassignment surgery – one of the earliest people to undergo this procedure in Australia. Eventually, after numerous iterations, setbacks and new traumas, Peter became Sandra.

    There is so much to the story of Sandra’s life that it is impossible to do it justice in a few paragraphs. What I loved about this book, though, was the author’s way of telling the story, giving the reader gems of information, circling around to the present and weaving back to the past. Krasnostein tells Sandra’s story with lyrical language and a thoughtfulness that befits such a complex, multi-layered life.

    The Trauma Cleaner was the recipient of many literary awards: Victorian Prize for Literature in 2018, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-fiction 2018, the ABIA General Non-fiction Book of the Year 2018, and the Dobbie Literary Award for First Time Published Author, and it was shortlisted for many others. Having overcome my initial (and still puzzling) hesitancy to read it, I can understand why. It’s a wonderfully written book about a remarkable person.

    As a footnote, I listened to the Audible audiobook version of The Trauma Cleaner, (Audible 2018) and the narration by Rachel Tidd was perfect, adding much to my experience of Sarah Krasnostein’s beautiful words.

  • Books and reading

    A sad and haunting tale of our near futures: ‘Wolfe Island’ by Lucy Treloar

    This is the second of Lucy Treloar’s novels I have read and it’s an eerie, brooding tale of environment, home, family and a society on the edge of catastrophe. Her first novel, Salt Creek, was also an exploration of the way humans and the environment interact, but it was set in a different place and time: South Australia’s Coorong region in the 1800’s. Wolfe Island begins on a fictional island in Chesapeake Bay on the east coast of the USA. Time-wise, it is sometime in the future – though a not too distant future, as there is much that is recognisable and familiar.

    The opening of Wolfe Island introduces us to Kitty Hawke, whose forebears have lived on the island since the 1600’s, but who is now the last inhabitant there. The reason? Wolfe Island is being consumed by rising sea levels and salt infestation, with houses and docks tumbling into the sea and large segments of the island already submerged. Kitty is unperturbed by her isolation. She is an artist who collects items and objects she finds along the shore line or dredges out of the mud, to create sculptures that she calls ‘makings.’ Her urge to create is intense and not to be ignored. She lives with some guilt that she left her two children and partner to live on the mainland while she returned to live alone on the island, apart from Girl, a wolfdog and long time companion. Otherwise, she is content.

    This all changes on the day her granddaughter arrives in a small boat, in the midst of a storm and fleeing from unstated dangers. With Cat is her boyfriend Josh, another young man Luis, and Luis’ young sister Alejandra. Kitty understands that Luis and his sister are ‘runners’ – in this world there are many such people escaping from injustice, environmental havoc, or the law. It’s not stated explicitly but we understand that the pair are what would be termed ‘aliens’ in the US – illegal immigrants coming in across the US-Mexican border. They have already experienced horror and trauma in their young lives which is revealed slowly throughout the novel.

    Part one of the novel is about Kitty, her deep relationship with the island and her art, and the world changing around her. She must learn to accommodate the newcomers and in doing so she grows to care deeply about them and will do anything to protect them. So much so, that in part two, Kitty herself becomes a ‘runner’ as the little group seek safety up north – again not specified, but very reminiscent of the paths taken by slaves seeking freedom in Canada in the nineteenth century. This section of the book feels like a road trip / adventure tale, with dangers (both human and environmental) at every turn. Part three sees Kitty back where she began, trying to create a home that feel right, and coping with memories and competing feelings of guilt and justification for actions she took to protect those she cares about.

    The book is a deep dive into human behaviour, the bonds of family and friendship, and what it means to have a home. The environmental theme is strong, of course, and I was impressed by the way the author illustrates the sometimes contradictory and unhelpful ways that humans respond to threat. Much of it feels very familiar indeed:

    There was nothing new in worrying about crops and vegetable gardens, but people had always paid more attention to the island being whittled away. Seawater coming up your hallway is disconcerting, I suppose…Islanders watched the tattered shores and kicked at them and said, ‘She’ll turn around again, just you wait. It’s always been changeable. (p 50)

    It was like a dream. People prefer to live like this, ignoring the things that might wake them, as if ignorance might force the world into returning to its proper course. (p130)

    What do you do when everything falls apart? You gather up the people you love and the few things you hold dear, and all the rest? You let it fall away. (p184)

    There are beautiful descriptions of place: the birds, plants, wildlife of the island and the landscapes the little group travel through on their search for safety. One of the strengths of this book is the way the physical and emotional states of place and people reflect and affect each other. The disintegrating island is a wonderful metaphor for a society that, despite pockets of kindness, goodwill and generosity, has allowed the worst of human nature to rise up, leading to the disintegration of the human world as well. Girl, Kitty’s beloved wolfdog, is a companion but also a strong link to the wildness of the world outside Kitty’s home. That wildness is one of the reasons Kitty loves the dog so much.

    Here is an example of the richness of language in Wolfe Island :

    I heard everything there as clear as if I’d been half deaf before: the thin call of a gull, the whistle of a kite, the wind sounding like rain in the grasses. I might sit for a morning, watch the clouds, feel the wind on my left cheek, and how it shifted by noon, the way the clouds shadowed the sun and I shivered, insects going to ground, birds plunging to trees, everything but weather growing still and watchful, and without a thought I went into the house with Girl at my side and secured the windows and watched the storm. This was my world and I was its. I wished for nothing else. But life does not go on in the same way. Sometimes the world is a blizzard-filled snow globe. Things happen in the shaking and the settling. (p287)

    For me, the most thought provoking parts of the novel were those that prompted me to reflect on what it means to be human, in all its messiness and loveliness. Certainly, there are echoes of many current global concerns throughout this book: climate change, the huge cost to individuals, nations and the planet of the vast movements of refugees across the earth, whether due to environmental, political or religious factors.

    It’s a beautiful, sombre book and I recommend it.

    Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar, published by Picador, 2019

  • Books and reading,  History

    Discovering a new favourite author: Tea Cooper

    The Woman in the Green Dress (Pub 2019 by HQ Fiction) is Tea Cooper’s latest historical fiction and the first by her that I have read. I enjoyed it very much and I’m putting her on my ‘favourite authors’ list – which is, I might add, rather long. It’s always a pleasure to discover a ‘new’ author especially when they have written lots of other books, so there are plenty of others to enjoy. I’m not at all sure why I’d not discovered this author before now!

    The reason I picked up this particular novel was its setting, both time and place. It is a dual narrative / dual timeline novel, with two interweaving stories that play out separately, but of course overlap at crucial moments – to say any more would be to give spoilers so I’ll leave it at that, except to say that I particularly enjoy dual time frame novels. There’s something about them that when done well, brings the past more fully into the present.

    There are two main settings in this book: Mogo Creek, a remote tiny settlement on the Hawkesbury River, and Sydney. The dual time settings are the mid nineteenth century, and the (slightly more modern) early twentieth century – just after WWI draws to its bloody conclusion. I was attracted to the Hawkesbury setting because it is where my own roots lie, though my ancestors settled in the more ‘tameable’ farming land around Windsor and Richmond. For readers of The Secret River by Kate Grenville (one of my all-time favourite and most admired historical fiction novels) Mogo Creek is not too far from the area explored in that book.

    There are two protagonists: Della, in the 1853 story, and Fleur, who we meet in the novel’s opening, in 1918. Fleur is an ordinary English woman who lost her parents in the bombing of London during the war. Added to that, her husband Hugh, whom she married in a hasty ceremony just before he went off to fight, is reported as killed in action – but Fleur refuses to believe it. After all, there has been no official telegram, no parcel of his personal items sent to her. Her life turns a somersault when she is informed that Hugh has left her a substantial fortune and parcels of land – in far off Australia. Not a particularly adventurous woman, Fleur is astonished to find herself on a ship bound for Australia. She is convinced she can ‘sort out the misunderstanding’, return to England and wait for Hugh.

    In this she is proven wrong. She finds herself trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, but obstacles present themselves. Eventually she travels to Mogo Creek herself and meets a strange old man there. She discovers other clues in the boarded up Curio Shop of Wonders, a Sydney store owned by Hugh’s family for many years.

    Gradually we come to see how Fleur’s story overlaps with Della’s. Della is a taxidermist, an unusual occupation for a woman in the nineteenth century. Della is sympathetic to the Aboriginal people she knows – the Darkinjung of the upper Hawkesbury – and distressed to learn of brutal raids and attacks against them by some white settlers and also by the collectors of wildlife ‘specimens’ for her aunt’s store in Sydney – the very same Curio Shop that puzzles Fleur in the later timeline. I enjoyed the descriptions of Sydney across the two timelines, as well as the more rugged parts of the Hawkesbury river and its valleys. The characters of Fleur and Della are both very likeable and we see how they each change as the novel progresses.

    A motif throughout the novel is the opal, which in the mid nineteenth century garnered a reputation as a stone that brought bad luck to its owners. It was interesting to read of the very beginnings of the opal industry in Australia as it is now an iconic Australian gemstone, and (as far as I know) it no longer brings bad luck!

    Sometimes in dual narrative stories, the reader needs to suspend disbelief a little at the neat way the stories get tied together. In The Woman in the Green Dress, the clues are planted throughout, resulting in a climax and resolution that feels satisfying and believable. I enjoyed this novel and have already added another of Tea Cooper’s books to my ‘To Be Read’ pile.

  • Books and reading,  History,  Workshop,  Writing

    From Dear Hearts to Curses: 18 things I learned from a weekend with history nuts

    Reflections on the Historical Novel Society Australasia Conference 2019, 25/26 October, Parramatta NSW

    1: It is enormously endearing for an audience to be referred to as ‘Dear hearts’, which Kate Forsyth (HNSA patron) did as she began her introductory address. She went on to deliver a call to action: to let everyone know of the active and vibrant community of lovers of historical fiction in our part of the world. https://hnsa.org.au/kate-forsyth/

    2: Keynote speaker Paula Morris, from NZ, spoke of her Maori culture in which history is seen as a spiral, and reminded us that all characters are a combination of their past and present – and that ‘historical figures’ existed in their own contemporary world and didn’t know they were to become historical. Interesting to contemplate that for our own times and selves.

    Literature can make visible the unbroken lines with the past and the unbroken lines to the future.

    Paula Morris
    https://hnsa.org.au/paula-morris/

    3: Jackie French, Conference Guest of Honour, never sets out to write a book- she writes scenes which then become a book.
    https://hnsa.org.au/jackie-french/

    4: Kelly Gardiner, in the session ‘The Versatile Writer’, divulged that she is working on a book about her Great Grandmother who was active in Australia’s Suffrage and Women’s Peace movements.
    Definitely a book I’d like to read. https://hnsa.org.au/kelly-gardiner/

    5: Jane Caro shares my interest in the life of Elizabeth I, so much so that she wrote a trilogy about her. In Jane’s view, female heroic figures often had to pay horribly for their independence. Not so Elizabeth, says Jane:
    Elizabeth I became her own Prince and rescued herself.
    https://hnsa.org.au/jane-caro/

    6: Paula Morris again, on ‘Respectful research’:

    Living in the internet era it’s easy to think we should have access to everything and all information. Not everyone has the right to everything. The notions of ‘no secrets’ and ‘nothing is sacred’ are problematic.

    Paula Morris

    7: If you have emotional connection to a place it comes out naturally in the words you write. (Lucy Treloar on the resonance of place in fiction.) https://hnsa.org.au/lucy-treloar/

    8: A strong pitch to a literary agent or publisher will contain the following: Emotion, a strong sense of the protagonist and their challenge, and the stakes will be clear. (First Pages Pitch Contest)

    9: When considering using personal or family stories as the basis for fiction (yes, that’s me) look at one aspect or kernel of a story and expand your fiction around that, don’t try to tell the whole story (excellent advice from Nicole Alexander which spoke straight to me as I’m currently wrestling with these sorts of issues) https://hnsa.org.au/nicole-alexander/

    10. Madison Shakespeare, a Gadigal woman living in Adelaide, spoke on the panel on Dispossession and Betrayal: Recovering the erased history of First Nations. She reminded us that we were on Dharug land – pertinent land for its history of dispossession and violence.

    It’s difficult going back, looking back…Ancestors we thank you, for your tenacity, dignity and diplomacy.

    Madison Shakespeare https://hnsa.org.au/madison-shakespeare/

    On the question of writers worrying that, if when writing about indigenous people or indigenous histories, they might ‘get it wrong’, Madison posed the question: How much more damage if you don’t do it at all?

    11. The reason I love dual narrative or timeline books is this, as put by Carla Caruso:

    There’s a point in your life when you realise realise that your parents, grandparents etc have experienced loss and heartache. That fashions and technologies change but we humans go on and we all want the same things: security, love, passion.

    Carla Caruso https://hnsa.org.au/carla-caruso/

    12: Expert use of point of view allows the writer to take the reader by the hand and lead them through the story. It’s the first splash of colour on the page. Greg Johnson at the ‘I am a Camera: Exploring point of view’ panel session.
    https://hnsa.org.au/greg-johnston/

    13. Juliet Marieller and Elizabeth Jane Corbett write strong female protagonists set during times in which women did not always have great agency or independence, by focusing on how they confront their challenges, find inner strength, have the courage to face truths and move forward.
    https://hnsa.org.au/juliet-marillier/
    https://hnsa.org.au/elizabeth-jane-corbett/


    14. Watching demonstrations of historical fencing over lunch is surprisingly engrossing.

    15: Meg Keneally, when talking about the partnership between novelist and historian, described herself as historian Gay Hendriksen‘s
    tame author!
    This in reply to Gay being asked by an audience member if she sometimes comes across a story from the historical record or archives and thinks I wish I could find a novelist to write that.
    https://hnsa.org.au/meg-keneally/ https://hnsa.org.au/gay-hendrickson/

    16: The second conference day (27th October) was the anniversary of the first ever female industrial action since colonisation: otherwise known as the 1827 ‘Parramatta Female Factory Riot‘.
    https://femalefactoryonline.org/about/history/parramatta-female-factory/

    17: Kate Forsyth has had enormous respect for the power of words since she delivered a magic curse to a bully in primary school and it worked.
    Magic is for the powerless, when you want something so much you exert your full intention upon the universe until it comes true.
    Kate told this story in the conference’s final session, Love Potions and Witchcraft.

    18: As I suspected, the historical fiction writing community is friendly, energetic, encouraging and inclusive. And the HNSA puts on a jam-packed and satisfying conference. Thanks to all involved:
    I had a ball.
    https://hnsa.org.au/

  • Books and reading,  History

    The intriguing stories of hidden histories: ‘Esther’ by Jessica North

    ‘Esther’ by Jessica North, published by Allen & Unwin 2019.

    Esther, ‘the extraordinary true story of the First Fleet girl who became the First Lady of the colony,’ is about one of those largely unknown figures from Australia’s past. When told well, stories such as this can bring our history to life.

    This meticulously researched account, written in narrative non-fiction style, recreates the conditions of London in the late eighteenth century, the journey of the First Fleet ship Lady Penrhyn, the stark reality of the first years of the fledgling English colony perched on the edge of the world – all from the perspective of a young Jewish woman, Esther Abrahams (also known as Esther Julian). She was just sixteen and pregnant when convicted of the theft of some lace and sentenced to transportation to NSW. On arrival she became servant to First Lieutenant George Johnston of the British Marines. Together they spent a short period on Norfolk Island before returning to Sydney. She bore him children and along with her own young daughter Rosanna, they made a life together in Sydney.

    Interwoven with her story are characters from the fledgling British colony (Watkin Tench, Major Ross, Captain Arthur Phillip, D’arcy Wentworth, the Macarthurs, and Lachlan Macquarie among others) and Indigenous people such as Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo, Arabanoo and Colbee.

    Esther was witness to the dramatic events that played out in the early colony. The near starvation of the first years, the brutality of English punishments, the deaths of so many of the Dharug around Sydney Cove due to disease (very likely smallpox), the incredible escape of Mary Bryant with her husband, small children and a boatload of other convicts, the Rum Rebellion that removed the unlikable Governor Bligh from office. These were formative events that shaped the future nation of Australia. For me, seeing them through Esther’s eyes brought them to vivid life.

    But it is Esther’s story that is most remarkable. During the course of her life she moved from the shame and powerlessness of life as a convict, to become the wife of the most powerful man in the colony, after George Johnston led the Rum Rebellion and became for a brief time, Lieutenant-Governor of NSW. In doing so she had to navigate the many perils of convict life, maintaining her dignity in the face of a system that seemed determined to strip it away and later, enduring the entrenched elitist attitudes of those who saw convict beginnings as a stain on the colony. Esther proved her worth by raising her family, managing Johnson’s large agricultural estate at Annandale in Sydney’s west, and earning respect from some of the most influential people in the colony.

    I very much enjoyed learning about Esther. Jessica North tells the stories of the early years of Australia in a vivid new way. It’s an absorbing and accessible history read.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Who are the savages?

    Review of ‘Paris Savages’ by Katherine Johnson.

    Published by Ventura Press 2019.

    I alternated between feelings of horror, anger, shame, and sorrow, reading this new work of fiction. Through a reimagining of the fate of three Badtjala people from K’gari (Queensland’s Fraser Island) who travel to Europe in the 1880’s, the author explores the phenomenon of ‘ethnic shows’ (also known as ‘human zoos’.) In doing so, she uncovers dark stories and tragedies and prompt the question: Who were the savages?

    The late nineteenth century was a period of immense excitement in the scientific world. Darwin’s theories of evolution were still being hotly debated. Naturalists, botanists, anthropologists and physicians were clamouring for opportunities to explore and examine evidence to prove various theories about race and human development. The general public was agog at stories about the people and lifestyles of those in Europe’s far-flung colonies. This curiosity and excitement, combined with an opportunity to make money, resulted in the mounting of travelling shows in which people from various ethnic groups and cultures were ‘displayed’, often alongside exotic animals and birds, exactly as we would today imagine a zoo. The human ‘exhibits’ were usually required to perform – everyday tasks such as cooking and eating food, building a shelter, or dancing and singing.

    It is in this context that we meet the main characters of Paris Savages. The three Badtjala people (Bonangera/Bonny, Jurano and his niece Dorondera, are taken to Europe by German engineer Louis Muller and his daughter Hilda. The Mullers have spent six years on the island with the Badtjala, learning their customs and language. Hilda’s mother Christel has died, although she appears throughout the novel as a ghost-like presence, an omniscient narrator, a device which allows the reader to see and understand events from the Badtjala people’s perspective.

    At first the little group are pleased and excited to be going, and Bonny and Hilda believe it will be an opportunity to educate Europeans about the Badtjala people and the need for better treatment of the First Australians – Bonny especially, wants to meet the Queen of England to plead his people’s case, and Hilda wants to fulfil her mother’s desire to see K’gari become a reserve to allow the Badtjala to live in peace. Hilda writes in her journal:

    …why we are in Europe, not just for people to discover the humanity in our friends through their beautiful music and dance but to search for the truth and humanity in themselves.

    Paris Savages p.238

    Hilda and her friends are to be sadly disillusioned. There are glimpses of past atrocities against the Badtjala, mirrored in the unkind or cruel treatments that begin from the moment the trio board the ship chartered to take them to Germany where their tour will begin.

    Their situation hardly improves once they arrive. They are shown very poor hospitality by their hosts, housed very like the animals they are displayed beside, stared at, touched and sometimes insulted by the crowds who press in around them during the ‘shows’. Even worse, they are subjected to demeaning and intrusive measurement of their persons, in the name of science and so that ‘certificates of authenticity’ can be issued. The direct links between these behaviours by members of Europe’s scientific community and racist terms such as ‘full-blood’ and ‘half-cast’, as well as theories of Social Darwinism and the idea of Indigenous Australians being a ‘dying race’, are clear to see. It was during these parts of the novel that I felt my shame and anger rise.

    Hilda, too, feels shame at the behaviour of her fellow Europeans. Her view of her father Louis begins to change, as she observes his complicity in the abuses meted out to her friends. She wonders, “Perhaps I do not know my father at all.” (p. 297) And her mother’s ghost voice adds:

    I would like to tell you what I feel about Louis, this man I once knew, but I will not be distracted from my task of relaying this version of Bonny’s story, which I fear otherwise will not be told….

    …I whisper the tale directly into the air so that it might reach the ears of those who are listening, now and into the future. Shhh, listen, I say.

    Paris Savages, pp. 250 & 285

    This is a powerful and beautiful book. The language is lyrical while it also conveys unpleasant truths. There is a lengthy author’s note in which she outlines her considerable research and historical sources. The re-telling of this period of disgraceful behaviour by some Europeans can only evoke a strong emotional response and, I hope, a vow to do better into the future.

    Thank you to Sophie Hodge at Ventura Press for a review copy of the book.

    #AWWchallenge

  • Books and reading

    The art of memoir: ‘The Girls’ by Chloe Higgins

    Can a book be both raw and nuanced? After reading The Girls, I believe it can. This ‘memoir of family, grief and sexuality’ tells what happened to Chloe and her family after her two younger sisters (‘the girls’ of the title) were killed in a car crash when Chloe was 17 years old. Chloe and her mother were at home because Chloe was studying for her high school exams. Her father, who had been driving, sustained only minor injuries and could never remember or understand what had happened to cause the accident that killed his two daughters. Understandably, he suffered from crippling guilt and confusion as a result.

    The author tells the story from many different time periods, braiding each subtly into the narrative, to trace the to-and-fro of loss. Over the thirteen years between the accident and the publication of this, her first book, Chloe Higgins tried out different versions of life as she experimented with alcohol, drugs, sex work, overseas travel, psychiatric treatment…all while ‘trying to figure out how to have healthy adult relationships with these two people {her parents}, within the context of our shared grief and vastly different world views.’ (The Girls, p.306)

    The rawness of this work comes from her honesty in describing aspects of her life, thoughts, relationships and behaviours that are difficult, challenging, sometimes confronting. She says in her author’s note:

    But I’m sick of people not talking about the hard, private things in their lives. It feels as though we are all walking around carrying dark bubbles of secrets in our guts, on our shoulders, in our jumpy minds. We are all walking around thinking we’re the only ones struggling with these feelings…Publishing this book is about stepping out of my shame, to speak publicly.

    The Girls, pp.305-306

    The nuance is in the delicate way the author navigates between the shocking or difficult, and the ordinariness of everyday life. She comes to learn that there is peace and beauty to be found in routines, even in the ritualistation of the day-to-day. Chloe starts to observe and recognise the things that keep her healthy: a good dose of quiet ‘alone time’ each day, time to write and read, exercise, friends, travel, nature, freedom. Simple but essential components of a ‘good life.’ I would agree – these are essential for me as well.

    Her contemplation and exploration of grief is at times visceral:
    “Grief stains the body.’ (p.150)
    “This is what grief looks like: an inability to speak.” (p. 131)

    Then, years later, she looks at a photo of the accident site and realises:

    ‘That is exactly what happened: this is the place on the road where the car, my sisters inside, burst into flames…I am almost thirty-one. I have been putting off this remembering for thirteen years, and I am terrified.’ (p.286)

    But she perseveres, asking for and receiving photos, memories and videos of her sisters, of the whole family of five at different ages before the accident, and suddenly :

    ‘For the first time in more than a decade, I am beginning to see them as three-dimensional humans. I see their bodies moving, hear the sounds of their voices, rather than experiencing them only as the flat, two-dimensional faces of their funeral memorial card.’ (291)

    This is a beautiful, honest, sometimes harrowing but ultimately hopeful account of a journey through loss and deep sorrow, the story of a young woman trying to figure all that out while also discovering what kind of life she will live. A perfect book for parents trying to understand the challenges that so often face young adults, and for young people to know that no, they are not alone.

    Here is a short video of Chloe talking about her book:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PR1r1zSUhHo

    Published by Picador, 2019

  • Books and reading,  Uncategorized,  Writing

    Heroines

    Heroines Festival held at Thirroul NSW on Sunday 15 Sept 2019.

    A whole day to listen to women’s stories. Told by women about women. That’s what the Heroines Festival promised, and it delivered. A day to nurture the creative in all who attended, to be part of the community of women and men who gathered to listen to speakers tell tales of grandmothers, daughters, dancers, teachers, brewers, religious hermits, refugees, immigrants, explorers and lace weavers. And many, many more.

    Tea Cooper, pictured here signing her books, spoke about giving voice to women whose history has not been recorded. And Karen Brooks assured us that women have always been there: as crafts women, running businesses, performing skilled trades work- even if they were not named or acknowledged.

    Little rebellions are the lovely truths we search for…women were always, always there…

    Karen Brooks in the ‘Herstories’ session

    Both Shankari Chandran and Monica Tan write to explore what it means to be Australian, to be part of a minority but not indigenous…what it means to live on colonised land and make a home there. They discussed their experiences and insights in the ‘Home – Lost and Found’ session.

    Shankari, of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage, wrote her novels Song of the Sun God and Barriers ‘to write my way home’ and to say thank you to those that came before her for their courage and resilience. Monica (of Chinese heritage) travelled around Australia on ‘a great big road trip’ in a quest to better understand this country and to represent marginalised stories that the gatekeepers try to keep out. The result was her book Stranger Country.

    Both women explored the crucial role language plays in our identity and connectedness. Language is used to express power, relationship, history and it’s no coincidence, said Shankari, that the erasure of language is a key tool and feature of colonisation.

    Chloe Higgins’ debut book, The Girls, was published just two weeks prior to the festival. It’s a ‘memoir of family, grief and sexuality’ and Chloe discussed how it felt to tell her story with all its intimacies, not knowing how it would be received. I was happy to hear her say that she’s been overwhelmed by the messages of support and understanding she’s received so far.

    Melissa Fagan has also published a memoir, What will be worn, in which she explores the gaps and secrets within her own family story, woven in with an account of an iconic Brisbane department store owned by members of her family for many years.

    Melissa Fagan (left) at the Heroines Festival.

    It was interesting to hear both Chloe and Melissa speak of the ‘emotional inheritances’ bequeathed within families, often over generations.

    Jesse Blackadder’s session centred around the motivations prompting her to write her two historical fiction works, The Raven’s Heart (set in sixteenth century Scotland) and Chasing the Light (about the first women to go to Antarctica in the 1930’s.) Jesse said that apart from the pull of travelling to the icy continent to research that story, the thing that made her want to write about these women was learning that women had been barred from going there. Jesse said:

    How can a whole continent be closed to half the human race?

    Jesse Blackadder, in ‘The Explorers’ session

    She applied for and won an Antarctic Arts Fellowship and embarked on a six week round trip voyage (exactly as those women had done eighty years earlier)

    Jesse Blackadder and Sarah Nicholson

    Other fascinating sessions included Lauren Chater (The Lace Weaver) and Robyn Cadwallader (The Anchoress) as they discussed women barely mentioned in the historical record: Estonian women caught between the competing horrors of Nazi and Soviet oppression, and the medieval religious hermits known as ‘anchoresses.’ In answering the question ‘What makes a strong woman?’ they agreed that:

    Sometimes they are the women quietly working away, making change in the background, trying to survive, remaining true to their own beliefs and experiences.

    Lauren Chater, in ‘Hearing our Grandmothers’ Voices’

    It was a day filled with riches of thought, conversation and intriguing ideas. I hope I can get there again next year. If you’d like to find out more, or purchase a copy of the terrific anthology Heroines: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Poetry (ed Sarah Nicholson and Caitlan White), launched on the day, go to the website:
    https://www.theneoperennialpress.com/the-heroines-anthology

    #Heroinesfestival #heroinesfest19 #AusLit #AustralianWomenWritersChallenge