• 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,  Writing

    What I’ve learnt from my first year of blogging

    Image by Rawpexels.com

    Happy first birthday to my blog. Here’s what I’ve learnt in the past twelve months:

    Blogging is fun! I had no idea when I started out a year ago whether I’d enjoy the process enough to sustain it over several months, let alone a year. I have enjoyed it way more than I’d expected, so I look forward with confidence to celebrating my second blogging birthday in 2020.

    Blogging can be hard sometimes. This looks like I’m contradicting my first point, but actually no – an activity can be challenging and fun at the same time. In fact, I think the sense of achievement and enjoyment is increased if it’s also a little bit hard.

    Blogging is a terrific way to establish a regular writing practice. Even at times when I have been ‘stuck’ on my other projects, sitting down at the keyboard to develop a blog post keeps me connected to the writing process. Committing to a weekly post means I’m always on the lookout for a topic, idea or experience that might just resonate with a reader.

    Image by Sharon McCutcheon

    Blogging is a great excuse to read a lot of books. My blog is not exclusively a book blog, but I do post many reviews – of books, but also an occasional movie, exhibition, play or concert. Anything that stirs the creative juices, teaches me something new, or reconnects me with things I enjoy.

    So, Happy Birthday to my blog and if you have stumbled upon it in the past year, thanks for reading.

  • 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

  • Writing

    Short Story: ‘Zipper’

    My Furious Fiction https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/ entry for August. The requirements for the month’s competition were all adjectival! Our story had to include these words and phrases: shrill, piercing, cold and greasy, ink stained, sweet and pungent, scratched and weather worn, shiny, silver. Using this many adjectives in a 500 word story is harder than you’d think!

    My story is a little ode to the Sydney building industry in 2019.

    ZIPPER                                                                                 by Denise Newton

    The noise was shrill, piercing. Anna sighed and pushed aside her uneaten toast.
    “God, I’m so sick of that sound.”

    Blake nodded in sympathy. The work in the apartment upstairs was unrelenting. Drills, nail guns, electric saws. Lucky for noise regulations, or they’d be at it day and night.

    “Not long now, I hope.”

    Anna just shrugged and Blake knew she was right. The people upstairs were very strange. He looked down at his plate. The fried eggs, that had smelt so delicious earlier, had turned cold and greasy. His stomach turned.

    When they’d seen the ad, they’d been so excited. Their dream of purchasing their own home could finally come true. The asking price was within their reach. Hell, it was far below what they’d budgeted for. They’d grinned at each other and he’d called the agent straight away.

    They should have known better. Hadn’t Mum always told him that when something seemed too good to be true, it usually was? But their excitement got the better of them and they signed the contract two days later. The vendor, a short man in an overstuffed suit, had signed with ink- stained fingers, as though this was the last of a long series of contracts he’d signed that day. Perhaps it was. Each one as dodgy as the last.

    So. Here they were, enduring the constant assault of noise from the building works above, the croaking pipes, the ominous rumblings from somewhere in the building, that always began in the deep quiet of early dawn.

    “Like the building is haunted,” Anna said, only half joking. She’d made a pot of herbal tea and she passed him a cup, a sweet and pungent brew that he found strangely relaxing. Anything to take his mind off the mistake they’d made in buying into this building.

    He began to ready himself for work, collected his coat, and tied the laces on his scratched and weather-worn boots. He’d just kissed Anna goodbye and was making for the front door, when the floor moved. It actually moved, right under his feet. The jolting was accompanied by a louder version of the rumbling that woke him at night. A grinding, unearthly sound. He froze.

    Anna stared at him. “What the hell…?”

    “Get under the table! In case it’s an earthquake…”
    “Earthquake, here? That’s…”

    “I’m going downstairs to see,” he interrupted.

     “I’m coming with you.”

    He knew better than to argue. She followed him down twenty flights in the gloomy stairwell. They exited onto the street with shaky legs.

    Hand in hand, they gazed, incredulous, at the huge crack that had appeared in their building. It looked like a giant zipper. An ugly, misplaced zipper.

    Their shiny, silver dream of owning a home disappeared into the morning light.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe

    Published by Magabala Books, 2014

    ‘Australia rides on the sheep’s back.” So I was taught in primary school social studies classes in 1960’s Australia. Wheat was also at the heart of our national agricultural economy, until a decade or so later when mining took number one place in the commodity pecking order.

    Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’ suggests that it is time we dismounted from that metaphorical sheep and stepped aside from the wheatfields, at least in part, and consider transitioning to an agriculture that is more sustainable and in harmony with this continent’s often harsh environment. With crops and livestock that the original occupants and custodians of this land were long familiar with.

    I’m a relative latecomer to this book, and I’m aware that since it’s publication there have been some criticisms of the author’s research and arguments. None of those criticisms detract from the overall power of the book’s message, which is that our nation has not had an honest account of our history – both pre and post invasion/colonisation. Not only that, but the history that has been disseminated about Aboriginal people’s lifestyles and cultures has often been inaccurate. Pascoe argues that there is compelling evidence that contrary to the ‘hunter/gatherer/nomad’ stereotype, pre-invasion Aboriginal nations practiced forms of agriculture, aquaculture, harvesting and storage of various grains and seeds, and built dwellings. Not to mention the complex systems of law, justice and spirituality.

    While the latter has been recognised to some extent in recent decades, Pascoe argues that Aboriginal people engaged in practices that the European colonisers, settlers and explorers should have recognised, but usually didn’t. Instead, permanent dwelling structures were dismissed as ‘humpies’, careful management and harvesting of resources described as ‘hunter-gathering’ activities. He asserts that:

    ‘Settlers and explorers were united in their assumption of superiority and entitlement… ‘

    and

    ‘Colonial Australia sought to forget the advanced nature of Aboriginal society and economy, and this amnesia was entrenched when settlers who arrived after the depopulation of whole districts found no structure more substantial than a windbreak, and no population that was not humiliated, debased, and diseased.’

    Dark Emu p. 11 & 114

    One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that Pascoe draws heavily (some have argued, selectively) from the writings of early European settlers and explorers. Accounts from well known figures such as Sturt, Mitchell, Burke and Wills, describe the lifestyles and practices of indigenous people they encountered in ways that contradict the ‘hunter-gatherer’ images of First Australians.

    Something else I enjoyed was his descriptions of the yam daisy, or murnong, (Microseris lanceolata) a staple of the First People’s diet, which grew in abundance along river banks and was carefully managed and harvested for thousands of years, but which quickly became extinct in areas settled by Europeans. I recalled Kate Grenville writing about this plant and its importance to indigenous diets in The Secret River and In Search of the Secret River. Until then, I had no knowledge of this plant, and the important role it played in pre-invasion Australian life. So it was with pleased recognition that I read Pascoe’s account of it in Dark Emu.

    For me, the power of this book lies in the argument that our nation must move past the collective amnesia and blindness of the true history of our continent and its inhabitants. As Pascoe concludes:

    ‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral well-being and economic prosperity.’

    Dark Emu, p 229
  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘The rules of backyard cricket’ by Jock Serong

    Published 2016 by Text Publishing

    If you enjoy an author who never seems to write the same book twice, I can recommend the works of Jock Serong, a Victorian based author who has to date published four books. I have read three of these so far and I can honestly say that the only thing they have in common is the quality of the story telling.

    Quota, Serong’s first book, also published in 2016, is the one I’ve yet to read. It won the Australian Crime Writers Association’s Award for best debut novel (and it’s next on my TBR list.) In the same year, The Rules of Backyard Cricket appeared, which (while there are certainly criminal elements within the story and some of its characters) is also a meditation on the role of sport in Australian society and, more especially, Australian masculinity. Then in 2017 came On the Java Ridge, a stark and heart-breaking look at the ‘problems’ posed by asylum seekers for our politicians, for our moral compass as a nation, and for those who are at the front line of the tragedies that play out in the lives of those who seek safety from trauma and brutality. Lastly, Preservation, published in 2018, is a retelling of a true historical story, with the flavour of a psychological thriller. Four novels, no two alike, but all the work of a writer in superb control of his craft.

    So, to The rules of backyard cricket. This is the story of two boys, Darren Keefe and his older brother Wally, raised in the hard-scrabble inner west Melbourne suburb of Footscray in the 1970’s by a tough and loving single mum. The novel opens with Darren reflecting on his life and on the series of choices and events that led to where we first meet him – in the boot of a car, bound, gagged, and with a bullet in his knee. Immediately, we think this will be a crime novel, right?

    Yes…except that so much of the story involves the brothers’ lives in the world of sport, specifically cricket. While they start their cricketing trajectories together in their scruffy childhood backyard, their paths diverge: Wally (the older, driven, disciplined and focused brother) becomes the captain of the Australian test team, while Darren (the younger, charming larrikin) experiences early success but due to some spectacularly bad choices, ends up with his cricket career in tatters. And yet, Darren goes on to become something of a media celebrity and commentator, proving that even very bad behaviour can be forgiven by the public in certain arenas of life – and in Australia, sport is most definitely one of those arenas. Here’s a quote from the book:

    “Sport goes to the heart of everything. If you can reach inside it and f**k with its innards, you’re actually messing with society . . . Bigger than drugs. Bigger than hookers and porn, because people shy away, they can smell the desperation. But the same people will go on consuming sport long after they know it’s rotten to the core. They’re insatiable.”

    From ‘The rules of backyard cricket’ by Jock Serong.

    We know that Darren ends up in a sticky situation, though. Each chapter opens with a reminder of this, zooming back to focus on Darren in that car boot as he ruminates on all the actions and events that put him there. We watch as his life becomes a train wreck, and Darren is sufficiently self aware to offer a critique of his choices and behaviours, so that we feel as if we are offered an insider’s view of it all.

    In a Goodreads interview, Serong offers this:

    On one hand “the book is about men and Australiana and sport, but on the other is … about family and brothers and in a subtle way it’s a story about women.
    I wanted to think critically about men and sport and how those men behave in the public arena, to look at how it is that happens and why as a society do we encourage it. ”

    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30271762-the-rules-of-backyard-cricket

    This novel works on so many levels: as crime fiction, as an analysis of important themes in our society, as a tender reflection on family and as a thriller – I did not see the twist at the end coming!

  • Books and reading,  Varuna,  Writing

    An all-round success: the inaugural Blue Mountains Writers Festival

    This weekend I had the pleasure of being one of a big team of volunteers at the very first independent Writers Festival in the Blue Mountains. Presented by Varuna the National Writers House, and held at three venues in Katoomba, it was a success both in terms of tickets (most sessions were sold out) and great enjoyment.

    Some stand outs for me, in no particular order:

    Philosopher, academic and writer Chris Fleming’s candid, and often hilarious, account of his years of drug addiction and recovery. I didn’t expect to enjoy this one, to be honest, but it was wonderful.

    ABC radio’s Cassie McCullagh’s chat with Chris Hammer about the inspiration behind his crime novel ‘Scrublands’

    James Valentine, Amy Thomas and Melina Marchetta

    Hearing about the special working relationship between a best selling author (the wonderful Melina Marchetta of ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ fame and many, many other books) and her editor at Penguin Random House, Amy Thomas, as they chatted with James Valentine from ABC radio and TV.

    Tim Flannery describing an ancient Europe and a pre-history when hippos swam in the Thames

    Jane McCredie (from Writing NSW) and Tim Flannery

    Hearing about the experiences of two women which led to the writing of their extraordinary memoirs about family: Vicki Laveau-Harvie (author of the Stella Prize winning ‘The Erratics’ and Jessie Cole, author of ‘Staying’, interviewed with humour and sensitivity by Benjamin Law.

    An insightful and informative panel discussion illustrating how a work of fiction goes from manuscript, to agent, editor, publisher and eventually lands in a book store near you.

    And my last session for the weekend, a beautiful discussion between Blue Mountains poet and songwriter/singer/musician Kate Fagan and Tishani Doshi from India. Tishani is a poet/novelist/dancer (can you see a theme here of multi talented people?) who performed several heart stoppingly gorgeous and powerful poems as well as an extract from her latest novel. Such a treat.

    As with any festival there were hard choices to make with multiple sessions on at the same time. Ones I missed included a talk by Patti Miller and Leah Kaminsky, a film screening with Clarence Walden and Alexis Wright, a live conversation with Behrouz Boochani (on Manus Island) and Markus Zusak in conversation with Rosanna Gonsalves.

    Another lovely feature of the festival was the ‘Social Book Nook’ corner of the comfy lounge at the glorious old Carrington Hotel, where attendees were invited to talk books.

    My literary cup truly ran over all weekend.

  • Writing

    Short story: ‘Crammed’

    Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

    This was my Furious Fiction entry for July. https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/

    The story parameters for the month were:
    500 words or less, the story was to be set on a train of some sort, something had to be frozen, and there had to be three sentences of three words in a row.

    CRAMMED            by Denise Newton                                                              

    The stench is terrible. I know my faeces and urine are mixed in with the rest. But that’s hardly my fault. Rounded up, taken against my will, crammed into this carriage with dozens—no, hundreds—of my fellows. I’ve stopped counting the sunsets and sunrises, so I can’t tell how long I’ve been here.

    I don’t care about the hunger but my thirst is ferocious. The roof of my mouth feels as if it’s lined with gum and my tongue is stiff, almost frozen in place. When I look at the faces of my companions, I can tell they’re suffering in the same way. Hot and thirsty. Deafened by noise. So terribly frightened.

    We travel in what seems to be an endless straight line, in the heat of days, with orange sunlight slipping in like razors through the bars, and then through tunnels of night. Sometimes we stop and I hear crunching footsteps and muffled voices outside. I don’t know what they want with me. What their plan is. Or where they are taking us.

    In the dark, I close my eyes occasionally and try to imagine I’m somewhere else. I do try. I think about the lush grass at the edges of the house paddock, the cool of it beneath my legs. I think about the river and the blue bowl of the summer sky. But then the dark presses in against my face and I open my eyes wide in terror, open my mouth to cry out, but shut it again because really, what use is it? There’s no one to hear my pain and fear except those squashed in here with me. So I remain silent, listening to the complaints and groans and snuffles of those nearby, and the roar and rumble of the engine up ahead. We hurtle on through time.

    Wait…are we…? Yes, I think we are slowing. Gradually the speed drops and the engine shifts down with a whine. It takes a long time but eventually my companions and I lurch forward, then settle back as we come to a halt. We look at each other. What’s next?

    There’s a clang of chains and the dull thud of ropes being unfastened and dropped to the ground. A metallic clunk and the sun spears through the back door as it is lowered. Men appear, shadowed against the light. Men with hats and boots and dusty trousers. They move us out, two at a time down a ramp. The air trembles with their shouts and our cries. I blink in the harsh light. The road train stands there, all three trailers with their high bars and many wheels. Our prison, for however long it took us to arrive here.

    One man calls to the others. His words carry across the thick dust to my ears.
    ‘Load ‘em onto the ship,’ he shouts, ‘this lot are headed to Indonesia. Good lot of beef rendang here.’

     He smiles but I don’t see the joke.

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    The value of a creative date: about the new Australian play ‘Forgotten’

    I’ve heard a lot about the importance of having an occasional – or even regular – ‘creative date’. An immersion into a realm of creativity that you don’t usually encounter in your day-to-day life or even in your own creative pursuits. An experience to get the creative wheels turning, perhaps in new directions or with renewed enthusiasm. After a recent foray into the world of theatre, I am totally convinced by this argument.

    I went with six of my female ‘besties’ to Parramatta Riverside Theatre, to see a new Australian play, Forgotten, written by Cate Whittaker and produced by Captivate, the creative and performing arts program for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta.

    Forgotten is inspired by the stories of convict women who were sent to the Female Factory, from where they could be assigned as convict labourers, or perhaps be married, or – as happened to many – be punished further. The story centres on the 1827 ‘Riot’ when the women went on strike to demand proper rations, because their allotted rations had for some time been siphoned off by the son of the Factory Matron at the time. Half starved, desperate and forgotten by colonial society, they staged a riot, staring down the constables and the militia sent to quell their rebellion, and breaking out of the Factory walls to run through the township of Parramatta in search of food.

    While a contemporary press report about the ‘riot’ described the convict women as ‘Amazonian bandetti’, I don’t imagine the women were especially physically strong given their circumstances, however their determination and resilience must have been great to allow them to take this action, which could accurately be described as the first industrial action by women in the country since colonisation.

    Mark Hopkins, the Head of Captivate, describes them like this:

    …young, predominantly Catholic women who found their voice in collective action in the face of opposition and systemic oppression…

    Mark Hopkins, in Forgotten program booklet

    There were several other ‘riots’ at the Female Factory, usually in response to reduced rations or an increase in punishments such as the hated head shaving. Perhaps later women incarcerated there drew strength from the stories they must have heard about this first action taken by brave and desperate women.

    Scenes from Forgotten performed by members of Captivate

    The majority of cast members were students from Catholic high schools in the Parramatta area, with some roles performed by Captivate alumni, with one or two teachers in the mix as well. Their performances were wonderful: portraying the circumstances of young women around the same age as themselves, but in a very different time and place.The production was supported by The Parramatta Female Factory Friends (the playwright is a member of this group as well as a Colonial historian and teacher). The production was simple but evocative of the harsh and uncompromising setting of the Factory.

    So, how did this experience work for me as a ‘creative date’? During the play, I laughed a few times, I seethed at the unfair and unjust treatment meted out to these women, and I cried some tears. I was glad to see their stories presented on the stage – and in this way kept alive, not forgotten after all. The story resonated particularly because this era, and the Female Factory itself, feature in my work in progress – historical fiction set in convict-era NSW. Seeing these portrayed through words and action on a stage sparked some new ideas and thoughts about my own work.

    And, last but certainly not least, it made me recommit to the promise to my characters to tell their stories – so that they, too, are not forgotten.

    If you’d like to know more about the Female Factory and the work of the Friends to preserve this heritage, see their website http://www.parramattafemalefactoryfriends.com.au/

    #AustralianWomenWritersChallenge