OK, so perhaps COVID-19 isolation rules had something to do with it. I’ve been reading a whole lot more in the first five months of this year. As a result, my 2020 Reading Challenges are done and it’s not quite halfway through the year yet.
So, here’s what I’ve achieved between the pages (you can find my reviews for each of the books in the links to my earlier posts):
And the books I read? Here they are along with links to my thoughts on each in case you missed them the first time. (There are a few additional books read but not listed here because I did not post a review.)
Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller
Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch
Bruny by Heather Rose
The Yield by Tara June Winch
Songspirals by Gay’wu Group of Women
The White Girl by Tony Birch
The Lioness Wakes by Blanche D’Alpuget
No Small Shame by Christine Bell
I Want You to Know We’re Still Here by Esther Safran Foer
Tell Me Why by Archie Roach
The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman
Inheritance of Secrets by Sonya Bates
The Schoolmaster’s Daughter by Jackie French
Evie and Pog by Tania McCartney
Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale by Dominique Valente
When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
Taboo by Kim Scott
Invisible Boys by Holden Shepard
Cutting the Cord by Natasha Molt
When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard
Have you set yourself any reading challenges this year? Maybe a new author? Or trying out a genre you don’t normally gravitate to? Perhaps, like me, you’ve also been searching out more titles by indigenous Australian authors.
Now, on to the next half of 2020 and more reading. We’re into winter here in Australia and of course that’s the perfect time to settle in a sunny spot or in front of the fire with a good book or three.
Holden Sheppard’s debut novel follows the struggles of three high school boys in the small Western Australian town of Geraldton, as they try to figure out the big things of life: who they are, where they belong, what family and friendships mean, and their sexuality. All three suspect they are gay and each has a different response , as they also try to navigate the various responses to homosexuality by the people around them.
I recall that during Australia’s sometimes fractious marriage equality debates, there were warnings from those working with young people, especially in rural and regional areas, that the divisiveness and stigma still attached to homosexuality would be worsened by the rancour around the campaign. They worried that it could cause further harm to young people already struggling with questions around their sexual identity. The events played out in Invisible Boys bring these concerns to life in a realistic way.
The author wrote in his Acknowledgements that each of the three main characters represented a part of himself. And yes, so vividly are they portrayed, the characters and events must surely have arisen from lived experience.
The three young protagonists are Zeke, a studious boy from a staunchly Italian Catholic family; Hammer, an athletic boy who dreams of becoming a star football player; and Charlie, a punk rocker who has no idea of where he fits – he only knows that it’s not in Geraldton, not in his Catholic high school, and certainly not in his neglectful, dismissive family. A fourth character, Matt, comes from a local farming family and plays an important role as the novel progresses.
The boys differ in the level of sympathy they engendered from me at the beginning of the novel. Hammer presents as a particularly repellent individual, the result of being raised in a toxic swill of extreme homophobia and sickening misogyny. As events unfold, there are glimpses of other facets of personality and what makes each boy behave the way they do, their fears and insecurities.
Here is Zeke, for example:
Why am I so weak? Why do I cower to this? I know homosexuality is natural in the animal kingdom. I don’t think anyone should have fewer rights than anyone else. I don’t hate it in other people as much as I hate it in myself. And yet I fall in line with Father Mulroney’s condemnation.Invisible Boys p507
This quote, incidentally, is from a scene which also has some laugh-out-loud moments – Zeke’s excruciating enforced act of confession in church.
And here is Charlie:
I figured you’re allowed to tell other gay guys in the closet. It’s like mutually assured destruction. Either of you tells and it’s catastrophe, like a nuclear winter.Invisible Boys p523
Anyone who can remember their own pathway through the agonies and traps of adolescence will relate to the boys’ struggles. And the added layers of difficulty imposed by their families, friends and community, can only be viewed as absurd, unfair and entirely unnecessary. Why make someone’s path to adulthood harder than it needs to be?
The last word on this book belongs to its author:
…my teenage self, who, for a long time, didn’t want to be on this planet anymore because he was a gay bloke. Good on you for staying alive, you resilient bastard. Turns out you were good just the way you were.Holden Sheppard, Acknowledgements in Invisible Boys.
Invisible Boys was published by Fremantle Press in 2019. It was the recipient of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award 2018 (even before publication!) and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2020, as well as being a Notable Book in the 2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) and longlisted in the 2020 Indie Book Awards, among other accolades.
No Small Shame takes the reader into the world of emigrants to Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century: specifically a young woman, Mary O’Donnell, from Irish Catholic roots who travels across the world to Australia in 1914. Her father and that of her childhood friend Liam are miners from Ireland who emigrated to Scotland in the hope of finding work. Now, they are uprooting once again to work ‘down the pits’ in Wonthaggi, a coal mining region of Victoria.
The author immerses us in the appalling poverty of these families and communities: the cold, cramped row houses in Scotland, the deaths of babies and children from diseases like diphtheria and pneumonia, the grinding work in the pits, the smell of chamber pots and unwashed underarms. It is not a romantic picture of the past which is just as well, because there is precious little romance to be had in the lives of people like the O’Donnells and the Merrilees, nor in the life of Mary’s friend Winnie, married off in her teens to a surly, uncaring man who takes her to live on a farm outside of town – if ‘live’ is the right word here. ‘Survive’ is probably more accurate.
Despite their unpromising start in life, Mary and Liam both dream of better things. Mary nurtures her secret love for the boy she grew up with, but her feelings don’t seem to be reciprocated. All Liam cares about is getting away from his family and the seemingly inevitable work in the mine with his father. he wants to buy a good house and have money to spend. To ‘be his own man.’ And his growing frustration leads him into a life of drink.
Mary tries to muster dignity and defiance against everything that is ranged against her: her poverty, her employer, the religious and social strictures of the day, the unbending anger and resentment of her mother, her misplaced love and loyalty to an undeserving man. She finds herself in a situation all too common at that time, with a lack of agency a reality for so many women. It is a stark portrayal of the transactional nature of a loveless marriage:
But life for them was never meant to be more than what it was. Even marriage didn’t mean you had to be happy every bloody minute of every bloody day.No Small Shame p337
The author vividly illustrates how religious and social hypocrisies impacted unfairly on women, who were expected to uphold standards of virtue and responsibility that some men seemed to avoid. The edicts of church and community left no room for mistakes, or allowance for people to change.
On top of all of this, the world is plunged into war which further strains families and communities to breaking point. Once the survivors return home, we see the cruel negligence of all who’d suffered in the fight for ‘King and Country.’ (As an aside, this is one of the reasons why I struggle with ANZAC Day commemorations each year – knowing that while our leaders mouth platitudes about ‘Lest We Forget’, the physical and mental health, and the family and financial well-being of returned service people, is still shockingly neglected.)
Then the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic hits – which to a reader in 2020, echoes the panic and fear about the latest virus now sweeping the world.
This might sound like No Small Shame is a litany of misery. There is sadness, despair and anger, yes. But the author shows us Mary’s growing internal defiance and her arguments with herself. The narrative is close third person, so the reader is able to hear Mary’s thoughts as well as watch her actions. Her voice in the novel is lovely – full of idioms of the day, especially of the working class Irish Catholic community in which she is placed. Mary develops a stronger sense of independence, a realisation that she must stand on her own two feet. She also has an ironic, humorous bent which helps to soften some of the more difficult aspects of life:
With thousands of men gone to the front, she’d not reckoned on the Government decreeing it not proper for women to take over the jobs of men. What was the big call for women in Australia? Socks! Socks and pyjamas, thank you. Don’t trouble yourself to fill a real job, just sew and knit a bit! It made her wonder if women struggling in the bush to keep sheep alive in the drought, and bringing in a harvest with their menfolk away, knew they ought not to be doing ‘men’s’ work.No Small Shame, p197
By the novel’s end, Mary has come to an acceptance of who she is and what she deserves in life, and is taking steps to change her situation for the better:
Placid, good, gentle Julia. The type of wife and mother she could never be. She’d always be one to question the justice, or the lack.No Small Shame, p338
This is Christine Bell’s debut novel for adults, though she has published many works of short fiction for both adults and children, and has also written a Young Adult manuscript. I hope she continues to write stories like this one, which brings history to life and also tells us important things about our own times.
No Small Shame will be published by Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press) on 1 April 2020. My thanks to Holly for an advance reader copy.
My heart was full as I read this unusual and generous book. When I had finished, I felt two things: humility and gratitude. Along the way there were many ‘light bulb’ moments, when aspects of Yolŋu culture that had been confusing or which I had previously misunderstood, became a bit clearer.
Songspirals (published 2019 by Allen & Unwin) was written by the Gay’wu Group of Women (or ‘dilly bag women’s group’), consisting of Yolŋu women from north-east Arnhem Land in Australia’s far north, and non-Aboriginal women. Four sisters and a daughter, and three non-Aboriginal researchers from Macquarie University and the University of Newcastle, have collaborated on cultural and research projects over a decade and also co-authored three other books. Songspirals is an invitation to come on a journey of exploration and understanding.
The women describe songspirals (sometimes called songlines or song cycles) as:
… the essence of people in this land…We belong to the land and it belongs to us. We sing to the land, sing about the land. We are that land. It sings to us.Songspirals p xvi
The book was written to share something of Yolŋu culture, language, song and law, that have guided and protected people for thousands of years. The women write of milkarri:
We Yolŋu women from North East Arnhem Land … we cry the songcycles, we keen the songcycles – this is what we call milkarri. Only women keen milkarri. Milkarri is an ancient song, an ancient poem, a map, a ceremony and a guide, but it is more than all this too. Milkarri is a very powerful thing in Yolŋu life.Songspirals p.xvi
They share particular songspirals in the book, describing the deep knowledge and deep names of places, animals, clans, things. They also give the clearest explanation I have read of ‘Country’, of what it means within Yolŋu culture and spirituality:
Country is home, it sings to us and nourishes us. It is the feeling of home, the feeling of the seasons that communicate with us. It is all the beings of home. It is everything that we can touch or feel or sense, and it is everything beyond that too. It is everything that belongs in Country, with Country and as Country, including us. And it is the relationships between all those beings too. We come into being together…Songspirals pp.23, 40, 41
Yolŋu keep Country alive with language…the land grew a tongue and that tongue is the Yolŋu people…
Everything communicates and comes through the songspirals.
This communication between animals, between land, animals and people, between the tide, the sun and the moon, is about giving and receiving messages, about the seasons, about the weather, about people’s and Country’s safety and well-being.
I felt humble because of the breathtaking generosity of the women in sharing so much about their culture and their lives. Woven through the narrative are stories from their families, illustrating the resilience, pride and energy of Yolŋu in the face of appalling arrogance and dismissal on the part of non-indigenous people, from the very earliest contact to the present day. The depth and complexity of culture and languages that have been kept alive and vibrant through difficult times, shine from this book. All the authors ask in return is that: ‘...you respect this knowledge, to be respectful and be aware of the limits of what we are sharing.’ Songspirals p 258
Issues such as land rights, the destruction that mining inflicts on the land, bilingual or ‘two-way’ education, the dangers that come with losing language, and the ‘homelands’ or ‘outstations’ movement, (where indigenous people moved away from missions and towns, back to care for Country) are discussed in the book. It is clear that living on homelands is about health – the physical and mental health of people and of the land – NOT a ‘lifestyle choice’ as once dismissively described by a former Australian Prime Minister. Non-linear concepts of history, of time and of relationships, are also touched on.
These are hefty topics and the book is not an ‘easy’ read, partly because of the depth of the issues and partly because of its unusual narrative style, which cycles and repeats as do the songspirals it describes. But I was grateful for the opportunity to read about these important issues, not from commentators or political figures, but from Yolŋu women themselves. And the language – Yolŋu matha words are used liberally throughout (there is a glossary to help) and it’s a wonderful way to be introduced to the complexities and richness of one of Australia’s First Languages.
There is so much more I could say about this book and about the authors: sisters Laklak Burarrwanga, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs and Banbapuy Ganambarr, their daughter Djawundil Maymura, and Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Sarah Wright.
I would encourage readers to visit the website of the Bawaka Collective to find out more about their work and research.
Also check out the music of other family members in the band East Journey. These musicians write and sing songs which are closely linked to much of the content and meaning of Songspirals.
Siena Stubbs, another of the younger Yolŋu generation, wrote and self published a book (since published by Magabala Books) called Our Birds: Ŋilimurruŋgu Wäyin Malanynha when she was just 16 years old.
Another member of this talented clan, Maminydjama Maymuru, has a successful modelling career as Magnolia. For this young woman,
…living in both worlds has given her a deeper understanding of both worlds and of life. In the Yolŋu way, she talks through the songspirals and that is where her message comes from.Songspirals p 133
For the authors of Songspirals, it is crucial that the next generations keep the language and culture strong while they negotiate living in two worlds. This is for the young people, their well being, health and connection to the things that will keep them strong. But it is also for the wider community, the land, the nation.
There is so much wisdom in this book, so much to absorb, to try to understand and to think about. I thank the Gay’wu Group of Women for their teaching and their generosity.
I’m a bit of a medieval and Tudor history tragic so the opportunity to delve into twelfth-century English and French goings-on (courtesy of Holly at Ventura Press) was most welcome. The Lioness Wakes (published March 2020 by Ventura Press) is the fourth in a series by Blanche d’Alpuget called ‘The Birth of the Plantagenets’. They were a dynasty that ruled England for over three centuries, had fourteen kings of England among their ranks and included the inter-family conflict known as The Wars of the Roses.
The book opens with the bloody drama of the murder of Thomas Becket, one-time friend but now a thorn in the side of King Henry II. Henry may or may not have ordered this murder, but its consequences were to dog him, leading to rebellion and revolt throughout his kingdom and into lands controlled by him in what is now modern day France. With such a graphic start, the reader is plunged into the complexities and brutalities of twelfth-century European courts, monarchs and their families – especially the Plantagenets, riven by suspicion, plots and intrigue. A Netflix crime series has nothing on the drama of this period.
Eleanor, wife of King Henry II, is a particularly compelling character. Known for her beauty, daring and intelligence, and the former wife of the French King Louis VII, Eleanor is behind a revolt against Henry, pitting their three sons against their father in the process. I recalled the character of Eleanor as portrayed by Katherine Hepburn in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter and it was with pleasure that I was introduced to her again in this novel. She was certainly a formidable woman and foe.
Remembering stories of her son Richard, who succeeded Henry and became known as ‘Richard the Lionheart’ it was surprising to read d’Alpuget’s rather more unflattering picture of him as a young man – cruel, capricious and arrogant. Although they band together to oppose their father, there is no love lost between the three eldest Plantagenet sons – Henry the Younger, Richard, and Geoffrey. John (‘Baby’ in this book) later becomes the notorious Prince John in the Robin Hood legends and then King John of Magna Carta fame, but in this book he is a toddler, already spoiled by his adoring father.
There are vivid pictures of the places peopled by the novel’s characters. In Scotland, for example:
As the cold of an ill-tempered autumn laid thick sheets of ice on the surface of lakes, one morning of muted light he heard the screams of gulls and saw a dark outline rear through the fog. Edinburgh Castle was perched at the top of that monster of nature, Black Rock.The Lioness Wakes, p 143
I wanted to draw a cloak around myself to keep out the chill air as I was reading.
A few times I found the narrative a bit disjointed, but that may have been due to my lack of knowledge of events and some characters from the first three books of this series, which I have not yet had the opportunity to read. The story deals with complex (and at times for me confusing) negotiations and power plays between members of the European royalties and aristocracy. If we are ever tempted to think that self-serving and ambition are peculiar to modern-day politics, this novel swiftly puts that belief to rest:
…centuries deep in their blood runs ambition, pride and aggression, generation after generation, back to the mists of the north wind.The Lioness Wakes p 148
d’Alpuget shows how the Church, no less political, wielded huge power at a time when people of all stations in life were as likely to believe in dreams and magic as in miracles of the kind purportedly brought about by Thomas Becket after his death, and goddesses shared in the affection of villagers and nobles alike, along with the Virgin Mary.
This novel is a vivid portrayal of events and people from a turbulent time in European history. I’ll be on the lookout for the first three books in the series, and the fifth and final book when published.
I’m not sure when I realised that the practice of removing indigenous Australian children from their families (resulting in what is now known as the ‘Stolen Generations’ and the subject of the 2008 National Apology by then Prime Minister Keven Rudd) did not only happen way back in Australia’s history, but was still happening during my childhood in the 1960’s. The understanding that while I was growing up, safe and secure in a loving family, other children my age were in very different circumstances – grieving the loss of their parents and communities, frequently subjected to abuse and neglect in institutions charged with their care – appalled me, as I know it has many other Australians. This is not ‘history’ (locked in the pages of a text book about the past) but the lived experience of generations of Australian families.
The White Girl (Queensland University Press, 2019) is in part an exploration of this blot on Australia’s record. The reader experiences 1960’s rural Australian life through the eyes of Odette, a strong and loving grandmother to Sissy, who she has cared for since her daughter Lila left their town after giving birth to her baby. Odette does not know where Lila is and has had to get on with the task of raising a granddaughter, drawing on her considerable personal resources of inner strength, kindness and respect for her culture and ancestors.
But this was a time and place in which overt racism was part of the everyday for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, and Odette and Sissy experience the worst and the best of people as they go about their lives in their small community. The local policeman, Bill O’Shea, went to primary school with Odette and they were friends back then – but he is now an alcoholic reaching the end of his career and prefers to turn a blind eye to the goings-on in town, including the bullying and aggressive behaviour of Joe Kane and his eldest son Aaron, who takes against Odette and Sissy and threatens harm.
Then along comes a new police officer, Sergeant Lowe, who is determined to be the new broom the town needs and who takes seriously his responsibilities as the official guardian of the Aboriginal people in it. Unfortunately for Odette and Sissy, what this means is that he is set on removing Sissy from her grandmother’s care because in his view, an Aboriginal family is no place for a child to grow up, especially one who could ‘pass’ as white – like Sissy.
Matters are complicated by Odette’s health problems and she must find a way to protect Sissy from Lowe while dealing with her own uncertain future.
Along the way the reader is confronted by difficult truths about black/white relations at this time. For example, Lowe has a chart in his office on which he has listed each Aboriginal child in the local area, along with descriptions such as half-caste, quarter-caste and octoroon. Sissy is listed here, categorised as near white (p 115) Later, Odette reflects that:
…white people were fascinated with the skin colour of Aboriginal people, and what it might indicate…(She) understood that what this woman really wanted to know was how she’d inherited the white blood she carried and who it had come from. Odette didn’t know the answer to such questions. All she knew was that the women in her family loved all their children, regardless of the suffering and violence that had created them.p 146
Through Odette, Tony Birch suggests that the appalling and cruel behaviour exhibited by white people in authority over indigenous people, comes about because in order to carry out unjust government policies and laws, they needed to see Aboriginal people as ‘other’ and somehow at fault. Odette comments to her friend Jack:
Think if you were the police, Jack, knowing that one day you’d be told to go into a house and take kiddies away from their family. If you were to treat people with any decency, you couldn’t do that job. This fella giving us a hard time, he needs to be angry with us. Maybe even hate us. The only way they get by.p 164
The novel also deals with the so-called ‘exemption certificate’ that some Aboriginal people applied for. In essence, it was a document stating that they were no longer to be considered Aboriginal – which meant no longer subject to the laws and regulations governing every aspect of life for indigenous people under the Aboriginal Protection Act. Where you lived, if you were allowed to travel, who you might marry – these were all controlled by the relevant Protector or his delegates. Birch deals sensitively with what I am imagine has been a contested and difficult issue for many indigenous people, families and communities.
One of Odette’s friends answers Jack when he asks ‘What will we do, then?’ with the following:
What we’ve always done. Keep our heads down, think smart and get on the move again if the need comes.’p 247
What gets Odette through such difficulties are her recollections of a happy childhood, a loving marriage, and her connections to the natural world and the old people – her ancestors. She teaches Sissy about these things too, hoping that her granddaughter’s strong will and Odette’s love will guide her through life.
Each night, before Odette fell asleep, she asked the old people for help, that she would not lose Sissy as well.p 42
The White Girl is a beautiful book that deals sensitively with confronting issues of Australia’s past – and present.
For more information on Tony Birch and his books, see the UQP website.
For everyone who is still awake.Dedication by author in Bruny, published 2019 by Allen & Unwin
That dedication by the author is a good heads-up to what this novel is: part thriller, part study of family, part love letter to a place, and also, a manifesto against the onslaught of political and economic movements that support power, wealth and progress at any cost.
Set on Bruny Island, just off the Tasmanian coast near Hobart, the novel explores several themes. A main one is progress and its price, especially for small, relatively isolated communities such as those on the island, and Tasmania more generally. Astrid, the main character, is a Tasmanian with strong links to Bruny, who has established a life in New York and a career as a conflict resolution expert, working for the United Nations in trouble spots around the world. When a massive new bridge joining Bruny Island to the bigger island of Tasmania is blown up just before its completion, she is called on to help by her twin brother – who just happens to be the Premier of the state and leader of a conservative political party.
Astrid’s first task is to meet and talk with as many of the ‘stakeholders’ in the bridge project as possible – including the sizeable group of locals who are bitterly opposed to its construction. She muses that:
I was sure Tasmanians would resist…with everything they had, despite the economic advantages. Because to live on an island isn’t just a location. It’s a sense of belonging. It’s history and sacrifice. It’s a choice to be remote. It’s a kind of metaphor…
When you settle for Tassie, you’ve settled for less in some ways; less of what matters out there, more of what matters here.p 254
and p567 (ebook version)
What she discovers is much more complex than it appears, crossing international and government borders and quite a few surprises and shocks. To outline more of the plot would be a spoiler, so I won’t say any more about that here.
The time frame is set in the very near future so everything is recognisable – so much so that I had to remind myself that the novel was published last year, because there were several references to occurrences that mirrored very recent events within Australia or the wider world and which rang uncannily true: epidemics on cruise ships, scandals about government pork-barrelling, unprecedented natural disasters and weather events, to name a few.
The novel canvasses other themes along with the geopolitical ones. Relationships – intimate, sibling, parental, collegial, political – are all examined within the story of the island and its bridge. I especially loved the examination of family – what it means to belong, how we are always part of a family even if we have a life elsewhere. The character of Angus, Astrid’s elderly father who suffers from dementia, is both poignant and wise, though he can no longer communicate except in quotes from his beloved Shakespeare – quotes which are unerringly apt. My favourite is when he quotes Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown (from Henry IV Part 2) at the moment his children are discussing fraught political and public relations issues.
Other timely themes which emerge are to do with the rapid pace of technology and automation, and the moral choices that must be made even as the world drives forward towards new technologies and ways of production. For example:
The people who owned the robots, who employed the techies ignoring in-bound traffic, those who could afford high-protein, low-carb medical care and organic sex, they were going to be sitting pretty in their driverless cars. They would be the ones the car would save when it had to choose between the wellbeing of the driver and the life of the pedestrian crossing the street.p 966
This is Astrid’s musing, though I suspect it is the author’s viewpoint also. A few times, I did feel that the narrative veered into ‘telling’ (via Astrid’s thoughts and dialogue) which were mostly condemning of those in power – not that I disagreed with most of these views – just that they occasionally felt a little out of place in a novel.
I especially resonated with the word solistalgia which appears about a third of the way through – it apparently means ‘a deep melancholia for the assault the world is experiencing.’ (p465) I checked for this one in both Macquarie and Oxford Concise Dictionaries with no luck, though did find it on Wikipedia. It’s a great word, don’t you think? Earlier, Astrid thinks to herself that:
There ought to be a name for the kind of overwhelm that happens when you realise there are too many things to fight. If it’s not environment, then it’s human rights. If it’s not human rights, it’s women’s rights. Law and order. Gun control. Invasive species. Water pollution. Tax reform. Refugee policy. Education. Health care. The list is endless.p442
Perhaps solistalgia is the name she was looking for. For anyone who is or has been an activist on any or all of the issues listed above – well, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and melancholic about the tasks that still lie ahead.
This novel does not end on a melancholic note, though it is not a ‘happy ever after’ ending either. Instead, it examines what happens when a small group of people make a choice for what they believe to be the right reasons. And how individuals, families, and communities can continue to push on within the face of challenges from multiple sources. Bruny is a thought provoking read that does not have all the answers but certainly asks the right questions.
Clare Bowditch is an Australian singer-songwriter, journalist, actor and writer. She is also an ARIA award winner who has toured with Leonard Cohen and fellow Australian performer Gotye, has been on stage with the likes of Sara Storer, Katie Noonan and Ruby Hunter, acted in TV and theatre roles, and has now written a book (published by Allen & Unwin 2019). Her eighth album will be released this year (2020) Check out her lovely website for updates.
With all this behind her, may come as a surprise that Clare is someone who has suffered mental ill health and struggled with serious doubts about her own self-worth. Which is, in part, what her memoir Your Own Kind of Girl, is about.
Before you think ‘Not for me, then’, let me add that this memoir is laugh-out-loud funny in parts, incredibly honest, moving and encouraging. I listened to the audiobook format which had several bonuses—the story is told in Clare’s own voice, which felt like a warm and comfy chat over a coffee with a good friend. Also, her wonderful mum, Maria Bowditch, shares her traditional Dutch apple tart recipe at the end! What’s not to love? Each chapter is welcomed by a snippet of one of Clare’s songs, relevant to that part of her story. And most gorgeous of all, Clare’s mum also gives a ‘language warning’ at the start of the book, adding in an understated sort of way, ‘I was a bit surprised by the language.’
It is the story that Clare promised herself at age twenty-one that she ‘would one day be brave enough, and well enough, and alive enough, to write.’ from Your Own Kind of Girl Audiobook version 2019
Clare traces her life from her earliest memories of growing up in a loving family in Melbourne’s suburbs to the beginning and development of her career in the arts. Her childhood was essentially a happy one, but marred when she was still a pre-schooler by the illness and death of her sister Rowena. Clare’s memories of this time—the regular visits to the hospital, the kindness of friends and neighbours, the stoicism and enduring faith of her parents, Clare’s own thoughts and feelings—are told with sympathy but not self-pity. It was sobering to hear her description of the ongoing effects of this childhood loss on her own development through childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.
What Clare’s story shows is how children can be both resilient and fragile—that youngsters can come through all kinds of early trauma, but there will be scars. For Clare, the scars manifested as a ‘bad feeling’ that she couldn’t understand or name. Much, much later she learned that the feeling incorporated grief, and guilt, and fear. The ‘bad feeling’ was to have a profound effect on her life.
Throughout childhood and puberty she struggled with her size: being a ‘big girl’ became problematic once she was old enough to compare herself with other girls, and to realise that people treated her differently because of it. While still in primary school she lost weight by going on a strict diet. So began years of see-sawing weight, at times dangerously close to serious eating disorder, which flared and receded according to what else was happening in her life.
The ‘bad feeling’ also manifested in an inner critical voice, that told Clare she was too fat, too stupid, not worthy. This voice spoke most insistently whenever she thought of trying something new, like following her love of music and singing. Who are you kidding? the voice would tell her. As if you’d ever be good enough!
A relationship break up led to her a trip to in London while in her very early twenties, and it was here that she experienced a full blown breakdown which she later understood to be an episode of extreme anxiety. She returned home to Melbourne to try to recover. Her family and friends gave great support but most helpful was discovering a book called Self Help For Your Nerves by Dr Claire Weekes (pub 1962), who was an Australian GP and health writer, considered by many to be one of the early leaders in the field of dealing with anxiety disorders. (see Wikipedia article for more info about Dr Weekes)
This book provided a glimpse of a pathway to better health. Clare realised that what she’d experienced in London was a panic attack but also what she could do to manage her anxiety. This is where ‘FAFL-ing’ comes into the story, an acronym that stands for one of Dr Weekes’ techniques, which is, when faced with anxiety inducing situations or thoughts, to:
Face the fearful thoughts and feelings (don’t run away) Accept (don’t fight against it) Float (don’t freeze) Let time pass (let go of impatience)
Clare describes how she practiced this technique: when difficult emotions or thoughts appeared, she would ‘FAFL’ her way through. Her recovery was slow, but she persisted, establishing a meticulous self-care routine involving times to rise and sleep, healthy eating, quiet times, and FAFL-ing daily. This part of Clare’s story is poignant but as I listened to her sharing at such an intimate level, I could feel nothing but admiration for her determination in the face of frightening and confusing situations and emotions. It was a time in which mental health and illness was not discussed nearly as openly as today and she admits that she knew almost nothing apart from what she saw on TV.
So she followed the steps laid out by Dr Weekes and found that—bit by bit—she was getting better. One day she decided to give the negative, critical voice in her head a name: Frank. And so ‘FOF-ing’ eventuated—‘F#@k Off, Frank’. She realised that trying to ignore Frank’s harping attempts to undermine her confidence and self-belief was not enough. This moment, and subsequent descriptions of how she ‘FOF-ed’ whenever the voice tried to spoil things for her, gave me some laugh-out-loud moments. I still smile when I think of them and I’ve taken to trying out some (silent) FOF-ing myself when the situation requires it.
Claire describes her ongoing recovery, setbacks, first tentative steps towards a creative, fulfilling life with friendships that sustained her, travel, romance and parenthood. All of this leading towards the ‘Amazing Life’ she’d dreamt about but for such a long time did not truly believe was possible.
You want an amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You don’t have to be just one thing/ But you have to start with something/ You’ll be a little bit older in October/ You’ve been acting on your pre-birth promise/ Now you think that the story is over/ Let me encourage you to know/ You will feel it when it is over/ It feels like hell taking inside of me/ Time to be still and listen for a while/ You want this amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You think you have to be fully formed already/ Don’t you?/ You want an amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You don’t have to be just one thing/ But you have to start with something from ‘Amazing Life’ on the album ‘The Winter I chose Happiness’ by Clare Bowditch
At the end of the book there are additional resources for readers who may wish to explore ways to overcome their own ‘bad feelings’ and move towards recovery and their own amazing lives. I loved the way Clare gives these: once again it was like receiving a gift of relevant information from a close friend.
This is an honest, funny, poignant memoir that made me wish I could sit down with Clare and have a chat about her amazing life.
For a long time now, I have been conflicted about the purpose and meaning of our national holiday, Australia Day, celebrated as it is on the day regarded by First Nations peoples as the beginning of the invasion by Europeans of their land. This year I was able to spend the day, and the evening before it, in a much more positive frame of mind, surrounded by reminders of the strength, resilience and richness of indigenous cultures. On the evening before the 26th January, I was lucky enough to attend a stunning show, Bungul, at the Sydney Opera House (shout out to my beautiful friend Anita for such a generous Christmas gift!)
The concert was a performance by musicians from Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Yirritja and Dhuwa performers from north-east Arnhem land. The music was that of the late ‘Dr G’ (Gurrumul) Yunupingu, sublime and evocative music about his country, his people and his family. Along with the music was live dance performances and a visual backdrop of images from country, dancers, and seascapes. Mesmerising and moving. The joy expressed by the dancers as they performed was wonderful. It was an unforgettable experience and I think for the several thousand audience members in the Concert Hall of arguably Australia’s most famous building, a thought provoking way to experience the eve of Australia Day.
For two hundred years, Australian society has blocked its ears to the remarkable indigenous cultures that are our inheritances. As the urgency grows daily to find a more sustainable way to live with the fragile land that supports us, it is surely time to take stock and learn from the extraordinary cultures that have always been around us, cultures such as the Yolgnu. It is time to listen.Nigel Jamieson, Director of Bungul
After the concert ended, my companions and I headed for Barangaroo, another spot on Sydney Harbour, named for a Gadigal woman who lived around the area at the time of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. There we joined a vigil of Sydneysiders who had gathered together to experience a fire and smoking ceremony, listen to indigenous people sing, dance and speak about what the 26th January means to them. It was a beautiful experience although we missed the first part of the night due to the walk from the Opera House.
On Australia Day itself, 26th January, I was surrounded by families, dancers, musicians, friends to reflect on and celebrate Australia’s incredible richness of culture at the Yabun Festival, a whole day celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, languages, music, dance and much else.
All in all, these experiences added up to a much more meaningful way to spend the national day, away from the sometimes forced and artificial sense of ‘nationalism’ which can accompany this occasion. I think there is much to celebrate about my country but also much that needs to be done to redress past and continuing wrongs. So a day of thinking about and reflecting on these and other aspects of Australia’s story, was most welcome.
Now, to the book I finished just before this experience: The Mind of A Thief, which explores some of these questions.
Published in 2012 (Queensland University Press), it is the second of Patti Miller’s books I’ve read. The first, Write Your Life, is a ‘how to’ of memoir or life writing, the area for which she is justifiably well known. I have heard it said that Miller could ‘write about a blade of grass and make it interesting’ and after reading The Mind of a Thief I have to agree!
Not that this book is about blades of grass—or rather, it is about grasses, and rocks, and the sky, a particular river valley in the central west of NSW Australia, the stories that come from there, and how identity is crafted within those stories and those places. Miller was born and raised just outside the town of Wellington, though she has lived in several other parts of Australia and in Europe since.
It was a hint from an Aboriginal elder, a Wiradjuri woman, that Miller herself might ‘have some blackfella in ya’, that set her on the path of thinking about and exploring the history of the town and its valley and her own family history. Through this she encounters a long running Native Title Claim for The Common. This is a section of land that was the subject of the first Native Title claim after the Mabo High Court decision (which recognised the right of all indigenous Australians to their traditional lands and overturned the doctrine of terra nullius that had prevailed since colonisation by the British.) The Wellington claim was bitterly contested by different local groups and partly, the book is about Miller’s attempts to hear and understand all sides of the story.
In doing so, she reflects on the colonists’ treatment of the Wiradjuri, a nation that stretched over a vast area of the state. She discusses how people were herded onto reserves, a process which mixed and muddied connections to country and language. Also, the children stolen from their parents, and the lack of control by indigenous people over their own lives because of laws that treated them differently from all other Australians.
However, the book is also about the author herself; her place in the history of the Wellington Valley, her connections to the land and its people, past and present. She writes that:
There was something in uncovering the story of Wiradjuri and Wellington that … felt like a balm, quieting the restlessness… as if there were nothing else I should be doing.p. 68
Among the most fascinating parts of the book for me were the quotes from the early English and German missionaries who came to live and preach in the valley. They hoped to convert the ‘Natives’ to their Christian faith. An especially telling quote is from the Rev James Gunther who, in the Wiradjuri-English dictionary he compiled in 1839, included this sentence:
Ngunguda nilla buranu ngaddunu; minyamminyambul ngumdiagirrin, which he translated to mean Give me that child and I will give you plenty to eat. (p.87)
Whoa. If ever there was a direct quote to illustrate the simplicity and horror of the theft carried out by the colonists of all backgrounds and motivations, surely this is it. Theft of land, of children, of family. Attempted theft of minds and beliefs and hope.
Another quote, from Rev William Watson in 1835, attributed to a Wiradjuri man called Gungin, who on being reprimanded by the Reverend for something, replied angrily:
What do you want here? What do you come here for? Why do you not go to your own country. (p96)
And later, Brother Johann Handt commented in 1832 that, when asked by Wiradjuri women why he wanted their children, he replied that ‘we desired to instruct their children, and to make them like ourselves, after which they replied that they had no children.’ (p.103)
Hardly any more needs to be said about the unwillingness of the Wiradjuri to see their children become ‘civilised’ in this manner.
Miller’s book explores this history within the context of her own ancestors’ culpability in the dispossession and oppression of the Wiradjuri. She discovers that one of her nineteenth-century ancestors was part of a group of leading townspeople who originally commandeered The Common—the piece of land that was, more than a century later, the subject of the Native Title claim discussed in the book.
Whether we had Wiradjuri ancestors or not, the mere fact of my white ancestors turning up in the Wellington Valley on the currents of English criminal and colonial policy mingled our histories inextricably.pp. 123 & 166
… It wasn’t just symbolic to say my ancestors took the land from the Wiradjuri in the first place. After all this time I discovered one of them, Patrick Reidy, really did take it.
I share with Miller an ancestry of British and German migrants to this ancient land: a mix of English convicts, and Germans leaving behind the political and economic upheavals of nineteenth century Europe in search of a better life. I am certain that some of these people, especially those who came in the early years of the colony, were participants in the dispossession of indigenous people as they gained freedom and were granted land—often large areas of land—in the Hawkesbury, the northwest of NSW and the Hunter areas, for example. This is an uncomfortable truth. I also feel a deep connection to this country of my birth, though it’s a connection that stretches back just over two hundred years, not many thousands as it does for those who were so dispossessed.
So, like Miller, I ‘come from transplanted people.’ Whether this makes us ‘grow a little crooked and ill at ease’ (p.145), I’m not sure. Certainly, there is discomfort, and a wish for my country to do things better now, recognise the First Nations of this land in meaningful ways, try to repair the damage done.
The Mind of a Thief does not have answers to these questions. But for me, the hopeful aspect of Miller’s story is best summed up by this passage:
I wondered about second chances and whether everyone gets them or not. Whether a whole country gets another chance to do things right and whether it ever makes up for doing it so badly the first time.p.233
This is a beautiful book that asks some hard questions without giving glib answers. I am convinced that Miller can indeed write about anything—including blades of grass—and make it fascinating and thought provoking.
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.