• Books and reading

    A (sometimes confronting) personal and social history: ‘A Particular Woman’ by Ashley Dawson-Damer

    I may have only two things in common with the author of this memoir: we are both women, and have both experienced grief and trauma in our lives. I can think of a long list of ways in which we are different: family background, political views, life experiences. So it’s perhaps not too surprising that for much of the time while reading A Particular Woman I felt a certain alienation from its author – or at least, from her representation of herself. Having said that, the book is an interesting read, partly because it’s a journey through Australian life in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s and up to the present time.

    I’ll start with the blurb on the back cover:
    Embracing the excitement and turbulence of sixties Sydney, Ashley is set to make her mark amid uni classes filled with ambitious young males. She imagines her future with a successful career, husband, and a house full of children.
    But life is never quite that easy.

    As a university graduate with a degree in economics (unusual for a woman at that time) Ashley travels to London and Canada, marries, and lives with her new husband as an expat in the Philippines, Singapore, Nigeria and Argentina. Later, as a single parent, she supports her young children through work as a model; eventually find love and security and a country lifestyle, before venturing into a role in the arts world as a member of various boards. Throughout the years she comes up against tragedy, hardship and profound grief.

    I admit to a certain amount of distaste for aspects of her life, or at least for the way she describes them. She recounts jobs with a large tobacco company with no apparent reflection on the evils of this industry. Similarly, her descriptions of her life as an expat in countries with high levels of poverty hint at a limited awareness of the position of relative privilege held by monied, white youngsters in countries previously colonised and often pillaged by the West. Several interactions between various friends and some local people struck me as shameful, but are recounted by the author with no apology or reflection.

    Dawson-Damer seemed to move through the world as a young, blonde, beautiful woman with an apparent line up of men ogling her and wanting to take her to bed. I found this uncomfortable reading.

    However, I decided to regard this memoir as a first hand account of the times in which she lived. Australia, as with much of the world, was undergoing a period of great change; upheavals as economies and societies transitioned from the post-war era to a modern day understanding of issues like imperialism, racism, and sexism. As an example: while completing her economics degree, it was still the custom to hold a ‘Miss Economics’ competition in the faculty! And as the author puts it:

    Work was opening up for me, and yet women in the workplace had to be careful. We knew not to catch lifts alone with certain men; there’s no denying it, in those days we were fair game.

    A Particular Woman p36

    Dawson-Damer’s life did not play out as expected. She was to endure loss and hardship and several transformations of her own life before reaching a place of acceptance and stability. I warmed to her more as she recounted these difficult times and the way she dealt with them. I could admire her hard work, tenacity and commitment to whatever challenges she set herself. Her philosophy is best summed up in these words:

    We must celebrate life. Not just our own, but the life we have with others. Most of us are going to have difficult times dished up to us. The awful times are balanced out by the good times. If we are lucky, we will survive the tragedies that might occur and go on to be stronger…Suffering mellows us. It makes us humbler and wiser. It adds steel melded with compassion to our strength.

    A Particular Woman p235

    The book is illustrated with a collection of photographs from different times in her life. I would have enjoyed knowing more about the people and places in some of these, but they were a welcome addition, helping to bring her story alive.

    A Particular Woman is a story of resilience against a backdrop of a changing Australia, and would hold plenty to interest readers who enjoy first-hand accounts of interesting lives such as
    Ashley Dawson-Damer’s.

    A Particular Woman will be published in July 2020 by Ventura Press.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    The story of a generous and beautiful Australian: Archie Roach’s memoir ‘Tell Me Why’

    I remember the first time I saw Archie Roach perform. I’d bought his first two albums (Charcoal Lane and Jamu Dreaming) and already loved his music, his voice, and the honesty of his songs. Walking into Doors always brought me to tears, perhaps because of my own life experiences years before. I’d not seen him perform live, until the Woodford Folk Festival (one of Australia’s biggest and most magical festivals) in the mid 1990’s.
    My sister and I left our arrival at the big tent venue where Archie was going to play a bit late, and ended up perched on a grassy hillock to one side, where we were crammed in with others who loved this man’s music and message. All I could see were his legs and feet!

    It didn’t matter. Archie’s sublime voice sailed out above the gathered crowd, touching hearts with his stories and his humble and generous manner. From that moment I was an avowed Archie fan.

    Tell Me Why is a memoir, tracing his incredible, tragic, wonderful life and career. Just as his songs (like Charcoal Lane, Took the Children Away, A Child was Born Here, Walking into Doors, Jamu Dreaming, or Weeping in the Forest) told the stories of this land and it’s history, Tell Me Why gives us insight into Archie’s own story, his journey through a childhood as one of the Stolen Generations, discovering as a schoolboy in Melbourne that he had a whole birth family elsewhere, and the many years he spent trying to discover and reconcile his indigenous identity.

    I found it shocking to realise that he grew up knowing nothing of the Stolen Generations, either at a personal level or the wider ramifications for indigenous Australians. Nor did he know about the ‘missions’, established in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a way of corralling indigenous Australians into settlements, often away from their traditional country. These were among practices that were either about protection of indigenous Australians, or a form of apartheid making it easier for Europeans to take and occupy land. Whichever way you regard the motives behind these occurrences, the results were mostly tragic, with ramifications felt by generations to come. For Archie and many of his family and friends, this included struggles with addictions of various kinds:

    We were part of an obliterated culture, just intact enough to know it exists, but so broken we didn’t think we could ever be put together again. We’d lost mates and family young, and we would again. We had lineages we knew so little about. There was death in our past, and death in our future, but we craved a carefree and happy present, and booze offered us that.

    Tell Me Why p54

    Archie talks about his own struggles with alcoholism; his painful rehabilitation; grief at the untimely deaths of family members; his health challenges. There is joy, also: meeting Ruby Hunter, his life partner; creating a family together; discovering that for him, music might be more powerful than the drink. (p144)
    I laughed with him at his memory of one of his first big live gigs, opening for Paul Kelly & The Messengers at the Melbourne Concert Hall, when he didn’t know who Paul Kelly was and mistook him for a bouncer!

    Reading Archie’s reflections on life, people, and the ‘old ways’ of Aboriginal culture, there were reminders for me of the beautiful book Song Spirals, with its exploration of indigenous perceptions and beliefs about time, life and death. Here is Archie:

    There was no word for death, because life is an endless continuum – you didn’t die, you travelled; you left one place to go to another. Life kept going on, unceasingly. The Bundjalung didn’t have a word for ‘thanks’, either, with the closest being to ‘wish someone well’. There was no need to say anything if someone gave you something; you would just wish them well because sharing and generosity was expected.
    Even though I couldn’t speak my father’s language, when I sang in Bundjalung it felt as if I was doing something I’d done before long ago. It was in my memory.

    Tell Me Why p274

    Characteristically, the memoir finishes in his inclusive style, reflecting on what joins Australians together regardless of race or background:

    Now my songwriting feels more inclusive, more universal…I have come to realise that it’s about all of us – you can’t really write about yourself without including everyone. What affects you invariably affects others as well…Now my whole outlook on life is about reminding us all of the place where we all began, where we all came from …the ‘place of fire’…{It’s} a place of love and connection.

    Tell me Why pp 351-353

    This memoir will make you cry, feel anger, laugh out loud, and when you have finished, I promise you, your heart will be full of Archie’s generous and resilient spirit.

    Tell Me Why was published by Simon & Schuster in 2019

    #AussieAuthor20
    #2020ReadNonFic

  • Books and reading,  History

    Why memory matters: ‘I Want You to Know We’re Still Here’ by Esther Safran Foer

    This book’s subtitle is My family, the Holocaust and my search for truth. It is about momentous events in history (WWII, Nazi-occupied Europe and the Holocaust) but also about one family, their stories, and memory – the role it plays in defining us as individuals, as families and as a people. On the very first page the author sets the scene:

    I am the offspring of Holocaust survivors, which, by definition, means there is a tragic and complicated history.

    I want you to know we’re still here p3

    The title refers to her stated aim in writing the book: to let her ancestors know that they were not forgotten and that the family lives on. Later, she writes, How I wished they could see all the good that came later: the births, bar mitzvahs, the graduations and weddings, the great- and great-great grandchildren. (p179) A lovely moment comes at the end of the book, when at a gathering of the now large extended family living in America, one of her grandchildren quips Take that, Hitler! (p223)

    In the pages of this thought-provoking exploration of what it means to survive, to make decisions about whether to walk away from the past, to learn about it or to silence it, the author traces her own personal experiences. She knew that her parents had memories too terrible to commit to words (p8), she’d seen photos of long-dead relatives who had no direct descendants to tell their stories, and she embarked on the complicated path to tracing her father’s life. This involved meeting and speaking to many people who had knowledge of or a connection with her extended family, her parents, grandparents and others. She travelled to Ukraine to visit the site of the village that had once stood in the countryside and was populated by many Jewish families, but later destroyed after the Jewish residents were murdered. Poignantly she was able to track down and finally meet family and descendants of the man who had hidden her father from the Nazis and thus saved his life.

    There is so much to think about in this book. The author’s personal experiences and reflections are moving. They also touch on issues that resonated with me, an Australian reader with no direct connection with the events described. Reading about the theory of ‘postmemory’ first introduced by an American woman called Marianne Hirsch, I was prompted to consider the experiences of indigenous Australians since European invasion and colonisation. For example:

    The idea is that traumatic memories live on from one generation to the next, even if the later generation was not there to experience these events directly…the stories one grows up with are transmitted so affectively that they seem to constitute memories in their own right…these inherited memories – traumatic fragments of events – defy narrative reconstruction.

    I want you to know we’re still here p23

    This description is also true of the inter-generational trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, from the numerous deaths by disease, the theft of land, the massacres, the policies of forced removal from livelihoods and families, and the incarcerations visited upon indigenous Australians during these years.
    (There are many indigenous authors who have published works of fiction and non fiction that explore some of the ways postmemory might well be a concept relevant to the Australian situation, including Melissa Lukashenko, (my review of Too Much Lip here) Tara June Winch (The Yield), Tony Birch (The White Girl), Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu), and Archie Roach (Tell Me Why), among many others.)

    There are some terrible events described in this book, including murders of men, women and children, mass graves, the theft of clothing and valuables from those killed, other atrocities committed by the Nazis or those who did their bidding. There are also moments of light, love and honourable behaviour, including this reflection:

    From a Jewish perspective, action is what counts. You do the right thing. The feelings come later.

    I want you to know we’re still here p222

    For me, that’s a sentiment impossible to argue against.

    I Want You to Know We’re Still Here will be published in Australia by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins, on 20 April 2020.
    Thanks to the publisher for the advance copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Why FAFL-ing and FOF-ing might be good for us all: Clare Bowditch’s ‘Your Own Kind of Girl’

    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.

  • 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