Monthly Archives: October 2019

‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ by Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garmimara)

pilkington_rabbit

1996, 135P.

Am I the only person in Australia who has not read ‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ or seen the movie? I suspect that I am.

First published in 1996, reprinted in 2000 and released as a movie in 2002, it is the story of Molly (14), Daisy (11) and Grace (8) who were forcibly removed from their families and taken to Moore River Native Settlement in 1931. The three girls escaped and walked home 1600 km in three months through the West Australian desert, orienting themselves in the huge expanse by following the rabbit-proof fence, a long fence intended to stop rabbits from entering the West Australian pastoral district.

Doris Pilkington is Molly’s daughter, but she knew little of her mother’s history until her aunt told her. Pilkington, like her mother and aunt, was also part of the Stolen Generation. She, too, ended up at that same Moore River, having been separated from her mother Molly at the age of four, and not seeing her again for more than twenty years. She didn’t learn the story of her mother and aunt’s escape for another ten years after that. (You can read more about the writing of the book here).

I was surprised that much of the book was history- it took up to p. 75 (in a 135 page book) for the girls to escape.  This history started with white invasion, tribal leader Kundilla (I’m not sure whether he was a historical figure or a narrative device); whalers; Swan River; and the decline of Aboriginal society.  She emphasizes the Mardudjara people as the traditional owners when white settlers brought their cattle, and describes the ‘coming in’ to the stations. Her focus is particularly  Jigalong station between 1917-1931. I was reminded here of Ann McGrath’s 1987 history Born in the Cattle which provides a nuanced account of Aboriginal cattle workers, the texture of station life, and the symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and workers.

From p. 75 on, the story fits into a more familiar ‘Voyage and Return’ narrative. Once the girls have started on their trek, she uses historical documents to support her narrative e.g. the correspondence of A. O. Neville (Protector of Aborigines) and copies of telegrams that criss-crossed W.A. The girls are by no means lost: they know where they are, and so do many other people in the homesteads, who offer them hospitality and then go on to report them to the Protector. In the end, the bureaucratic decision is made that it would be too expensive to retrieve them, and they are just let go.

In many ways, the postscript is most damning. Molly, along with her two daughters, was sent again to Moore River. She absconded again taking her 18 month old daughter and leaving Doris  behind. She retraced the walk that she did nine years earlier to return to Jigalong, only to lose her remaining daughter as well, when she was taken by the authorities. Both Daisy and Gracie would have been viewed as ‘successes’ under the assimilation policy of the time. Both married and were employed as domestic help. Daisy ended up moving to a Seventh Day Adventist Mission after her husband’s death.

This book has been a favourite on school reading lists for many years. Larissa Behrendt has written an essay for this school audience, which raises some interesting points.

I imagined that this book would be more emotional and angry than it is. The front-loading of history at the start of the story does make it somewhat abstract, and there is a flatness in the telling that I didn’t expect. I’m sure that on the screen, the landscape would be stark and featureless, but in the book more emphasis is placed on how Molly ‘reads’ the country, rather than on what it lacks. I look at some of the blurbs for later editions and the movie, which highlight ‘adventure’ and ‘courage’. These things are here in the book, but so too is unspoken love and knowledge for country, a quiet and stubborn determination, and a slow-burning injustice.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup choice.

AWW2019

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge database.

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 7-21 October 2019

I’ve fallen behind so I’ll compress these into one entry

Letters of love in World War II. In Episode 5 D-Day Visitations we are now in 1944 and Olga is surprised and delighted by Claude’s fleeting visit home to take control of a new tank. The short visit rekindles their relationship which was looking inexplicably rocky in the last episode.  I’m enjoying this so much that I only listen to one episode at a time to make it last longer.

Rough Translation. This podcast seems to have changed direction this season. It used to be about a concept and how it was expressed in different cultures. The episode Mom in Translation is more about how the individual changes when in a different culture. In this episode, an American mother married to a soldier of Filipino background shifts with their young children to Japan, where now she is the odd one out with her blonde hair and pale conmlexion. Her little primary-school-aged son, who never fitted into the American schools on army bases, decided that he wanted to attend a Japanese school, which meant that she had to readjust her ideas about mothering.

Revolutionspodcast. The Tsar might have done the progressive thing by emancipating the serfs (one of those give-with-one-hand-take-with-the-other arrangements whenever some powerful group is threatened by losing an ‘entitlement’) but he was still the No. 1 Assassin Target amongst radicals.  In The Tsar Must Die, we hear about the multiple near misses that man had…. for a while.  In Episode 10.16 The Russian Colony we hear about the different radical groups in the 1870s and 1880s. I found this one a little hard to follow – too many Russian names to listen to!

History Workshop  In Concentration Camps and Historical Analogies, historian Dan Stone unpacks the idea of a ‘concentration camp’, challenging the accusation that Trump’s migrant detention centres qualify as such. His definition has the inmates of a concentration camp removed completely from judicial oversight and any system of justice. He distinguishes between the Nazi extermination camps and concentration camps, arguing that people did not stay for any length of time in the Nazi camps, and that these should not be used as the template for a concentration camp. He demonstrates the wide range of concentration camps across 19th and 20th century history.

Outlook (BBC) Identical twins often have a special bond, and when Alex Lewis lost his memory after a road accident, his identical twin Marcus helped him to rebuild his lost memories.  In The painful secret I hid from my twin, there’s a very textured story of memory, secrets and identity.  It’s difficult listening, but very good. It’s the basis of a documentary released on Netflix and some cinemas called “Tell Me Who I Am”.

Earshot. While we’re into some difficult listening, ‘The Call: Inside the Christian Brothers‘ is also very good but challenging. The Christian Brothers have really been brought into disgrace in the Royal Commission against Institutional Sex Abuse, and this program has interviews with two former Christian Brothers who joined as mere pre-adolescent boys.  What a stuffed-up system.

Murchison_meteorite

Carbonaceous chondrite (Murchison Meteorite) by James St John https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/14601493358

Off Track When I was in the Atacama Desert in Chile (says she casually), I visited a meteorite museum. In The unlikely tale of the Murchison meteorite, we learn that good old Murchison also has a very rare meteorite that sits in its local historical society. 4.6 BILLION years old. I can’t even think of a number that big. Meteorites from this shower have ended up in museums in many countries.

 

 

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

Fowler_WeAreAll

2014, 336p.

One of the problems with writing a book that is almost completely reliant on a big narrative twist in the middle is that you can’t really review it, without spoiling it for others. So, I won’t do either- review it, or spoil it.

The book is told in the conversational narrative of an American woman looking back over her childhood, which was ruptured when her sister left.  And I’ll leave it at that.

How would I have reacted to this book without the ‘great reveal’, I wonder? Probably not as favourably, because there’s a sort of shocked delight in going back over your assumptions when you’ve had them turned upside down.

Once you’ve read the book, do an image search for the front cover. It’s interesting that some of the front cover designs give away the story much more than the cover on the version I read (above).

Read because: it was a CAE bookgroup selection

My rating: 7/10

I hear with my little ear: 1-7 October 2019

The History Listen   Experiment Street- the true history of a city lane. A mixture of fiction and history, this episode tells the story of the real-life Experiment Street in Pyrmont  Sydney, through the narrative voice of the fictional character Lizzie Absolom.  The information is based on newspapers and law reports, with the occasional comment by Sydney historian Shirley Fitzgerald.  The episode is very much a ‘production’ performance, but an interesting approach. I prefer my history to stay historical, though.

Duolingo. Another Spanish/English podcast, ‘Buscando el Rio Hirviente’ (Looking for the Boiling River) is about a Peruvian geologist who was brought up with his grandfather’s stories of a boiling river deep in the jungle. Knowing professionally that there was no thermal activity near the jungle, he no longer believed in the boiling river until he was taken by an indigenous shaman.  Terrific photos here.  He has sworn not to divulge the location to mining interests…but I wonder how long that will last?

Letters of Love from World War 2. Episode 4 ‘Silence and Roses‘ is so sad. Obviously Cyril is suffering from depression, and somehow they get involved in a silly argument about optimism and pessimism and drift apart – all by mail.  I love this series.

Movie: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

A has-been actor and his stuntman end up living next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate as Charles Manson’s gang are hanging around.

I don’t think that I’m sufficiently steeped in film to catch all the allusions and references in this film.  It was VERY long (three hours) and too self-indulgent in spinning off into side stories. And my God, the ending was violent. I shut my eyes.

My rating: 3/5 (but I probably don’t know what I’m talking about)

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24 – 30 September 2019

nicholasIRevolutionsPodcast continues on, and Mike Duncan’s project of following through different revolutions across the globe and over time is really bearing fruit as he is able to draw connections between one revolution and the other. In Episode 10.13 Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality he looks at Czar Nicholas I and his repressive response to revolutionary fervour both in the 1820s (when the whole of Europe was nervous) and in 1848 when revolution emerged in many countries. His response of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality certainly has resonances in Russian history today. Then in Episode 10.14 The Tsar Liberator, the Crimean War exposes the rot at the core of Russian society, and moves on to the new Czar Alexander who finally bites the bullet and deals with the Emancipation of the Serfs. I found lots of parallels between the Emancipation of the Serfs in Russia and the Emancipation of Slaves in the British Empire- the need to ‘buy off’ the property owners and the burdens placed on the ‘liberated’ people.

Duolingo The podcast Autostop en Afghanistán (Hitchhiking in Afghanistan) has been hanging around on my phone for a while. It’s about an Argentinian travel writer who decides to hitchhike through Afghanistan, as a counter-narrative to the rhetoric of the war on terror. Did you know that one of the Spanish terms for ‘hitchhike’ is ‘viajar a dedo’ which literally means ‘travel by finger’? Mixed English and Spanish, with a transcript available – and there’s always Google Translate.

Soul Search.  Simon Schama is one of my favourite narrative historians, and his voice is immediately recognizable in this podcast Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews, recorded in coversation with Paul Holdengraber (never heard of him!) at the Sydney Writers Festival. His second book of a planned trilogy of the story of the Jews, Belonging,  has been released recently.

Background Briefing. Another podcast that’s been on the phone, the podcast Welfare to Worse caused a bit of a fuss when it was released in August of this year. It’s about the Parents Next progam, and the unhealthy relationship between private providers, who are paid for keeping people ‘on the books’ and Centrelink, who are happy to shift onto those providers the onus for deciding whether people (particularly single mothers) need to meet interview, work and training requirements to keep their government payments. Having responsibility for eight children, and homeless is no guarantee that a private company won’t deem you suitable for ‘a program’. Meanwhile, the government keeps parroting “the best form of welfare is a job”.

Earshot. We’re aware of deep fakes as a political danger, but there’s another form of fakery where an image of a  woman’s head (and its nearly always a woman) is photoshopped onto pornographic material, to make it seem as if she is a porn star. This happened to Noelle Martin in My Fake Naked Body: one woman’s story of image-based abuse. She doesn’t know who is creating these images, and as she has found, it is almost impossible to remove them.

‘Her Mother’s Daughter’ by Nadia Wheatley

Wheatley_Mothers_Daughter

2018, 352 p.

I’ll be honest: I don’t really like the ‘parental memoir’ books, even though I seem to keep reading them.  You know the ones I mean, where a child (often already an established writer) writes the biography of one of their parents, interweaving it with their own memoir and ‘journey’ in trying to understand their parent/s. I’ve read my share of them, historian Jim Davidson writing about his father; Biff Ward writing about her historian father and his wife; Catherine de Saint Phalle writing about her Parisian parents Poum and Alexandre; Marie Munkara writing from the point of view of a member of the Stolen Generations re-discovering her family; Anne Summers writing about her mother and a painting, and Magda Szubanski writing about her family and coming out.

That’s a lot of books for a genre that I’ve said I don’t like. I am uncomfortable with the stripping-bare of a parent who cannot defend their actions, and I dislike the sense of long-held grievance that often permeates a child’s judgement of their parent, no mater how long ago these childhood events occurred.

So why, then, did I read this ‘parental memoir’? I think it’s probably because I admire Nadia Wheatley as a biographer through her excellent biography of Charmian Clift The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift and I was interested to see how a professional biographer/historian deals with the problem of writing a hybrid biography/memoir. [It was this methodological curiosity that led me to read Davidson and Summers, and will probably lead me to Jill Roe and Brenda Niall one day.] More immediately, it was as a response to reading excellent reviews by Jonathan Shaw and Sue at Whispering Gums.

The title of Wheatley’s book Her Mother’s Daughter is an act of claiming back her relationship with her mother. She was told by family that because she was only nine when her mother died, she couldn’t possibly remember her. Besides, she was told, her mother would have hated her Leftist policies. It was in reconstructing her mother’s life as an adult, from what people told her about her mother, and drawing on her own memories written at the time of her mother’s death in a valiant attempt to stop them dissipating (surely the act of a future writer and biographer!) that she realized that her mother would not have rejected her because of her politics and that she was, indeed, more of her mother’s daughter than her wider family recognized.  The choice of title is also an act of distancing herself from her father, to whom she was often likened, and with whom she had a fearful, strained relationship. His behaviour, as her research proved, was even darker than she realized as a child.

The book is written in four parts. The first section ‘Neen’ tells of the early life of Wheatley’s mother Nina Whatley, born in 1906 in northern NSW, whose own mother died while Nina was young. Her life seemed destined to end in nursing her much-loved elderly father and her less-loved stepmother, but World War II was her escape, when she enrolled as a nurse and worked with the 6th A.G.H. in Greece and Palestine. After the war she worked in refugee camps with Displaced Persons with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, taking up a position of responsibility that saw her nicknamed “Miss UNRRA”.

It was in these camps that she met the English doctor, Dr (John) Norman Wheatley, as described in Part II ‘Nina and John’. Dr Wheatley was married (although separated) at the time, and unknown to Nina he had a darker side that manifested itself through his alter ego ‘Mr Black’, a legal identity that he used for gambling, dodgy enterprises, affairs.  Already here as a reader you sense the perils for Nina in finally marrying Dr Wheatley. Their affair, while it was clandestine and without responsibilities, filled their weekends with liaisons, parties and travel. When Neen unexpectedly fell pregnant, he did not welcome the child, and Neen returned home to Australia to have her child.

Part III ‘Nina, John and Nadia’ is the longest section of the book, and it conveys well the anxiety evoked in this little girl by her father’s capricious, heedless and manipulative behaviour. They shift from one house to another as her father’s enterprises turn sour. Her sardonic father plays mind-games with both mother and daughter, with his menacing repetitions “do you understand?” when telling or showing Nadia aberrant  anecdotes and images. When Neen complains of chest pain, he ignores her, dismissing the pain as psychosomatic, a diagnosis too easily conveyed and shared amongst the male-dominated psychiatric fraternity. It was a dismissal that probably robbed Neen of years of health.

In the final Part IV, after Neen’s death, Nadia goes into the care of a school friend’s family; a paid arrangement she later learns, and one where she is vulnerable. The relationship with her father, already brittle, petered out.

Looking over this summary, there’s not a lot of joy here. Disappointments and betrayals, when they occur, seem inevitable. Yet, the book does not have the howl of grievance that too many parental memoirs have, perhaps because Wheatley’s intent is to recover her mother in order to identify with her, instead of to judge. The judgement is directed towards her father instead.

There is a narrative distance between Wheatley the author and Wheatley the character, and I think it is this detachment and – is ‘professionalism’ the word?- that makes this book a work of biographical reconstruction as much as memoir.  Most of it is written in the third person, but occasionally Nadia Wheatley the adult biographer breaks into the narrative, commenting on information that she has uncovered, responding with scepticism, regret or shame (as when she realizes that Neen’s inheritance of the family home had caused such resentment in the family). Wheatley has brought her biographer’s eye to her own family, contextualizing it within the mores and expectations of the time, filling in background information about the refugee schemes after WWII and psychiatric medicine during the 1950s, particularly in relation to women. She is explicit about her sources – her mother’s letters (often quoted verbatim), interviews and conversations with family members,  discussions with people who knew Neen – as a way of testing her own reality and memory against those of other people. Although the structure of the book is mainly chronological, it skips back and forth, shifting between third and first person. It is a deft book, written with confidence. Its emotional tone is dispassionate, and you, as a reader, do the emotional work of being enraged at people’s self-centredness, fearful of what seems inevitable, and hollowed by grief and unfairness. That Wheatley has brought you to this place is a testament to her skill as a writer.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book

My rating: 9/10

AWW2019I have included this on the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge database