Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

‘The Invisible History of the Human Race’ by Christine Kenneally


2014, 320 p & notes, Black Inc

The DNA Gods play a highly visible form of roulette with my family. Twenty-nine years ago I sat in a genetic counsellor’s office and had the statistic 11 to one batted around.  Eleven to one? That’s not too bad I thought….  Thirty years later my son sat in a genetic counsellor’s office, asking the same question but the answer he received was different: depressingly so.  How could that be? I wondered.  In many ways this book by Christine Kenneally explains why.  Our understanding of DNA has exploded since about 2000, with phenomena we have thought of as being cultural or idiosyncratic increasingly being exposed as being genetic in origin.  At the same time, there has been an explosion of interest in family history, turbo-charged by the Internet.  This book explores the inter-twining of these two forces.

Herein are studies from psychology, economics, history, and genetics, anecdotes and data from business, science, and the lives of many fascinating individuals.  They all exemplify in some way what gets passed down over the generations, and they all provide insights that resonate with one another.  As I hope to demonstrate by the end of the book, the concept of ancestry can bring genetics and history together fruitfully; perhaps ancestry will lead us to a place where we can make use of these different kinds of data in a more unified way. (p ix)

I’m not a science-y person at all.  The Introduction made me wonder if this book was going to be too science-heavy for me, but it actually started off with history, then prehistory, before moving onto DNA. Even the more science-y chapters started off with a human anecdote which tethered the content in the everyday before moving into more theoretical waters.

Early chapters explore the phenomenon of family history in the Internet age, its enormous popularity and yet its marginal status in relation to ‘academic’ history.  Family history also has its dark past:  eugenics has a sharp edge; the Third Reich deployed genealogy amongst its adherents to demonstrate their Aryan purity, and the Lebensborn clinics ensured that SS soldiers fathered more Aryan children.  Other regimes have silenced ancestry: we have the Stolen Generation and the brutalized children of orphanages whose identity has been stripped from them;  the Chinese government turned on the reverence for ancestors during the Cultural Revolution and insisted that centuries-old records be destroyed.  There’s an unsettling edge emerging with the hoovering-up of government and church archives into internet-based companies like and the extensive databases owned by the Mormons who have their own religious imperative to posthumously baptize family members so that they can enter into eternal life.   The prospect of Anne Frank being posthumously claimed and baptised I find downright offensive.

The crossover of commercial genealogical companies into genetic analysis is also unsettling, and it leads Keneally into her exploration of genetic technology. Companies like Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and offer a selection of DNA tests and genealogical connections to the general public.  The banks of genomes held (owned?) by such companies become, in effect, crowdfunded and immensely valuable privatized libraries.  It is no surprise that much of this activity is based in Salt Lake City, the base of the Mormon Church where James LeVoy Sorenson, the wealthiest man in Utah and one of the richest men in the world sought out the possibility of analyzing the DNA of every individual in Norway to find his ancestors who were hidden from the documentary record.  The academic from Brigham Young University that he approached deflected Sorenson from the Norway proposal by a different plan whereby they would analyze the genome of 200 individuals from each of 500 different populations around the world. That collection of 100,000 genomes would form a microcosm of the human race, and would yield information about four generations of family history for each person.  In effect, “they would use science to personalize history”. (p 205)  First they started in Utah, then went to Africa, Asia, Kyrgyszstan on their quest to acquire more than 100,000 samples from all over the world.  DNA analysis can reveal the sweeps of migration across the globe over time, thereby interweaving the individual and personal with the large pulse of mankind over millennia:

In the same way that looking back into our immediate family’s past may change how we think about time and history and our place in it, so too does taking on the idea of our more distant ancestry.  Once upon a time, history was living memory plus all the increasingly fuzzy spans of time that came before it.  Now we may use written records and the artifacts and fossils that came before records.  Using all of these sources of information with DNA teaches us simultaneously about human history, the forces of evolution, and ourselves. Ancestry brings together history and science without any artificial seams between them.  It explains our immediate family in the context of the human family and vice versa. (p 262)

DNA analysis can ruthlessly strip away family story and patchy documentation, leaving the human individual to cope intellectually and emotionally with the overturning of what had appeared certainties.   There had been claims about Thomas Jefferson fathering six children with Sally Hemings, but DNA scotched the alternative scenario of the involvement of Jefferson’s nephew that had been offered by those wishing to protect Jefferson’s reputation.  But the Woodson family, who also had a powerful oral history tradition linking them to the Jefferson and Heming family were devastated to learn that the connection was not there.  One family was vindicated by DNA; another family felt stripped naked by it.

Christine Kenneally is a journalist who has written for the New Yorker, The Monthly and New Scientist, and it is her contribution to  this latter publication that encapsulates the flavour of this wide-ranging book.  My husband subscribes to New Scientist, and each week there is a deluge of new studies  that often disrupt older knowledge across the whole spectrum of disciplines.  There are footnotes to this book but they are not marked in the text at all (I didn’t find them until after I’d finished it) and many of them are very recent publications. Indeed, many of the examples in this book may already be negated or made redundant by new studies.

I feel completely at sea in assessing this book- it ranges so far and so idiosyncratically that I wonder if anyone could be as familiar with the material as she is.  In her treatment of things that I do know about (the Founders and Survivors project, for example) her narrative is sound, if somewhat simplified and compressed to support the argument that she is making.  I can only assume that her treatment of other material is likewise.

This is a big book about big data and its effect on knowledge, from the broad sweep of history right down to the micro-level of genes and cells. It engages and teases with ideas, without swamping the reader.  Occasionally I wondered if I was losing the thread, but then she’d give an anecdote or example that brought me back again.  The fact that it may already be outdated in places is a perfect illustration of the paradox that she is illustrating: that the very new can shed light on the very old.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have read this as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘A Short History of Richard Kline’ by Amanda Lohrey


 2015, 259 p.

The blurb on the back of this book describes it as “a pilgrim’s progress for the here and now”.  I can see the likenesses: Pilgrim’s Progress has Christian, its everyman character not unlike the eponymous Richard Kline in this book; Christian and Richard are both on a spiritual journey and quite frankly, just as with Bunyan’s book,  not everyone is going to want to go along the path with Richard Kline either.

Richard Kline starts his memoir by explaining that he is recording” a strange event that intervened in my life at the age of forty-two”. He is Australian and married with a young son. He has grown up and the computer industry has grown up alongside him, providing him with an affluent enough lifestyle to travel, eat out and go to conferences.  He is healthy. Yet

…I confess that for most of my life I was bored. It’s an unattractive word, boredom, and I flinch from it now, but for a long time it was the only word I could summon to describe my condition. Today I would say that for much of my life I suffered from an apprehension of lack, but one that I found difficult to put into words.  In essence it consisted of a feeling that nothing was ever quite right; something was always missing. How many of us have been dismayed by that feeling? And ashamed of it at those very moments when we ought to feel happy? We ask ourselves: what is the flaw in our being that gives rise to this discontent? (p. 3)

Peggy Lee once sang “Is that all there is?” and this book is almost that song put into prose. He’s a dessicated man, and no wonder he never cried. He is aware that he’s not feeling what other people do, and he feels cheated by that.  He turns to antidepressants in a desultory fashion, he dabbles in psychotherapy and holistic therapy. He takes up a free program in stress management offered through his work where he’s given a mantra and begins meditation. It is only when he stumbles into the Chatswood Community Centre on a Saturday morning that he encounters a Hindu saint and spiritual teacher from Tamil Nadu, Sri Mata, that he starts to thaw and to see reverence and meaning in the world around him.  He retains his scepticism and his empiricism, but he’s also confronted by what he has experienced from meeting Sri Mata.

Am I uncomfortable with this? Yes, and no.  I am myself a Unitarian Universalist, (you’ll find me there on the webpage!) a spiritual tradition that is firmly based on the idea of lifelong searching. Therefore,  I’m open to exploring meaning- but I’m not sure that there really is ‘truth’. I liked this distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘faith’:

Belief is clinging to a set of doctrines, usually based on what someone else has said. Faith is opening the mind, without preconceptions, to whatever comes along. Faith is a plunge into the unknown. Faith is what underpins any science that’s not dogmatic. Faith accepts that we cannot know everything and can control only a little. We surrender our need for certainty (p. 210)

But I found myself squirming at this confessional genre, which  evoked for me memories of ‘witnessing’ in my born-again Christian past. It’s all there- the elation; the waves of emotion; the backsliding; the doubts. The book itself is quite simply written with short sentences. The chapters alternate between first and third person, taking the reader into Richard’s interiority then moving back to a more observational, externalized perspective. Lohrey kept me reading quite happily enough for 3/4 of the book.

At one stage the Richard character wondered if only men felt the way he did, and I wondered that too. The book is a nuanced exploration of  middle-class, white, westernized, educated masculinity, and I gaze at some of the men that I know well and wonder if they, too, are like Richard.  I think they might be.

Was he ever going to extricate himself from this quicksand of self-absorption and pique that he might be ‘missing out’? Was his wife going to leave him? Would the book take a very dark turn?  The last 1/4  is where the thread broke for me. In meeting Martin Coleby, his spiritual guide,  all of a sudden the book turned into Sophies World – a didactic text draped with characters who were merely devices. It seemed, in the end,  such a me-centred quest. I closed the book, disappointed. I really don’t know what to think about it.  It’s a brave thing, to write about meaning, emptiness, searching- or maybe that’s the easy part-  the really brave thing is to write about the answer without smugness and to take your reader along with you.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers has written a thoughtful review that I encourage you to read.  There’s another review by Deborah Stone at ArtsHub too

My rating: 7

Read because: Lisa’s review and because I’m interested in Amanda Lohrey’s work

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have read this as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘In Good Faith? Governing Indigenous Australia Through God, Charity and Empire 1825-1855’ by Jessie Mitchell


2011, 197 p & notes

Available for download (free) at

1825 to 1855- just thirty years. Thirty years to start off with a timorous hope that perhaps it might be possible to spread Civilization among the Aborigines and lead them to the Christian Religion, only to end with an acknowledgement that it hadn’t worked, and that the whole situation had to be turned over to God’s mercy and his wondrous ways.  In 1825 L. E. Threlkeld established a mission at Lake Macquarie in NSW; in 1855 John Smithies closed his Methodist mission in Western Australia.  These two events form the bookends for this analysis of Australia’s first missions and protectorate stations.

In this book, based on her PhD. thesis, Jessie Mitchell writes:

My work has been guided by key themes of governance, subjecthood and rights, and the need to understand these ideas as developing through complex exchanges between imperial centres and mission outposts…and to consider how they were shaped by charity, religious beliefs, personal relationships and commitments to empire  (p.5)

Her work concentrates on Protestant missionaries working both on Church-based missions and government-sponsored Protectorate Stations.  Although there was a  high degree of cross-over, the distinction is important (and perhaps could have been emphasized even more strongly). The interconnection between the church-directed missions and government-directed model was there from the start, when the idea of government-funded Protectorates was first recommended by a Select Committee with a strong representation of Evangelical Christians, several of whom had been involved in anti-slavery campaigns in the past.

But the Port Phillip Protectorate was established and funded by government – not the churches. Protectors were expected to attach themselves to the tribes in the district and attend them until they could be induced to assume more settled habits; watch over the rights and interests of the natives and protect them from encroachment on their property and acts of injustice;  instruct them in cultivation should they settle in one place; educate and instruct the children; learn their language; be accountable for provisions and clothing and obtain accurate numerical information about them.  They were also were expected to instruct  in ‘elements’ of the Christian religion, with the expectation that other specialized teachers would take over instruction in the knowledge and practice of Christianity. (Note 1)   It was this emphasis on religion that distinguished church-based and government-based models, because in many other regards they were very similar.   But of the Protector and his four assistants who were appointed, all but one were Evangelical Christians, and their own religious fundamentalist beliefs very much influenced their perception of their task and the Indigenous people under their charge.   When the Protectorate all went pear-shaped, several of these Protectors sheeted home the blame partially to the secular nature of the government scheme.

Mitchell has consciously decided not to use the term ‘humanitarian’, which was not coined until 1844 and has since been overlaid with many latter-day connotations, especially in the last half-century.  Instead, she conceptualizes the impetus as ‘philanthropy’, with all its nineteenth-century connotations of benevolence, gratitude, control and religion.  Nonetheless, I was surprised to note that the Aborigines Protection Society itself in its 1840 Annual Report spoke of ‘rights’:

the rights of a common humanity, the rights of citizens, the right to possess and retain their own, the rights of protection and security to life and property, and the rights of unfettered liberty of mind, of free action and self disposal. (Third Annual Report 23 June 1840 cited on p 41)

The book explores the many tensions that are implicit in this declaration of ‘rights’, so to speak, and the aspirations for a God-centric, settled, institutionalized mission.  Philanthropists were aware of the cruel dispossession of indigenous peoples, but they were not necessarily opposed to colonialization itself.   In their attempts to foster agricultural labour on their own reserves amongst the people in their charge, missionaries themselves encouraged them to move away from traditional land use- something that became of crucial importance in late 20th century court cases (Mabo and Wik).  Those missionaries and protectors who expressed the strongest support for Indigenous land rights were those who were most opposed to an Indigenous presence in the cities.

In her introduction,  Jessie Mitchell mentions that she herself has worked in the community sector where

tensions between rights and charity and questions about the supposed (in)gratitude of vulnerable people towards state and benevolent agencies continue to have a strong relevance. (p.1)

Her analysis of ‘charity’ is insightful. Missionaries and protectors saw the distribution of food, blankets and clothing as a form of recompense for the loss of land and livelihood, but it was conditional on the Aborigines remaining on the mission.  The ‘settling’ of Indigenous peoples on a mission was seen by the government as a sign of success, but if it was done through the distribution of food, then the missionaries and protectors were accused of profligate generosity.  The missionaries’ dilemma goes on today: there were many echoes of the current government’s attempts to break the concept of ‘sit-down’ money and achieve school attendance through punishing the parents.

Perhaps the ultimate tension was in the religious missionary task itself.  We are now more attuned to the deep significance of the afterlife for Indigenous people, and are aware of the sensitivity about the names and images of people who have died.  For the missionaries, however, the afterlife and death was the major ‘hook’ to evangelize to their charges.  Mitchell emphasizes what we would now call the ‘born-again’ aspect of these missionaries’ religion: the whole  penitence, conversion, personal-relationship-with-God thing still being preached in evangelical super-churches today.  They wanted Indigenous people to have the individualistic, personal conversion experience, but they also wanted their church pews to be full with people streaming into church each Sunday, even if they didn’t yet believe.  They wanted individualism, but institutionalization as well.

And so, Mitchell suggests, we need to read the missionaries’ declarations of failure and disappointment carefully.  As born-again Evangelicals themselves, they were much given to self-examination and confession of weakness, and this was a trope that played out well in the metropolitan churches and missionary societies as well.   The Colonial Office, ever keen to reduce expenditure, took up these expressions of failure with alacrity, arguing that the whole project was futile and best ended.

While it is wonderful that this book is available as an e-book, I found myself wishing that it had a few more book-like features.   I read it in hard copy, and I missed an index in particular, and for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, I found the absence of chapter numbers frustrating.  It is not difficult to read, but you’re still aware that the thesis is not far distant.  I liked the way that the chapters started off with an anecdote or episode, and the logic of the argument was clearly laid out in the chapter structure.  Conceptually, it’s a complete, well-managed project. As a narrative, the thirty-year time span gives a coherence and almost elegiac quality to this humanitarian experiment that was tried and found wanting.

Note 1: Glenelg to Gipps 31 January 1838

aww-badge-2015-200x300My first posting to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015