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‘An Aboriginal Son’ by Gordon Matthews

matthews_australianson

1996, 230 p.

There are spoilers in this review

In his short disclaimer about” changed names to protect identity etc.” at the start of this book, Gordon Matthews writes:

This book was an act of catharsis. I wrote it to make peace with myself.

The motivations for writing a memoir are many and varied, and I suspect that ‘catharsis’ is quite a common one. However, I’m not sure that all catharsis needs to be put into print. I closed this book feeling complicit and somewhat sullied, and I wondered why Gordon Matthews published this book.

At one level, I can understand it. Identity, or the search for it, is one of the touchstones of modern life. In Australia,  there is heightened awareness of the Stolen Generations of indigenous children after years of Royal Commissions. In this book, with the small black and white photograph on the back cover of a cheeky, curly-haired boy who certainly looks aboriginal, we think that we are reading the story of an adopted child who learns later in life that he is part of the Stolen Generation. But that’s not what happens (and here’s the spoiler, so look away now!). Adopted by a middle-class white family; teased by his private school ‘friends’ who call him ‘Abo’; conscious always of his difference, he is encouraged by an Aboriginal Liaison Officer to apply for a university scholarship and eventually gains a designated position as Australia’s first indigenous diplomat. Then he finds out the truth: that his father is Sri Lankan, not Aboriginal, and his whole identity falls apart. Although his Aboriginality was not a deliberate hoax, he knows that he cannot continue to claim an indigenous identity that he does not hold.

I was slightly surprised by his telling of how he came to embrace  and be embraced in what he thought was his own Aboriginality.  It seems at one remove from the broader Aboriginal community, seeming to be based mainly within the university and bureaucracy. Is this because he is in Canberra, perhaps? I’m not sure quite when the actions in this book took place, and maybe things have changed. As I understand it, indigenous identity involves both family connections and genetics (rather ironic given how ‘blood’ ratios have historically been used as such a weapon) and acceptance by the community. It is only near the end of the book, when he has admitted that he is not indigenous, that his relationships with the community come into sharper focus.

Secure and happy enough with his adopted parents, it is his search for racial identity in particular that impels his search to find his birth parents. He is curious about them, but not as individuals in their own right, but as the key to his racial understanding of himself. He eventually finds them in America. After giving him up for adoption, they married and went on to have other children. Gordon finds  not only both parents grieving their relinquished first child, but also blood siblings who have been completely unaware of his existence.

The relationship with his birth mother was tense, despite his parents’ joy at finding him and embracing him as part of their family. Contact between him and his family cooled. His birth parents did not want him to publish this book, and it was at this point that I felt I wanted to drop the book from my hands. This was such a fragile relationship, and he was asserting his right over his own story at the risk, I suspect, of alienating and losing this new family that he had found on the way to discovering his racial identity. Pigheaded? Self-sabotaging? Selfish?

The book raises complex questions about identity, race and family. There is a distance in the telling, both at an emotional level and in the slightly stilted language. Whatever he might have been as a diplomat, Matthews is not a ‘natural’ writer.

I can find nothing on the internet about what happened next to Gordon Matthews, or his family.  The silence is a little unnerving. I have no idea how the publication of this book was received by his family at the time, and I wonder if, more than 20 years later, he would say that it was worth it. I guess I will never know.

My rating: 7

Sourced from: Council of Adult Education. It was the June book for my bookgroup.

 

Movie: Peterloo

I was rather disappointed in this film. It felt like a clunky, poorly-written stage show, with  buffoonish parodies of the villains. It was a very wordy film, probably because much of the speechifying was taken from the orations at the time and, as one of the characters says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about”.  Many of the working-class characters felt like parodies- as if they were in a Monty Python movie.

However, it wasn’t all bad. The approach towards the protesters was more nuanced, picking up on the differences of political strategy and levels of education, and the tension leading up to the Peterloo massacre was well held. It was odd that there was no explanation of the fall-out from the massacre – perhaps because only 18 died? – and the consequences were political in terms of more repression, which doesn’t fit well into a “what happened next” paragraph?

I think I just expected more from a director of Mike Leigh’s stature.

My rating: 3/5

Movie: Destroyer

Counting up on Wikipedia, Nicole Kidman’s filmography comes out at more than 60 movies.  She can be forgiven, then, for the occasional dud. But Destroyer isn’t a dud, and she is brilliant. Told in present day, where Kidman plays haggard, dysfunctional cop Erin Bell, the film flashes back where she plays that same cop some 30 years earlier, operating undercover in a gang that holds up a bank with tragic consequences.  There’s a fair bit of violence in the film, both in the present day and flashback sequences, and rather too much of ‘old’ Kidman staring impassively at the camera. The makeup is excellent, as ‘young’ Kidman doesn’t look all that different to how she looked 30 years ago in her early films.  Certainly, there’s little of the cool sophistication of many of the characters she tends to play now.

My rating: 4 stars

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-25 May 2019

sausagesizzle

Bunnins Sausage Sizzle Wikimedia

History Listen. We’ve just had an election here in Australia, and just about the only commentary that I can bear to listen to at the moment is the History Listen’s ‘Unauthorized history of the sausage sizzle.’ More than just the democracy sausage, it includes Lions and Bunnings sausage sizzles and a brief history of the humble snag.

 

 

Somewhat more serious is their episode ‘Escape from Iran‘ where the narrator tells her mother’s story of escaping from Iran after the revolution on account of her Baha’i faith, and the family’s life in Australia.

Grenfell_Tower_fire

Grenfell Tower Fire Source: Wikimedia

The Documentary (BBC) This is a wonderful trove of podcasts! Flat 113 at Grenfell Tower is a wonderful (if rather distressing) piece of story telling about the fire that engulfed the 14th floor of the Grenfell Tower building in London. Taking just one floor (and yes, I know that Flat 113 was on the 14th floor, even though the numbering suggests otherwise- just a symptom of the questionable renovation of this public housing), the podcast traces through the sequence of events and mis-steps that led to several deaths in Flat 113.

Order!Order! is a look back at the Brexit question. Somehow 31 October is drawing closer again and still the whole sorry saga goes on.

Bolivia’s Mennonites, Justice and Renewal tells the story of the extremely conservative Mennonite communities who have established themselves in Bolivia since the 1920s. Almost Amish in appearance, they speak a form of low German, and they eschew modernity (although, as the documentary points out, there are now break-away communities which take a more liberal and modern approach).  In 2009 more than 100 women and children reported rapes within the community, for which a group of men were convicted, but within the traditional Mennonite groups there are attempts to have the sentences overturned.

Slavery’s Untold Story. Did you know that the Cherokees held slaves? After the Civil War, these slaves were liberated as ‘freemen’, but in recent years as people of Cherokee origin are encouraged to reconnect with their culture, a document from the 1860s is crucial in establishing claims to be admitted as full members of the Cherokee tribe. The waters are muddied by the casino money and entitlements that attach to Cherokee identity, and prejudices against African American appearance amongst people who also hold Cherokee heritage.

99% Invisible. From the 1950s up until the collapse of Communism, Russian theatre-goers were exposed to a steady diet of Bollywood movies. Part of it was that the Russian government wanted an alternative to Hollywood, but this documentary suggests that there might have been cultural affinities between Russia and India as well.  From Bombay with Love is well produced and interesting.

New Books in History  The podcasts here are very low-tech, and involve a historian talking about their recently released book. In Reforming Sodom: Protestants and Gay Rights, Heather R. White looks at both the liberal, reforming Christianity in the UK and US of the 1970s onwards (think: Unitarian Universalism and ‘Love Finds a Way’; the churches’ response to Stonewall etc) , and conservative Pentecostal Christianity of more recent decades (think Israel Folau), and their differing responses to homosexuality.

 

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

Tiffany_ExplodedView

2019, 191 p.

Carrie Tiffany seems to be writing about times at twenty year intervals. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was set in the 1930s, Mateship with Birds was set in the 1950s and here now with Exploded View we find ourselves in the outer suburbs in the late 1970s. As with her other books, this most recent book is made up of fragments and set in the present tense, with short sentences and a slow rhythm.  This time, however, Tiffany gives us a nameless adolescent narrator, who is fragile, dissociative and in trauma.

The title comes from the type of diagram that one finds in a car repair manual or instruction book, where an action or object is pulled apart, with the separate components shown separately.

example_exploded_view

Wikipedia

Our narrator knows cars well. Her stepfather (‘father man’) repairs cars in an unlicensed repair shop at the back of the block, but she is not his willing assistant. Instead, she sabotages his work, taking the cars out at night and damaging their motors. She does not speak and she reads the Holden workshop manual, not for what it says but for its depiction of what she cannot say.

If you had never touched an engine, if it were only a matter of looking in the manual, you would think it was a miracle, that it couldn’t have been made by a man…In the manual you can choose to look at the parts, or the air in between them. The air in between isn’t nothing; it isn’t blank. If you make yourself look for what’s not there the empty spaces become parts themselves. (p. 27)

The narrator avoids naming the trauma, but she tells it in “the air between” the parts. Father man is violent and abusive, and her impotent mother turns a blind eye. Her brother is irrelevant. The longest part of the book is taken up with a rather pointless road trip taken across the country where they drive, drive, drive and sleep in the car at night. At night, the darkness comes.

Threaded through the book is a sense of menace, but there is no plot or climax as such. It reminded me of Sonia Hartnett’s disquieting work with which it shares an adolescent narrator, quivering tension and long silences.

I loved Carrie Tiffany’s earlier books, but I was disappointed in this book. Tension held for a length of time becomes excruciating, and I felt that way about this book.  It would have been better as a short story.

AWW2019I have added this book to the Australian Women Writer’s database.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 May 2019

Forest 404 (BBC) I don’t know quite how I got onto this, but somehow or other it ended up on my phone. I don’t even quite know what it is: I think that there are stories, (of which this Episode 1 is the first) that are linked to soundscapes and related talks. Anyway, this first episode is set in the 24th century when a librarian, Pan, is charged not with conserving but destroying sound files from the 21st century, which are taking up too much storage space. After the Cataclysm (which waits to be explained), data storage space was recognized as finite, so all the sounds of the past, e.g. a Barak Obama speech, the words when man first walked on the moon etc, are being expunged. Then Pan comes across a recording of a rainforest, and even though she doesn’t know what it is, she finds herself drawn towards it.  I don’t know if I’ll persist with this, but the concept of ‘sound’ as artefact is ideal for the podcasting medium.

99% Invisible. Pharmaceutical companies direct their energies towards diseases where they are going to make profits – big profits. This program, Orphan Drugs is actually from November 2018, and it looks at the drugs that pharmaceutical companies decide not to continue manufacturing, even though they may have been life-changing for a small number of people. It tells the story of Abbey Meyers, whose son suffered with Tourette’s Syndrome, who finds herself as an advocate for orphan drugs, trying to lobby government and drug companies to continue to make these no-longer-lucrative drugs available. Of all people who stepped in to help with Jack Klugman and his brother, from Quincy M. E. (remember that?) who used the program to highlight the issue. But, as Abbey Meyers, be careful what you wish for. The resultant Orphan Drugs legislation, which she spent decades lobbying for, has had unintended consequences.

dopesick_macyConversations (ABC) And while we’re on the subject of Big Pharma, the estimable Richard Fidler interviewed Beth Macy, the author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America.  In ‘Taking the Pulse of a Dopesick Nation‘, she tells the story of how drugs like oxycontin etc. were falsely marketed as being slow-release and therefore non-addictive, as the memory of the dangers of prescription medicine receded and ‘pain’ began to be seen as a treatable condition in its own right again in the 1990s.  The information that came with these prescription drugs warned not to break the coating of the pill, because, as it happened, it was only the coating that made them slow release. Ironically, she sees the only solution in treating addiction as a medical problem and using other drugs as a way of treating the ‘dopesick’ feeling after coming off these drugs, because abstinence and all-or-nothing thinking just doesn’t work. Very interesting and makes you disgusted at the lack of morals of Big Pharma.

While I was there at Conversations, I also heard Susan Orleans (who wrote The Orchid Thief) telling the story of the burning of the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986 – something that certain escapes my memory. Did you know that when books are wet, they either need to be dried out within 48 hours or frozen? That’s how thousands of books ended up in meat storage freezing facilities for years. You can hear it at ‘When the Library Burned

And although there was nothing particularly new in it, ‘How a milkmaid with cowpox changed history‘ was quite interesting in that it brought together a lot of stories about disease and vaccination.

Background Briefing The Night Parrot is the Holy Grail for bird watchers, and there have been a number of programs on the ABC celebrating the ‘discovery’ of the Night Parrot by bird watcher John Young. But in this program ‘Flight of Fancy: the mysterious case of the Night Parrot’, there are now real questions about the veracity of this ‘find’, and I can only assume that Our ABC did its legals before broadcasting this program, made by Ann Jones from ‘Offtrack’.

The Documentary BBC World Service Well, this was depressing listening from two very different places in the world. ‘Polands Partisan Ghosts‘ is about the adoption by the far right of the ‘Cursed Soldiers’ who were responsible for murder and arson in the time immediately following the Second World War. ‘India’s Forbidden Love‘ is about inter-faith and inter-caste marriages that are running up against the prejudices of the past, fanned by increased religious/national identity. Poland and India couldn’t be more different, but the rise of intolerance cloaked in nationalism right across the world frightens me.

‘From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage’ by Judith Brett

brett_democracy

2019, 183 plus notes

When she was a lecturer in politics at LaTrobe University, Judith Brett tells us, she used to ask her first-year students to talk about their first political memories as an ice-breaker activity in their first tutorial (p157). Many mentioned going with their parents to their local school while their parents voted. I must confess that my only memory of going with my parents when they voted was the election before I turned 18. It was 1972, and the Labor Party was about to be elected after 23 years of successive Coalition governments. I knew whom I would have voted for, had I been allowed, and to this day I wonder if my father voted Labor, just that once. I had a strong sense of “this will be me, next time” and I felt quite excited about it. But other elections? I just can’t remember. My family (including me) all played tennis on Saturdays: I assume that they nicked in to vote either before or after the tennis court.

I am proud of Australia’s electoral system, despite grizzling about the politicians it throws up, and fearful of the effects of lobbyists and deep pockets. Judith Brett, in From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage is too, and as we head into one of our more important elections, it’s good to read this book from one of Australia’s foremost political historians that affirms and celebrates the process. Sometimes we forget just how distinctive our system is. We have compulsory voting (as do Belgium, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Cyrus, Greece, two regions of Austria and one Swiss canon; Central and South America, Egypt, Fiji and Singapore) (fn1. p. 185). And more importantly, compulsory voting is popular, with 77% support in 2007 (p.151). We vote on Saturdays (not Mondays, Tuesdays or Fridays). We have preferential voting in the House of Representatives (in itself a rarity) and proportional representation in the Senate. Our elections are conducted by the Electoral Commission, who are public servants at arm’s length from government. We don’t have to queue for hours. And there are sausages and a cake stall.

 

[Back in 2010 at my local school]

This book is quite current, taking us right up to 2018, but two-thirds of the book is a historical analysis of how we ended up with the electoral system that we have today. Unlike America, which was first settled during the 17th century constitutional struggles between monarch and parliament and steeped in the ideas of John Locke, Australia’s first political institutions were established when the British Parliament was supreme, and beginning to expand its own franchise. Our philosophical roots lay in Jeremy Bentham who believed in government first, rights second (p6). As historian W.K. Hancock wrote:

The Australian democracy has come to look upon the State as a vast public utility, whose duty is to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number…To the Australian, the State means collective power at the service of individualistic ‘rights’ and therefore he sees no opposition between his individualism and his reliance on governments (Hancock Australia, 1930 cited on p.7)

Newly expanding colonies needed infrastructure, and the government provided it. In fact, for the first 100 years or so, Australian taxpayers didn’t have to pay much for it: the British government did. We didn’t have income tax until 1915, and Britain paid for our defence. Why would people want to limit government expenditure on services that benefited them? (p.8)

Our first elections, starting in the 1840s on a limited franchise, followed the English model of public voting. They were held in a carnival-like atmosphere, ‘treating’ supporters with alcohol, and keeping up a running tally. It was the desire to largely  circumscribe the abuses of this system that led to the development of the secret ballot, complete with separate cubicles and a pre-printed ballot paper issued only at the booth, which came to be known as “the Australian ballot”. Brett highlights three South Australian electoral innovators whose contributions are often overlooked : Catherine Helen Spence who devoted years to her campaign for proportional representation, William Boothby who as Provincial Returning Officer bureaucratized and regularized electoral administration, and Mary Lee who campaigned tirelessly for women’s suffrage in South Australia. (I had always wondered why South Australia had an electoral district called ‘Boothby’ when Justice Boothby caused as much trouble as my own Judge Willis did. But it’s the son William, not the father Benjamin). Ironically, her table showing state-based changes to Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council franchises now shows South Australia as the laggard, with compulsory voting for Legislative Council elections in South Australia introduced only in 1985! (p. 138)

It was because South Australian women had had the vote since 1895 -and thus, should not be disadvantaged by losing their suffrage under Federation-  that the new Commonwealth Australian constitution allowed anyone enfranchised to vote at a state level to also vote in Commonwealth elections. A similar arrangement was made for Aboriginal voters. Disturbingly, right up until 1962 Aboriginal people could not vote in federal elections unless they were on the state roll or had served in the armed forces, thus leaving Western Australian, Queensland and Northern Territory Aborigines unable to vote. There’s a grubby little secret in her chapter “Women In Aborigines Out” where the Commonwealth had a ‘preponderant blood’ rule whereby “all persons in whom the aboriginal blood preponderates are disqualified”. It was left up to electoral officers to decide largely on the basis of skin colour and their own judgements about individual Aboriginal people’s capacities (p.68). It wasn’t at the 1967 referendum that the right to vote was extended to all ATSI subjects: it was the 1962 act. Aboriginal people were not subject to exactly the same voting laws as other Australians until 1983 (p.72).

In fact, one of the most contested features of Australia’s electoral system was the postal vote, which was allowed, disallowed and allowed again according to the vicissitudes of the different political parties. The Labor Party opposed postal voting because it removed the act of voting from the public booth into the private realm, where domestic power dynamics could lead to voters being pressured to vote against their wishes. Conservative parties supported postal voting, citing women’s interests, arguing that women were confined to their homes before and after the birth of children, and were not comfortable attending a polling booth alone.

One of the things that comes through clearly is that neither party acted from high principle in tweaking the system. Parties supported changes that they thought would have some advantage in it for them, although sometimes the consequences were unforeseen. And as her chapter ‘Liberals push back’ shows, hard right Liberals and libertarians have tried (and probably continue to try) to repeal compulsory voting. Likewise suggestions from the Liberal party that voter ID be introduced, and Howard’s attempts to reduce the time after the writs are issued for enrolment or change of details, are threats to our system of compulsory voting.  As far as undermining our system is concerned (especially from the Right), we need to be alert, and then alarmed.

The book has a light touch on what could otherwise be pretty turgid material.  There are enough ‘jump-forwards’ to keep the currency of her endeavour in mind, and particularly in the latter chapters, Brett herself comes forward more.  Just as with Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (which I reviewed here), sometimes we need to be reminded, as Brett does in her final sentence, that

What the story of compulsory voting tells us is how very good we are at elections. We should celebrate it. (p. 183)

AWW2019 I have included this book on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2019.