December 2019

Cryptic Cargo

Centred on the arrival narrative of a single book, the Kasasol Ambia (Stories of the Prophets), in a mosque built in 1887 at the edge of the desert in Broken Hill, historian Samia Khatun’s Australianama, is, like the object of its inquiry, a book of books. The mystery of ‘who/what’ brought this 500-page compendium of Bengali Sufi poetry, printed in eight volumes between 1861 and 1895 in Calcutta, to this outpost of empire down-under, launches Khatun into a decade-long odyssey from Sydney to Dhaka, Perth to Calcutta, Melbourne to Lahore, and deep into the archival reserves of nineteenth-century colonialism.

The Hidden Children:
The White Girl by Tony Birch

‘I don’t think anybody knows how many Aboriginal people made the decision to identify their children as “not Aboriginal” to protect them from discriminatory laws and abuses by government, police, and bureaucracies. The long-term effect of these decisions still need to be unpacked, the ramifications of intentional, parental removal of children from culture are still not properly understood. However, this risk, taking children from culture, from Country, from family to protect them from laws we would no longer tolerate was worth taking – to keep the children with family, to keep them safe.’

This is your brain.
This is your brain on drugs.

Fleming deploys an intelligence that does not seek to draw a firm line between a before and an after; instead, the confessor is borne on the question of drugs and what they mean, rather than born again after drugs have been left behind.

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The SRB is an initiative of The Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University

November 2019

Gathering Places:
Dinah Hawken and Airini Beautrais

‘Two recent poetry collections by Pākehā poets interrogate ecological loss and settler belonging within the context of colonialism as cultural and ecological displacement. There Is No Harbour (2019) by Dinah Hawken explores place and belonging in relation to colonial injustices against Māori from which her family benefitted. Flow: Whanganui River Poems (2017) by Airini Beautrais investigates ecological and cultural colonial degradation, stressing the importance of reckoning with the past in order to address present environmental challenges.’

The Trouble with Strangers

In Placeless People, literary language is shown to have its own kind of agency in redressing this dynamic. Metaphor becomes a node of connection between thought and word, word and action, action and the formation of new kinds of political and ethical communities. The agency of literary language is generative and it is also interrogative. Stonebridge’s writers ask what it is to be placeless so that we know how to be citizens; their acts of questioning seek to erode the distinction between these two categories of being.

Train Lord

Park-office

The Hipster

‘The appropriation of black language cannot be stopped, except only if we were to leave for Mars and never come back. At issue isn’t the transmission, but the vacuous want behind it – as if black culture lives to rescue mass culture from boredom. Surely there exists some ethical method for taking on the words of others – white America has yet to find it. For the curse to be undone, the desire must be undone, and undoing the desire means taking a knife to its insides and learning what it’s full of.’

The Many Lives of
Constantine Cavafy:
What’s Left of the Night
by Ersi Sotiropoulos

Sotiropoulos has tried to make the poet fit to the well-rehearsed script for a developing artist, forcing him into a kind of made-to-measure character. This Cavafy wholly unfits both the polemical character we meet in the poems or the introspective creative method by which they were formed. But if there is hope between the lines of this attempt to cleanse and appropriate the poet, it is that the book shows that it can only be done at a stretch.

Taking the Risk: Invented Lives by Andrea Goldsmith

Invented Lives (2019), Andrea Goldsmith’s eighth novel, explores how and why people construct the lives they live. The novel’s four protagonists come to understand how they have formed the identities they project and how these differ from how they perceive themselves. To invent is derived from the Latin invenire: to find out or discover. By discovering how they have created their identities, Goldsmith’s characters can decide how best to understand themselves.

All is Vanity: The Rich Man’s House by Andrew McGahan

The generic quality of The Rich Man’s House comes to serve a number of purposes. Not the least of these is sheer entertainment value — pun intended. The novel’s premise allows McGahan to play to his strengths as a writer, indulge his factual and descriptive inclinations.

Hope and Carnage:
Tim Corballis and
Brannavan Gnanalingam

’In the New Zealand imagination there are no credible spies because there are no credible threats. We never dreamed that foreign images of mass shootings were being beamed back from a future that would one day be ours.’

Not My Problem:
on The Colonial Fantasy

The Colonial Fantasy could have been a book that shaped how future settler publics saw their predecessors – it’s what I hoped for when I opened it – but that ambition falls flat. And as she asks her peers to pull out of governing us, is Maddison not doing her own supplanting? She rehashes Kevin Gilbert’s Because a White Man’ll Never Do It – a book with almost the very same thesis, and a book that’s older than my parents.

My Brilliant Gal Pal:
Attraction by Ruby Porter

It is like an inverted and far more complicated version of Sedgwick’s erotic triangle (in which two men bond over their rivalry for a female’s affection). What I keep seeing is variations on this: two young women, both of them queer or queer-adjacent, intensely connected and wavering between the platonic and the erotic; and then the added complication of an older straight man, with whom one of the women sleeps.

Why Would You Doubt Me?:
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

The Topeka School will be treated as a book of the moment, articulating the distinctive contemporary panic around authenticity, what it means to believe politicians and one another. Most of the responses to this novel will likely speak about its portrayal of toxic masculinity and account of the origins of current political language – the particular way it has become unmoored from truth. Yet what the novel does, through its concern for the present, is show that America has long been anxious about authenticity, and that these problems that seem particularly modern and distinctive are in fact spread wide across cultural and temporal planes, their symptoms and consequences ubiquitous.

October 2019

An Eerie Sort of Magic: Here Until August by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe’s stories are about time. Time as it is lived and as it is recounted; the way it doesn’t just progress, but speeds and slows, persists and lingers. Her characters are sometimes aware of time passing, almost as if they stand outside it, sometimes aware that the moment they are in is one that they will return to, again and again, across their later lives.’

Primary Reading

‘The links between presidential aspirants and books is well-established. It has become more unusual in recent years for presidential candidates not to have written books, usually in the form of memoirs, policy works, or some combination of both.’

Giving Up

Forgive her, for she knows not
what she draws

‘Reading One Good Turn is like getting injected with adrenaline and misandry and good old-fashioned class warfare in one massive hit. It makes my blood boil and seethe and seep. It makes me want to ignite the world with my words, burn it all down. It is infectious, but unlike patriarchy, it doesn’t make me sick. It makes me furious.’

Finding Australia’s
Lost Arabs

‘At times, as Arabs, lost in the world of displacement, marginalised by our dispersal, and racialised as inferior to our Western counterparts, we can become weary of our lived experiences as diasporic subjects. But with writing as empowering, affecting and beautiful as Sakr’s poetry, or testimonials as stimulating as those assembled by Abdel-Fattah and Saleh, can we dare become ‘tired’ of diaspora writing in any of its modes?’

Book cover: Islands by Peggy Frew

Reaching for a Bruised Apple: Sonia Orchard and Peggy Frew

‘When I am at my desk, the visceral voices of my little children call me back into the spaces they inhabit, an impatient reminder that my real life is elsewhere, with them. Or is it? Perhaps, this is what it is to be both a mother and an artist, and the only available consolation: to be perpetually torn, to suffer, but to exalt in the small mercy of being able to articulate well the precise nature of that suffering.’

Autism Aesthetics

A new understanding of literature and rhetoric emerges, as does a new understanding of autism; for as these three books demonstrate in different ways, autistic readers and writers can widen the range and deepen the complexity of human expression.

The Ghost Creature:
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

‘Wood can be unflinching in her depiction of her characters’ flaws, so that her reader must sometimes do some excavation to find their best qualities. Here she’s struck just the right balance: none of these women is always easily likeable, but each is drawn with insight and sensitivity.’

Cover of The Cherry Picker's Daughter by Kerry Reed-Gilbert

Testimony from the Home Front: Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert

To describe this work as autobiography is too limiting. It is a testimony woven through the stories of the lives of two women, Aunty Kerry and Mummy. In a similar vein to the life writings of Glenyse Ward, Margaret Tucker, Ida West, Monica Clare, Doris Pilkington, Mabel Edmund and Ruby Langford-Ginibi, The Cherry Picker’s Daughter brings the past up close and personal and tells first-hand how decisions made by politicians, bureaucrats, educators, health professionals and social workers from a distance impact on the day to day lives of Aboriginal people. But it differs too from these earlier works through its centring of the child’s voice; and for the way in which Aunty Kerry invites the reader into her home.

Book cover: Mouthful of Birds by Samantha Schweblin

Live Birds: Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds

‘In a collection of stories where children turn into butterflies, spurned women are exiled to highways, and relationships with mermen are presented as an enticing lifestyle choice, homes and the volatile relationships that unspool inside them remain the wellspring of Samanta Schweblin’s fiction. Rather than functioning as a haven from an unpredictable, barbaric exterior, they are the scene of violent and eerie interactions where cycles are only broken when the world ends.’

Painting: James Bonnici, Building, oil on linen.

She and Her Man: Foe

There are many ways to read Foe (1986), which has a shifting choose-your-own-strange-and-surprising-adventure flavour to it; I’ve tried a few. My favourite is to reverse-engineer Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe from the perspective of the castaway Susan Barton’s account of her very different experience of Cruso in Coetzee’s novel. Putting the chronological cart before the horse (a method that owes something to Jorge Luis Borges’s deadpan comic masterpiece Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote), we realise that Robinson Crusoe would have been a much duller book (not that it is free of unabridged longueurs) if Defoe had not first read Coetzee’s Foe and fictionalised and glamourised Barton’s account of her largely adventure-free time marooned on the island, in order to create a more ripping yarn. 

Secret Poems

Stepping on Rakes:
Terry Eagleton’s Humour
and Peter Timms’ Silliness

‘Humour and Silliness are nostalgias rather than books about humour in 2019. If a book about humour has to be written at all, it probably shouldn’t be by someone in their seventies, unless they’re very online. They’d have to know that the politics of identity are neither to be tip-toed around nor dismissed off-hand, and that if political correctness achieves anything, it’s to purge a lot of cheap, bullying, boring, dead weight from collective humour.’