Reviews of books about diversity have got off to a good start this year, with some twenty reviews in January on books either by Indigenous authors, or canvassing themes of Aboriginality, gender and sexuality, disability, and race.
There were a few reviews of books by Indigenous authors in January, and more have been coming through this month, which is fabulous. Writereaderly reviewed Larissa Behrendt’s 2004 novel, Home. Her reaction to the book was ambivalent, finding the framing-story at the beginning ‘heavy-handed’ and ‘infuriating’. As she continued reading, however, the reviewer became absorbed in the work, commenting that ‘the stories of Garibooli’s kidnapping from her family in the early 1900s, and the trajectories of her children and grandchildren, are diverse, well-informed and emotive without being overly emotional’. She also suspects it was a ‘successful prize-winner because of a wee bit of white-man guilt.’ Getting the correct balance between style and subject matter is an interesting topic, and one which I hope to write about later down the track, and at least, as she concludes, ‘the awards got more people to read this novel.’ Behrendt’s second novel, Legacy, was also reviewed by Maree Kimberley at GoodReads, who described it as ‘unputdownable’.
There were several books that addressed Indigenous themes or people, but which were not necessarily written by Indigenous authors. I was delighted to see a review of Fiona Paisley’s The Lone Protestor, about the life of Anthony Martin Fernando, an Indigenous man who left Australia in the early 20th Century to protest against the injustices done to his people. Yvonne has written a highly articulate summary of the work, noting the difficulties that Fiona encountered in undertaking her research because Fernando moved across several countries in Europe, and the archives of marginalised groups such as Indigenous people have not been kept because they weren’t considered to be important. In the case of Indigenous people as well (although not necessarily in Fernando’s instance), their emphasis on oral storytelling means that their history is passed down through voice rather than written records.
Kate Grenville’s trilogy on the settlement of Sydney and early white-black relations continues to be reviewed. Buggalugz found the violence of the first of these novels, The Secret River, to be quite confronting, and believed ‘this was probably Grenville’s intention when it came to writing about this aspect of our history; to appeal to the conscience of every person who reads this story.’ Meanwhile, John from Musings of a Literary Dilettante, penned an in-depth review of book three, Sarah Thornhill, and included the interesting link to one of his ancestors who features in the book. He countered many of the criticisms of the novel, one of which was that the Indigenous people were portrayed as passive. John notes that ‘The aboriginal stable hands at Thornhill’s farm are indeed meek, yet this is plausible because their lives have been so reduced by working for Thornhill. They must know of Thornhill’s past. To work for such a man would cause a reduction of spirit that we can’t fathom.’ I can’t help but wonder, however, if it is not the task of a novelist, particularly those writing on Indigenous issues, to help their readers understand this ‘reduction of spirit’ (a fine phrase), particularly given the antipathy of many white people to Indigenous people and their losses.
Reviews of childrens’ books featuring Indigenous themes include Kylie Dunstan’s Same, but little bit diff’rent, which is reviewed by Subversive Reader (scroll down to reach the review). She adored this book about Normie from the Top End. The Barrumbi Kids by Leonie Norrington was reviewed by Narelle M Harris, who spoke highly of its believable representation of kids crossing the cultural divide.
Subversive Reader also reviewed Love Like Water, Meme McDonald’s young adult/adult novel about three characters in Alice Springs. These include Jay, a successful DJ in Sydney whose urban background differs strongly to that of the Indigenous people in Alice, and who encounters pockets of racism in different contexts.
Tsana’s reviews of the The Fallen Moon series by K.J. Taylor, which includes The Dark Griffin, The Griffin’s Flight and The Griffin’s War, demonstrate how fantasy can also be used to illustrate racism by transposing it into an imaginary world. In the world of The Dark Griffin, the protagonist Arran is ostracised because of his race even though, as Tsana notes with appreciation, ‘the racism was not based on skin colour’, but rather because he looked slightly different.
Fantasy is also used to explore issues of gender and disability. Alison Goodman’s Eon and Eona, reviewed by Nalini at Dark Matter fan zine, follows the protagonist Eon, a girl who masquerades as a boy eunuch to get ahead. Both books also feature disability which, as Nalini writes, is usually healed with magic in the fantasy genre. As she rightly points out, this is a little convenient, for ‘in real life people with disabilities don’t get healed’. She found that Goodman redeems herself by having Eona adjust to her lame body (caused by a badly set broken hip). I really enjoyed Nalini’s discussions of this issue and, as with her, I’d like to see more realistic representations of characters functioning with their disability in fantasy. These two books and their themes were also reviewed last year by Tsana.
Other portrayals of gender are examined in Alyssa Brugmann’s Alex as Well, a young adult novel reviewed by Danielle (and also mentioned by Amanda in her January wrap up of non-speculative YA fiction). She was impressed with the book, writing that ‘Putting yourself into the shoes of a transgendered youth is no mean feat, but Brugman accomplishes the seemingly impossible’ and, at the same time, fulfils the important role of creating stories about transgendered youth. As with other young people struggling to define who they are, they need positive stories and representations of themselves, particularly given their high suicide rate. Meanwhile, Marisa came across a book by Marj McRae titled Not a Man, featuring a eunuch. Although, she says, it isn’t a book for the faint-hearted, after a while the reader becomes ‘dragged in’. I have never read a book featuring a eunuch and I, too, was intrigued, not least because of Marisa’s comment that ‘The relationships Shuki has with people are odd to say the least, mostly because as an eunuch, relationships work out very differently’.
On a final note, the Stella Prize longlist has just been released (see Paula’s post at AWW for commentary), reminding us of the need to champion writing by women, as well as that of minorities who do not receive the recognition they deserve. Sometimes this recognition is mislaid due to marketing by publishers, an issue flagged by John in his review of Sarah Thornhill. As he notes, the hardback edition features the back of a woman’s head as she looks towards a sepia-coloured river, while the soft cover is of a black and white image of the sea crashing against the cliffs. John wonders why the more ‘feminine’ cover was changed, as he writes: ‘Although I’d like to say a man wouldn’t worry about such things, I’d say that many would. It’s not one I’m particularly drawn to. I have no idea whether this was done on purpose—to market the book toward readers of what is derisively termed ‘women’s fiction’ (which outsells ‘literary fiction’).’
These comments echo those made by Jane Gleeson-White in her Overland essay on ‘The Year of Australian Women Writers’, in which she compares the reception of Grenville’s first novel, The Secret River, with Sarah Thornhill. The third novel, she observes, doesn’t seem to have received the same level of critical attention as the first although, in her opinion, Sarah Thornhill was a finer novel. On contemplating the reasons for this, she comes to the issue of voice:
Grenville has conjured from nowhere, almost, with very few archival records of early nineteenth-century women’s voices, the vivid voice of an early Australian colonial girl, woman, lover, wife, mother. The novel is told in the first person, from the constrained, socially restricted, uneducated viewpoint of a girl. Does such a voice carry weight in our broader Australian literary culture? Not much, it seems. Or not as much as a third person account of Sarah Thornhill’s pioneering, nation-making father, the protagonist of The Secret River.
In the ensuing comments on this article (which add complexity to Jane’s commentary), Emmett Stinson noted that at the Australian Book Industry Awards, Sarah Thornhill won in the ‘General Fiction’ category, rather than the ‘Literary Fiction’ category. The prevalence of such marketing and pigeon-holing indicates the necessity of the Stella Prize and the Australian Women Writers Challenge, which encourage readers to become more savvy, to recognise that their reading choices are sometimes guided by marketing and culture. It would be marvellous if, as I mentioned in my review of Jess Huon’s The Dark Wet, a person’s skin colour, sexual orientation, body make-up or gender didn’t package them into checklist-like boxes. However, the day in which we are all seen as equal is sadly a long way off, and until then, these considered reviews on the voices of diverse people are necessary — and wonderfully interesting — reading.
I’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis. I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007), about botany and lesbianism, and Entitlement (2012), about Native Title and grief. You can find more information about me at my website. I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.