On the starting block for February’s reviews of themes of diversity is Subversive Reader’s write-up of Whisper, by Chrissie Keighery. This is the story of Demi, a regular 14 year old who becomes profoundly deaf after contracting meningitis, and who needs to learn how to come to terms with her altered life. I’m really glad to see books like being written, read and reviewed, not least because meningitis also wiped out most of my hearing when I was nearly 4, but also because they introduce kids to diversity, and the concept that there are many other ways of existing in the world. However, it’s important that this is done well. If it isn’t, there is the risk of stereotyping people with disabilities, rather than rendering them as fully fledged human beings. In another review by Subversive Reader, this time of Julia Lawrinson’s Chess Nuts, a character Josh has autism, but the reader never sees in him ‘the shades of up and down that most people with ASD have’.
It is such shading that makes a character three-dimensional, and it was heartening to see some twenty reviews (although I haven’t the space to cover each one) of books that attempt to show their diverse characters as rounded people. Of these, nine were by Indigenous authors, while an additional book was by a white author on Indigenous issues.
Dinner at Caphs wrote a spirited review of Manhattan Dreaming by Indigenous writer Anita Heiss. As with Sue of Whispering Gums in her review of Heiss’ Paris Dreaming (mentioned by Kat Mayo in the February roundup of Romance Fiction and Erotica), the reviewer was aware of Heiss’ commitment to ‘to depicting Aboriginal people as ordinary individuals living their lives.’ In this instance, she writes about urban Aboriginal people for, as noted by Sue in her review, ‘30% or more of indigenous Australians are urban and this book, as its genre suggests, is about young urban indigenous women.’ Dinner at Caphs was frustrated by the protagonist’s continuing desire to be appreciated by men, but at the same time was interested in Heiss’ imagined role for Old Parliament House, into which the Indigenous people from the Tent Embassy moved. The reviewer also made a fascinating reference to Indigenous people’s reactions to Old Parliament House which is ‘contested ground.’ To my amusement, they flung in that ‘If Andrew Bolt hates you, you are a superstar in my book’, a reference to Heiss’ nonfiction work, Am I Black Enough for You?, reviewed this month by Migratory Mel. This book stemmed from Andrew Bolt’s absurd and defamatory claim that Heiss identified herself as Aboriginal to advance her career.
Other Indigenous works reviewed include Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Flash, described by My Book Corner as giving a ‘strong, powerful voice to Indigenous teenagers’, and Nicole Watson’s crime novel The Boundary, which draws upon themes such as Native Title and Indigenous deaths in custody. This was reviewed at GoodReads by Maree Kimberly who found that, although the work wasn’t without flaws, it was still ‘an original work that offers perspectives not often seen in Australian crime novels’.
Elizabeth Hodgson’s Skin Painting, a winner of the David Unaipon award, was reviewed by poet Phillip Ellis. He refers to the genre as ‘non-fiction poetry’, an interesting term derived from the online magazine rabbit. He pays homage to Hodgon’s style and confessional mode, but a sustained description of her culture and identity is missing. Ellis describes the work as a memoir, applauding Hodgon’s ‘clarity and candour’, and I was wished that I could have seen some of this in the review; I shall have to get hold of the book!
It was also great to see another review of Fiona Paisley’s The Lone Protestor, about the peripatetic, Indigenous protestor Anthony Martin Fernando. This was reviewed by Jenny, who picked it up after reading Yvonne’s thorough review of the work from January. Also in this genre is Marilyn Lake’s biography of activist Faith Bandler, comprehensively reviewed by Marilyn Brady. Faith Bandler was, as Marilyn writes, ‘the daughter of a man from the South Sea Islands who was kidnapped, enslaved, and brought to labor on the sugar plantations of northern Queensland’, while her mother was from a family that had migrated to Australia from India. Bandler’s skills for gentle persuasion and bringing diverse groups together were notable, but she often faced resistance for her South Sea Islander heritage and her gender, as Marilyn explains:
Lake writes sensitively about the fear that men had over the strong, articulate women, like Bandler, who did much to fund and drive the organizations. Indigenous men, long denied their “manhood” were particularly incensed about the women who competed with them for leadership roles. Bandler used her gentle, poised demeanor to try to calm tempers, but she was among those attacked.
This is a wonderfully interesting account of the intersection of race and gender, and the tension to which this can lead.
Other cultures are represented in books such as The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny, which is reviewed by Migratory Mel. An account of Ali al Jenabi, one of the first people in Australia to be tried for people smuggling, the book demonstrates that the decision to save oneself and one’s family from persecution is never straightforward, and ‘makes the reader question what we are told is the “truth” about asylum seekers and displacement’. The book also won the 2012 Human Rights Award for non-fiction.
In the fantasy genre, which always showcases a plethora of cultures, is Brisbane-based Kylie Chan’s Small Shen, a graphic novel which she wrote, she said, because she ‘bored [her] family and friends completely to tears telling them about the differences between Chinese and Western culture’ so she ‘decided to write it all down … [and] make it fun’. The book, a prequel to a series, is reviewed by Australasian Educator, who describes how the characters respond ‘to a mixed pot of historical and mythological sequences alongside circumstances such as the Opium Wars, Hong Kong in the 1990s, and histori-fantasy versions of 19th and 20th Century China’.
Asian Australians feature in the romance genre with Coleen Kwan’s Short Soup. For reviewer Giraffe Days, the book was ‘a breath of fresh air, truly it was, and I really enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a contemporary romance featuring Chinese characters before – well, Chinese-Australian, but you know what I mean. They have retained enough of their culture to be both different and familiar, like I knew them personally but still recognised them as, well, not white.’ This is wonderful for, as Kat notes in her February roundup, ‘romance should be for everyone’. This includes gay romance, which moves the plot along in Ann Somerville’s Unnatural Selection. The book is reviewed by Lynxie in a write-up which interested me enough to add the book to my worryingly long list of things to read.
Finally, Giraffe Days’ review of Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, a complex and unsettling novel which has prompted a number of thoughtful reviews (see those by Elizabeth, Sue and myself), illuminates a story that is ‘dense, descriptive, questioning, wondering and brutally honest. Beneath it all lies layers of philosophical thought, the riddle of human nature, and a hard poke at what separates us from other animals – or at what we think separates us.’ It is the story of Romochka, an abandoned boy who is brought up by a pack of dogs, and Giraffe Days found it a ‘profoundly thought-provoking novel, but … also one of deep compassion and empathy’. This, I think, is the hallmark of a brilliant book: one that enables us to emapathise with another consciousness (whether human, animal, or something else altogether), instead of dismissing it as something too foreign to be understood.
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.
I love that you are doing these diversity round-ups Jessica. (And thanks for the links, btw). I had missed Dinner at Caphs Manhattan dreaming so will go read that. It’s great seeing Dog Boy being read and reviewed 2-3 years after it was published. I hope it goes on to become a classic!
Thanks Sue! Dog Boy does certainly look like it’s shaping up that way, and deservedly so.
Thanks for mentioning my review of Manhattan Dreaming. I guess overall it wasn’t a book for me, but I do support very strongly Heiss’ approach to writing about aboriginal identity.
I do also love your diversity round-up – it is such an interesting and useful view across many genres. Thanks again!
Thanks Dani! I’ve yet to read Heiss’ choc lit/chick lit books – I’ll get there eventually. I have heard it mentioned several times though that they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but as you say the intent is admirable.