Readers of the Australian Women Writers blog will have noticed that we’ve been peppered with long listings, short listings, and awards lately. These are a boost to any writer’s career, but particularly those who might be overlooked on account of their gender, sexuality or race. The effects of recognition are apparent in AWW reviews, with Subversive Reader writing of Indigenous author Dylan Coleman’s Mazin Grace, long listed for the Stella Prize:
Although Mazin Grace was sad, and at times gut-wrenchingly confronting (and you must read the author’s note at the end), I was left with a feeling of hope – hope because stories like this are entering our consciousness, that writers like this are making long lists for awards, that books like this are available – easily – to readers like myself who don’t always find it easy to go to small or specialist book stores.
How lovely it is to see books that aren’t necessarily mainstream making an impact!
Other reviews of books by Indigenous authors included my own of Janine Leane’s Purple Threads, a gentle and meandering novel about the narrator’s childhood and aunties. James Tierny from the Newtown Review of Books reviewed Melissa Lucashenko’s newly released Mullumbimby, her fifth novel. He found it a ‘sure, funny and quietly modulated novel’ which ‘bursts the myth that Indigenous culture must present a unified face to Australia in order to be strong’, but questioned the ‘occasional tendency to use unnecessary adverbs or adjectives when neither the sense nor the flow of the narrative demands it.’ Poet Phillip Ellis reviewed Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s book of poems The Dawn is at Hand, commenting that the volume isn’t ‘simplistic, propagandistic poetry, but poetry that conveys its own worldviews’. He also posted on Anita Heiss’ I’m Not Racist, But …, a collection of what Heiss terms ‘social observations,’ but which Phillip refers to as political poetry.
Patti Miller’s The Mind of a Thief is about the author’s growing understanding that the country in which she grew up was a place of dispossession. It was long listed for the Stella prize and, recently, the Kibble prize. Anna Maria Dell’oso at the Newtown Review of Books wrote an inviting review, concluding with the observation that the novel’s final chapters leave the reader wondering ‘how the chain of human dispossession and thievery will continue to unfold into the stoic Australian landscape’. Migratory Mel was more uneasy with the author’s stance, commenting that ‘Miller walks a fine line between her own memoir and a non-fiction story of rights to land, native title and registration claims’. She was also irked by Miller’s ‘constant need to remind us of her own hardship growing up in Wellington (often repeated mentions of no running water, no hot tap)’ as though the author were ‘trying to place herself in a position as an equally hard-done by resident of Wellington alongside Indigenous Australians.’ However Mel also acknowledges that Miller’s honesty about her shortcomings helps the reader ‘to understand how the roles played by Indigenous Australians have been deeply hidden from our history’. After reading both these reviews, I promptly downloaded the book from my library.
Another book on Indigenous issues reviewed over March was Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, reviewed by Nalini Haynes. Nalini compared the book and documentary versions about the death of Cameron Doomadgee while in police custody in Palm Island, and highlights what she sees as some of the author’s biases.
On the long list for the Miles Franklin and Stella awards was Robin de Crespigny’s non-fiction work The People Smuggler. Bree wrote an impassioned review of this account of Ali Al Jenabi, a man who risks all to get refugees from the Middle East to safety in Australia. She gave it 10/10, and wrote that ‘This book should be mandatory reading for every Australian school student. It should help provide the one thing that the government does not: the other side.’
Other cultures also featured in the romance genre, with Coleen Kwan’s Short Soup reviewed by Kaetrin, who enjoyed the mix of Chinese and Australian culture. Lauren at The Australian Bookshelf reviewed another romance driven by cultural issues, Arranged to Love by Elizabeth Dunk. The conflict in the book stems from the Indian-Australian female protagonist’s intention to go ahead with an arranged marriage, until her plans are thrown into disarray by her falling for an Australian man. Lauren enjoyed the cultural aspects of the story but was frustrated with the characters at times.
Australian author Malla Nunn, who was born in Swaziland and moved to Perth in the 1970s, is a writer of suspense novels. Marilyn Brady reviews her work Let the Dead Lie, set in South Africa at the time of apartheid. The work shows how apartheid shaped people, and how it was never ‘the stark division of black and white people, as … envisioned by its designers’ but rather, ‘as Nunn displays, was messier’. Marilyn also reviewed Alice Pung’s memoir Unpolished Gem about growing up as a Cambodian of Chinese ethnicity in Australia. She describes the writing as ‘sure and affective, voicing on paper what could not be explained to non-immigrant friends about her life.’
Other issues which were canvassed include those of lesbian desire in Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, reviewed with punch and panache by WriteReaderly: ‘The plotting is smart, the affair is sexy, Sydney is gritty and real, the poems are bitey and sharp – a damned fab book.’ If Not, Read reviewed the same book, and loved it.
Finally, it’s always great to see issues popping up in young adult literature, and Mandee at Vegan YA Nerds couldn’t put Alex As Well down. This is the story of Alex, who is born intersexed with both male and female genitalia. Her parents agreed early on she was to be a boy, but as she grows up Alex feels more like a girl and decides to become one. Mandee found Alex to be ‘a really intelligent girl and she made for an entertaining and honest narrator, who speaks directly to the reader, as if she’s telling us her story. She had so much personality that she was jumping out of the pages at me.’ Sounds like the author Alyssa Brugmann has done her work well!
If you’d like more recommendations for books that cover these sorts of issues, head over to the Australian Women Writer’s ever-growing list of Indigenous authors and authors writing on Indigenous issues, or check out the lists under Reading for Diversity. And let’s hope that the awards season continues to shower fine writers like these.
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.