Throughout July, and in tandem with NAIDOC week, we held a focus on Indigenous women’s writing, with some 8 reviews of 6 works Indigenous authors, and another 3 reviews of works by non-Indigenous authors about Indigenous issues, which is fabulous. Rachel Hennessy’s The Heaven I Swallowed, shortlisted for the Vogel Prize in 2008 and published in June this year, was reviewed by Sue of Whispering Gums, and Shelleyrae of Book’d Out. As Sue notes, the story was inspired by Hennessy’s grandmother, who was one of the Stolen Generations. It’s about Grace, who adopts and raises a 12-year old Aboriginal girl, Mary, but is conflicted by, as Shelleyrae writes, ‘ensuring Mary learns discipline, manners and a good work ethic and wanting to share affection with the girl’. The complexity of Grace’s character ‘enthralled’ Shelleyrae, and both reviewers dropped enough hints (without giving the story away) to make me want to pick up what Sue calls this ‘quiet but fierce little book about real people and real situations’.
Another new(ish) release is Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby, the story of Jo Breen, who buys a property in the Byron Bay hinterland to be closer to her ancestors, and who also gets tangled up in the fracas from a Native Title claim via her love interest, Twoboy. WriteReaderly summarises the book’s many good qualities thus: ‘The multifaceted examination of indigenous rights is smart-thinking and smartly plotted, the narrative trips along, the characters are human, the language vernacular and gritty, and the book an accessible, informed, good-timer.’ I also loved the novel, and found that, while it was a great way of learning about Indigenous culture, it was also rollicking good read.
Sue’s review of Melissa Lucashenko’s essay in Griffith Review, ‘How Green Is My Valley?’ also touches on some of the themes in Mullumbimby, including the importance of listening to the land and country, particularly in the face of catastrophic climate change.
Shelleyrae and Laura of Australian Bookshelf reviewed From Alice with Love by Alice Springs author Jo Dutton. This novel, Dutton’s third, follows Alicia’s move back to Alice Springs and her involvement with a man from the local community. Shelleyrae writes that ‘Alicia’s journey is both inseparable from, and overshadowed by, Dutton’s portrait of Indigenous issues and community in the Top End’, but she found that the balance between material and story wasn’t deftly done, with the story ‘overwhelmed and undermined by the myriad of issues Dutton introduced’. Laura, on the other hand, ‘didn’t feel the political issues overshadowed the story, because it was part of the conflict faced by the community, the country and the people’ – a clear demonstration of the subjectivity of book reviewing! What doesn’t work for one person might work for another, and vice versa, which always makes writing these round-ups enjoyable.
A similar theme of a white woman becoming involved with an Indigenous community forms the plot of Jacqueline Wright’s Red Dirt Talking, reviewed by Marilyn Brady of Me, You and Books. The protanogist Annie, she writes, arrives in the community ‘sure of her conclusions and wanting evidence to provide what she thinks she already knows. The mistakes she makes in relating to the Indigenous people are somewhat comic.’
Shannon of Giraffe Days wrote of the effect Anita Heiss’ I’m Not Racist, But…A Collection of Social Observations had on her, including the difficulty faced by many white people who are upset with what has been done to Indigenous people but who don’t know how to make amends: Anita’s poems ‘made me feel hurt and angry with empathy for Heiss and other Aborigines, but also like their hurt and anger was a stiff, upright wall I couldn’t pass through, a wall designed to maintain the hurt and anger.’ However, as well as being honest about what she sees, Heiss does also advocate a positive approach to educating people about Indigenous issues, as Sue found in Am I Black Enough for You?. One final review by an Indigenous author was my review of Ambelin Kwaymullina’s young adult, speculative fiction work The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, an entertaining and refreshing read.
The books reviewed over July fell into two main camps – those by Indigenous authors, or books by authors of diverse heritage, of which there were some seven reviews.
WriteReaderly found Merlinda Bobis’ The Fish Hair Woman ‘the best conflict-novel I’ve read.’ She described it as:
a novel about memory and forgetting – who ought to, how and why one would or should – in the face of conflict and community suffering and loss. The plotting focuses on the forced disappearances in the town of Iraya, where dozens of bodies are pulled from the local river, victims of either guerrilla, paramilitary or military forces.
With its mix of ‘magic realism, journalism, travel-horror, political thriller, village tragedy, hideous farce’, it sounds like a fascinating work.
Pauleen of Bewitched by Books reviewed Diane Armstrong’s The Voyage of their Life, a memoir about the passage of hundreds of post-war emigrants on the voyage of the SS Derna to Australia in 1948, the author Armstrong among them. Armstrong tracked down the passengers and recorded their motivations for taking the voyage, and what happened to them after they reached their destination in Australia.
Jennifer of GoodReads reviewed Toyo: a memoir, Lily Chan’s third person memoir of her grandmother, ‘a woman born on the margins of respectable Japanese society; who lived through the bombing of Japan; who was essentially ostracised by marrying into a Chinese family; and who adjusted to life in Australia.’ As Jennifer writes, ‘it is the small details shared that serve to make what could be a detached description of Toyo’s life and times a vibrant account of a life lived’, an assessment which the judges of the Dobbie award for first time women writers must have shared, for Lily Chan was awarded this prize a few months ago. Yvonne also mentioned these books in her round-up of Histories, Biographies and Memoirs.
Over October, we’ll be holding a focus on Australian women writers of diverse backgrounds such as these, and will be encouraging our readers to pick up their books. Stay tuned for next month’s post for more details, and in the meantime, you can look through the our Review Listings pages for ideas on what to read.
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.