In her essay “Literature as Pleasure, Pleasure as Literature” (Antaeus, 1987), Joyce Carol Oates wrote, ‘Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul’. This is why reading stories is one of the most accessible and enjoyable ways of learning about the lives of other people. There are many voices that make up Australia, and it’s been great to see so many AWW Challenge participants listening to and reflecting upon them throughout 2013.
Over 2013, there were 45 reviews of works by Indigenous women writers. Dr Anita Heiss was the most reviewed, with 6 reviewers penning their thoughts on her works. These included Paris Dreaming (reviewed by Sue), Am I Black Enough for You (reviewed by Marilyn, Sue and Kevin) and I’m Not Racist, But… (reviewed by Phillip and Shannon).
Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby was also popular, with reviews by James, Lisa, myself and Writereaderly, who delightfully describes it as ‘such a pleasure to read this place [Mullumbimby] rendered with such smart-arsey love. 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.’
Sue from Whispering Gums reviewed two of Melissa’s essays, ‘How Green Is My Valley’ and her Walkley-award winning ‘Sinking Below Sight: Down and Out in Brisbane and Logan’ published in Griffith Review. In the latter essay, Melissa poses the question, ‘what dreams are possible for the Brisbane underclass in 2013?’ and follows the lives of three women living in poverty. As Sue notes, Melissa’s essay ‘may not be statistically significant from an academic perspective, but anyone who reads contemporary social commentary knows that what she writes rings true’.
Over July we held a focus on Indigenous women writers to celebrate NAIDOC week, and encouraged our readers to pick up a work by an Indigenous woman writer. Among the books reviewed was Rachel Hennessy’s The Heaven I Swallowed, a story inspired by the author’s grandmother, who was one of the Stolen Generations. The book was appreciated by both Sue and Shelleyrae.
Another standout novel was Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, a speculative fiction novel set in a near future devastated by climate change. Marilyn Brady, who runs the Global Women of Colour Challenge, named it as one of the best ten novels that she read and reviewed over 2013 not least because, as she writes in her review of the novel, Wright is one of the few Indigenous authors she has read who ‘are using their unique history and culture creatively and experimentally to address universal themes’.
Such an innovative approach can also be seen in Lynette Russell’s Roving Mariners: Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Ocean 1790-1870, reviewed by Janine. This history, about the South Australian sealing industry, was prompted by Russell’s desire ‘to create a more complex and less linear narrative than has been previously produced for southern Australia’ which required attention to the particularly unstable boundaries of who was Indigenous and who was not.
In other genres, there were reviews of speculative fiction novel The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (by Mark, Heidi and myself), children’s books such as The Burrumbi Kids (reviewed by Narelle), Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poems The Dawn is at Hand (reviewed by Philip) and young adult novels such as Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Flash (reviewed by My Book Corner). This is by no means a comprehensive list, and you can find more works under the heading of Indigenous Writing on our Listings Page.
Authors writing on Indigenous Issues
A number of readers also commented on works that revolved around Indigenous people, characters or issues, but were not necessarily penned by Indigenous authors. Marilyn reviewed Jacqueline Wright’s Red Dirt Talking, winner of the Western Australian TAG Hungerford award and longlisted for the Miles Franklin and Dobbie awards, describing it as ‘A complex and entertaining Australian novel about a white woman who comes to an Indigenous community looking for information, only to find herself changed and involved in the concerns of the community.’
Patti Miller’s The Mind of a Thief, about Miller’s exploration of the history of the Wiradjuri people, original custodians of the place where she was raised, was longlisted for the Stella Prize, and was reviewed by Deborah, Melissa and Anna.
The Lone Protestor, Fiona Paisley’s marvellous history of Anthony Martin Fernando, Indigenous activist in Europe in the first half of the 20th Century, was also reviewed by Jenny and Yvonne. ‘Creative, intelligent and audacious are some of the words that came to my mind when reading about A M Fernando’, Yvonne writes, for he was a remarkable man whom Paisley brings to life despite, as Yvonne continues, ‘only tiny scraps [of information] hidden in vast archives’.
It was positive to see a novel about disability reaching the limelight. Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved, about Roberta Lightfoot, who suffers from polio and its ramifications, won the Kibble award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award in 2013, and previously won the 2011 Queensland Premier’s Award (when the awards were still hosted by the premier) for an emerging author. I was impressed with Roberta’s tough personality and the lush Port Moresby setting, while Maree describes it as ‘a well-written novel with a great heart’.
Other works about disability included Kate Richards’ Madness: a memoir, about the author’s mental illness. This was thoughtfully reviewed by Stephanie and Christine, who describes the work as ‘not just a plea for understanding but also for the recognition of the complexity of mental illness that increased expenditure and thought in the mental health field might address’.
Queer writers, characters and subjects appeared in a wide range of genres, including romance (Anna Cowan’s Untamed, reviewed by Kat), history (Suzanne Falkiner’s Eugenia: A Man, reviewed by Janine), literary fiction (Yvette Walker’s Letters to the End of Love, reviewed by Amanda, Annabel, Jennifer, Emily and myself), poetry (Susan Hawthorne’s Limen, reviewed by Sue and Marilyn), young adult fiction (F2M: the Boy Within by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy, reviewed by Stevie) and an anthology (Car Maintenance, Explosives and Love, and Other Contemporary Lesbian Writings, reviewed by writereaderly).
We don’t yet have a list of queer women writers on our Reading for Diversity page, but I’m hoping to redress this by holding a spotlight on queer writing in March. Stay tuned for details!
Over October, we held a spotlight on Australian Women Writers of Diverse Heritage, with guest posts from Tseen Khoo, Alice Pung, Malla Nunn and Merlinda Bobis. Tseen, a researcher and writer on Asian-Australian issues, outlined her frustration with the limited readings of texts by Asian Australian women, such as those by Hsu Ming Teo’s Love and Vertigo. Alice Pung, author of Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter, discussed the theme of class and ostracism in relation to Ruth Park’s novels. Malla Nunn reflected on how her move to Australia gave her the opportunity to write about her childhood in Swaziland, while Merlinda Bobis, author of Fish-Hair Woman, for which she was awarded the Most Underrated Book Award, wrote a post about the influence of her Filipino culture on her writing. Next year we’ll be holding similar spotlights on lesbian writers (as mentioned above) and women writers with disabilities.
I have loved working with the AWW team this year, and am proud to be part of an initiative that contributes to the fair representation of women writers in Australia’s literary culture. In addition, even though I’m deaf, by reading I listen to much, much more than I ever could in real life, and I’m indebted to AWW’s readers – your reviews have allowed me to slip into so many skins, voices and souls.
If you’d like to continue the challenge in 2014 (and I do hope you will!), you can sign up here. For further suggestions as to what to read from a diverse range of Australian women writers, please visit our Reading for Diversity page. Those who are also interested in Australia’s fantastic women Indigenous authors can head to the Indigenous and Indigenous Issues lists on our Review Listings page. Do venture forth and explore!
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 look forward to learning about more queer women writers/books in March!
Thanks Chris – we have a couple of authors lined up for guest posts, plus book giveaways, so it should be fun!
I love the fact that the Australian Women Writers Challenge makes a real effort to encourage us to read books by women of diverse background. I have found reading books by Aboriginal women this year has opened my eyes to a rich history of Australia that I would not be otherwise aware of. It also helped me to see that there are other ways of thinking, of being. Reading these books helps me to learn some humility which is always a good thing!
Thankyou for your interesting overview Jess.
Yvonne, you echo all my thoughts! The more Indigenous literature I read, the more embarrassed I am by how little I know, and AWW has been an amazing source of texts. It’s good to hear you’ve found it useful too.
Wonderful summation Jessica, and a great resource in itself for people looking for recommendations. Thanks, too, for the links!
You’re welcome, Sue! Thank you too for your contributions – yours and Marilyn’s names repeatedly came up and I have really appreciated your thoughts and reading efforts with Indigenous literature. For writers of literary fiction, it’s always nice to have readers like you.
Great wrap up Jess and let me know if there’s a slot for a post about Australian lesbian crime writing (of which there is more than you might think)
Thanks Bernadette – lesbian crime fiction sounds great! – I’ll be in touch shortly 🙂
Great overview. Thanks for including me and thanks for helping spread the word about diversity reading of all kinds. if we are ever to learn to live with people who are different in important ways, we need to read their words and imaginatively share their experiences. of course, Australians need to read their own Indigenous writers, but there are also some awesome Native American writers worth your while as well.
You put it so well, Marilyn, and you’re right, we should always be looking internationally as well as nationally with our literature. I’ll go through some of the books that you reviewed last year and add them to my list 🙂
The bib on my Global Women of Color page is an easy way to do that. Native American women you would probably like Louise Erdrich, The Round House, and her other books. Or maybe Leslie Silko or Susan Powers.
Thanks Marilyn. I read some of Leslie Marmon Silko’s work while on exchange in Berkeley and really enjoyed it, so I will revisit her. I’ve also noted down your other suggestions.