Welcome back to the monthly wrap-ups for reviews of books that showcase diversity! 2014 is shaping up to be an exciting year, with a focus on Australian queer women writers in March and on women writers with a disability in September, while in July we’ll bring you an interview with an Indigenous women writer.
We strive to draw attention to such diverse authors all throughout the year however, and over January the challenge kicked off with six great reviews.
Chris White reviewed Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, which is about a girl, Oblivia, surviving in a world altered by climate change. The book inspired a variety of emotion, leaving Chris ‘deliriously happy, thanks to the beautiful combinations of brilliant prose and of the teasing, twisting poetry. It made me feel guilty, as a white Australian, of the Intervention and of our treatment of Aboriginals in general’. Chris’ final recommendation – ‘If I didn’t feel like giving The Swan Book six stars was cheating I’d give it seven’ – should persuade anyone to pick up this novel!
Sue of Whispering Gums mused on an essay by English author Kathy Marks which won the Indigenous Affairs award at the Walkley Awards. Titled ‘Chanelling Mannalargenna’, it discusses the ‘thorny issue regarding the definition of indigeneity in Tasmania.’ The essay reminded Sue of Anita Heiss’ Am I Black Enough For You? in that it, as Heiss writes in her book, pointed to the ‘complexities around individual and collective Aboriginal identity’. The essay is available online through Griffith Review’s website and is part of their bestselling issue on Tasmania, and it’s well worth a read.
There’s been much excitement about the release of PM Newton’s second novel, Beams Falling, a sequel to her tightly-bound, plotted and paced The Old School. Bree of All the Books I Can Read reviewed the latter, and ‘was engrossed … from the very first page and couldn’t wait for each twist to unfold and each new bit of information to present itself.’ The story revolves around Ned, a detective whose Dad was Irish-Australian and Mum was Vietnamese and who, as Bree writes, ‘seems to face judgement and preconceptions about her appearance every day with few people understanding that she identifies as Australian with no real connection or ties to her Vietnamese heritage’. The book was such a good read for Bree that she’s been persuaded to ‘read more crime’. As an admirer, too, of The Old School, I’m also really looking forward to the sequel.
It was great to see another review of Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved. As reviewer Maureen writes, the protagonist Bertie’s encounter with polio leaves her ‘with a disability which means she must eventually wear a boot to correct her gait. Her deformed foot impacts on her perception of herself and how she chooses to dress, as well as forces her to compensate in many areas of her life.’ Despite her disability, Bertie is determined to practice her art, an impulse which is at odds with her mother’s desire that she become a doctor. The conflict is a plot device, as Maureen notes, and ‘the battle between mother and daughter draws the story along at a page-turning pace, ensuring an easy read.’
Australian women writers such as Geraldine Brooks have focussed on the encounters and histories of Indigenous people in other countries. In Caleb’s Crossing, as Marilyn of Me, You and Books writes, Brooks’ depiction of a friendship between Bethia, a girl from a Puritan family, and Caleb, a Native American, contributes to the dismantling of the ‘widespread assumptions that all Indians were like those involved in the wars with settlers in the late 1800s.’ For Australian readers, Marilyn continues, it also ‘provides a comparison with their own nation’s initial settlement a century and a half later. And the book excels as simply an enjoyable novel.’
Diversity was also showcased in poetry this month, with poet Katie Keys penning a review of Gil Scott Heron is on Parole by poet Maxine Beneba Clarke, an Australian poet of Afro-Caribbean descent (also mentioned by Marisa in the poetry/short stories roundup). In this work, as Katie writes, ‘Clarke highlights and re-writes stories from the convenient myths of colonialists, oppressors and misogynists to white-faced fairytales and out-dated definitions. The collection is at moments harsh and angry, sometimes shocking. But change isn’t always polite and the revolution will not be televised. Overall, it is powerful, persuasive and justified’.
On the topic of things poetic, on Tuesday we will have the first of our guest writers for our spotlight on queer women writers, Michelle Dicinoski. Michelle is also a poet – her first collection is the stunning Electricity for Beginners – and author of the memoir Ghost Wife, about her journey to Canada to marry her wife Heather. Stay posted for further details!
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) and Entitlement (2012). I’m currently writing a book of creative non-fiction on Queensland novelist Rosa Praed and her deaf daughter Maud. You can find more information about me at my website. I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.
Lovely write-up as usual Jessica. I love the diversity of the writing dealing with diversity. Crime, innovative fiction, essays, poetry; indigenous people, polio, immigration …
I love the fact that a good crime novel has made Bree think of reading more crime. I’m not a crime reader either, but reading a couple that I really liked has opened my mind more too. And that’s a good thing I reckon.
Thanks Sue! Yes, the range of forms & themes does make writing these round-ups really interesting & enjoyable. My mum loves a good crime novel so I’ve picked up a couple of hers over the years, but it’s not a genre I’ve read widely, even though I love watching how the mystery is constructed & resolved – I think it takes a very technical mind to write them!
Yes, me too, though I’m reading one at the moment. I think I can pretty much count on one hand the crime novels I’ve read.
I hadn’t thought of The Old School as being about diversity (among other things), but of course it is. I’m going to have to visit a bookshop to buy her next book.
Your roundup made me wonder: how many reviews are of books about diversity versus how many books are reviewed which are written by authors who are of diverse backgrounds themselves? Both are important. It is important that matters of diversity are included in the work of authors of authors of mainstream background, but it is also important that people of diverse background contribute their writing and are read.
This is a point I’ve often thought about too, Yvonne, but more in the context of how well mainstream authors can write diversity (for eg white writers writing about Indigenous people, or heterosexuals writing about queers etc). My collecting of stats has always been a bit haphazard but I think at the end of the year it will be well-worth sitting down to answer this question ie how many mainstream authors are actually writing about diverse issues – thanks for the inspiration!
Your stats are tricky like mine I reckon Jessica, though moreso, as our areas cross the categories and we have to rely on our own knowledge regarding whether books that reviewers haven’t subcategorised do fit our reporting area. I wonder if I always remember to note diversity? I think I do indigenous but am not sure about the other diversity categories.
I think unless you’re actively looking for the diversity themes & authors they can slip by – I think it’s just a case of getting into a particular mode of thinking. I’m attuned to them because I write these roundups and also because being deaf & sometimes marginalised (though not as much as others have been) I notice when it happens to other people. But it might not be that much different to being obsessed with shoes & noticing when a particular brand is stepping by!
And also Sue I do really appreciate all your reviews of Indigenous literature – they are so intelligent and thoughtful & we need more people like you!