When, in an interview with Indigenous author Ambelin Kwaymullina for our focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women writers over July, I asked what books by Indigenous authors we should be reading, Ambelin replied, ‘all of them.’ For non-Indigenous writers, reading these stories is the ‘only way to begin to grasp the diversity and complexity of the lives of Indigenous women.’
As our reviewers powered on into the second half of the year, it was great to see them absorbing and thinking about such stories. Marilyn of Me, You and Books and Sue of Whispering Gums both reviewed Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air. As Sue notes, this collected of loosely-tied stories about a young Indigenous girl trying to find her place and identity ‘is “political” in the way that most indigenous writing can’t help but be’ but at its centre ‘is a searching heart, for May has been cast adrift by the suicide of her mother.’ However, although it is a work about Indigenous identity, its themes are also universal, as Marilyn writes, ‘[Winch] seems to understand the current conditions of Indigenous life and to be able to write from an Indigenous perspective. At the same time she has created a story that resonates with all of us who have ever wanted to belong somewhere. In doing so, Winch has written a story which is both specific and universal. For me, such narratives are essential to good literature. May is a whole person, never reduced to her ethnicity.’ As well as this, the writing is ‘deliciously poetic,’ as Sue notes, with Marilyn adding that ‘Her sentences have bite and power.’
Meanwhile, Yvonne of Stumbling Through the Past reviewed Keelen Mailman’s memoir The Power of Bones. Mailman ‘had a hard childhood and a poor education but she has risen from this to be the first Aboriginal woman to run a commercial cattle station. This book is a lesson in never writing a person off, no matter how bleak their background appears to be.’ As Yvonne elaborates, despite abuse and violence, Mailman worked hard and took care of her family, ‘represented herself at court in order to gain custody of her sister’s children even though it scared her and she had never been involved with courts in her life. She raised her sister’s children as well as her own and made sure they had better education than she had. She fixed cars and fences without any formal training or work experience. Keelen Mailman is courageous.’
Nalini Hayes of Dark Matter Zine was also inspired by Mailman’s story, and penned an account of her interview with Mailman, which reveals the intricacies (or, perhaps, contortions) of Native Title, something Yvonne also touched on in her review.
Having read Marilyn’s review of Kayang and Me for the AWW Challenge last year, I decided to pick up this book, which was a dialogue between WA Indigenous author Kim Scott and his elder, Kayang Hazel, whom he grew to know as he was looking for information about his family. I loved the sound of the Noongar language and Scott’s nuanced considerations of identity, and like Marilyn I included this book in the challenge because of Hazel’s strong, straight-talking voice.
It was fab to see another review of Anita Heiss’ Tiddas popping up again. Lynette Washington thought that in this story of five friends, or ‘tiddas’ in Brisbane, ‘Heiss strikes a nice balance between typical chick-lit subject matter (friendship, careers, romance and shopping) and race-related subject matter (racism, discrimination, cultural expectations on Aboriginal women from within their communities, inter-race marriage and connection to country).’ She also particularly appreciated Heiss’ focus on the positive aspects of Aboriginal culture.
These reviews amply demonstrate Ambelin’s observation that there is a wide range of stories and genres written by Indigenous women writers which testify to the complexity and strength of their lives. Do keep engaging with them!
There were also a handful of reviews of women writers of diverse heritage. Marilyn reviewed Yasmine Goonerante’s 1991 novel A Change of Skies about an upper class couple that migrates from Sri Lanka to Sydney in the 1960s. The novel details how the move changes the couple, including the Anglicisation of their names and the careers they build, but Marilyn felt it glossed over the pain migration can bring.
Jane of GoodReads reviewed Vogel award winner Christine Piper’s After Darkness about a Japanese doctor who emigrates to Broome and is interred in a prisoner of war camp at the outbreak of World War Two. She found it uneven in places, but enjoyed the ‘accomplished writing and many beautifully described moments of joy and despair’.
Maxine Beneba Clarke’s book of short stories, Foreign Soil, was reviewed by Lou Heinrich in the Newtown Review of Books. An Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean descent, Clarke’s work ‘throws racism in our faces, and adds complexity to societal stereotypes.’ Her stories capture accents and cultures, and ‘gives space to people often ignored.’ After reading Lou’s review, I’ve added this book to my TBR pile.
It was also really good to see a review of a book that features a deaf character – Anna Romer’s Thornwood House, reviewed by Rochelle. A mystery set in rural Australia, the love interest uses sign language and, as Rochelle writes, that’s a ‘Plus one for diversity’!
On that note, next month we’ll be holding a focus on Australian women writers with disability, with guest posts from Honey Brown, Donna McDonald, Kate Richards and myself. I have also put together a list of Australian Women Writers with disability. If you know of any such writers who should be on the list, please mention them in the comments!
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’ve recently received funding from the Australia Council’s new Artists With Disability program to write my third novel, The Sea Creatures. You can find more information about me at my website. I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.