As 2015 cranked up, AWW’s reviewers powered through books by Australian Indigenous writers, women writers of ethnic heritage, and authors who wrote about disability or race.
Ana Stevenson penned an in-depth review of historian Clare Coubold’s Becoming African Americans: Black Public Life in Harlem, 1919-1939. This non-fiction work, which won the 2010 Victorian Premier’s Literary award for First Book of History, looks at the links between African-Americans and Africa, which African-Americans used to contribute to their burgeoning sense of identity during the first half of the twentieth century.
Bernadette of Fair Dinkum Crime reviewed Malla Nunn’s Present Darkness. ‘It feels odd,’ she comments, ‘to mention the colour of the participants in the way I have done above but skin colour is the single most important attribute each human has in the world Nunn depicts so vividly.’ You can tell you’re in good writerly hands when the author makes you feel the ostracism caused by colour so fiercely. Certainly it impacted on Bernadette. After reading about Detective Cooper, who has mixed-race heritage but passes as white and lives with a woman also of mixed race, she wrote, ‘I knew all of this on some intellectual level before reading Nunn’s books but I don’t think I’ve ever really understood how invasive apartheid was during every moment of every day.’
Also on the topic of Australian women writers of ethnic heritage, Reading Writing & Riesling reviewed Maxine Beneba Clarke’s stories in Foreign Soil. She found the writing passionate, while the stories offered ‘a brutal and honest message that might at times be uncomfortable to read but is worth the effort.’ Meanwhile, Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean is an Indian-Australian collaboration of short stories for young adult readers that arose as a response to violence against women in both countries. While the quality varied according to taste, as Brona writes in her review, it shows how writing is an important vehicle for discussing issues that women face.
Shelleyrae reviewed Francesca Haig’s The Fire Sermon, also mentioned in last month’s round-up, about a pair of twins, one healthy and whole, the other with an abnormality. While the book’s pacing was uneven, Shelleyrae found that ‘The physical link between the twins raises some philosophical and ethical questions that relates to issues in our own society’, and how we treat our own people with disabilities. Shaheen of Speculating on SpecFic also reviewed the book and, like Shelleyrae, was frustrated with the protagonist’s lack of character development. This is the first of a trilogy and both reviewers were interested in seeing how it evolved.
Joan London’s The Golden Age has been widely reviewed for the AWW Challenge, but I thought it was worth mentioning Jon Shaw’s review of this book. Centred around the 13 year old son of Hungarian immigrants who has been admitted to a convalescent home for children with polio, it could have, as Jon writes, gone wrong in any number of ways and turned into a pity party. Instead, the characters are fully realised, and the parents’ reactions to their children’s illness are ‘deftly captured, ranging from scenes of operatic intensity to tiny, deeply intimate gestures.’ A child’s disability impacts on their parents as well as children themselves, and it was nice to see this referenced here.
Jo Tamar reviewed Indigenous author Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing. Set in the Aboriginal missions of far north Australia, it’s about misunderstandings between the bush mob and the mission mob attempting to convert them to Christianity. Although the stories are humorous, they become, as Jo writes, ‘more bittersweet’ until the ending, which is ‘very black indeed.’
Sue of Whispering Gums picked up Indigenous author Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light. It’s made up of three sections and, as Sue writes, the ‘bookending sections Heat and Light present stories of Australian people going about their lives, and most of them happen to be indigenous. Their indigeneity is evident, and it affects the issues they confront, but there’s no specific advocacy. The middle section, on the other hand, is more overtly political. It picks up issues that appear in the shorter stories and provides a coherent, ideological context for the whole.’ This book knocked my socks off and it’s definitely worth picking up, as Sue writes, ‘it combines engaging writing with stories that make you feel you’ve got to the things that matter.’
Other reviews which have Indigenous characters or themes include Jackie French’s A Waltz for Matilda, reviewed by Giraffe Days. Maureen Helen also enjoyed Indigenous author Anita Heiss’ Tiddas.
Not only can characters be diverse, but so too can places. Felicity Castagna’s The Incredible Here and Now is about Parramatta in Western Sydney, told from the point of view of 15 year old Michael. Although she found the cover off-putting, A Strong Belief in Wicker found the book ‘a remarkable evocation of place, urban renewal, a consideration of racial tensions and the rhythms and stresses of the lives of young men.’ The writing and voice of the narrator immediately pulled me in, and I’ll be adding this one to my reading pile.
It’s never too early to start conversations about diversity, and it’s great to see kids’ books discussing the issue in innovative ways. As Mel at Subversive Reader writes in her review of Emma Allen and Freya Blackwood’s The Terrible Suitcase, ‘the things we think are odd or different about ourselves don’t always matter to other people.’
Next month we’re very excited to be publishing guest posts from Queenie Chan, Marisa Wikramanayake and Maxine Beneba Clarke for a focus on Australian women writers of ethnic heritage. If you’d like to hear about these posts as soon as they’re published, you can follow AWW on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads or GooglePlus, or subscribe to this blog in the right sidebar. If you use these channels, you can engage with us & tell your thoughts on what you’ve been reading – we’d love to hear from you!
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 working on a book of non-fiction about Rosa Praed and her deaf daughter Maud, as well as my third novel, The Sea Creatures, which won funding through the Australia Council’s Artists With Disability program. You can find more information about me at my website. I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.
Great round-up Jessica … as I’m sure I’ve said before, this is one of my favourite round-ups in our schedule. I loved Bernadette’s comment that “I don’t think I’ve ever really understood how invasive apartheid was during every moment of every day”. That’s the power of good writing and why fiction is so important. I remember reading Frank McCourt’s Angela’s ashes and feeling that I intellectually understood poverty but his writing – such as his licking the fat off the fish and chips packet left by his uncle – made me “feel” poverty at a whole different level. I’ve never forgotten that book as a result.
Aww, thanks Sue! I’m so glad you enjoy them. Yes, the very best writing is the visceral sort that allows you to live other lives. I was too young when I read Angela’s Ashes & have forgotten much of it, though not the publicity it received. One day I’ll pick it up again!