You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2013.
A quick note by way of introduction: the following is not a list of what I think are the best books published this year; rather it is a list of work published at any time that I have read this year and have had an influence on me one way or another. Kicking off with poetry, I picked up Air Ship by Roger McDonald (UQP 1975) in a second-hand bookstore halfway through 2013 and I’m glad I did. McDonald has spent much of his significant career writing novels that have had a deep impact on the Australian literary landscape and beyond. His ability to create a sentence that offers so much life and bounce and possibility is, I think, unequalled amongst contemporary writers. And that sense of life and bounce and possibility is present in McDonald’s poetry, even poetry written almost forty years ago. This year I began a habit of spending the first moments of a writing session reading poetry, and it’s Air Ship that has been the book of choice. It’ll probably stay on the desk into 2014.
If there’s an Australian writer who came to change the way the broader community related to poetry it was Dorothy Porter. Best 100 Poems of Dorothy Porter (Black Inc. 2013), curated by partner Andrea Goldsmith, is a fine taster to Porter’s extraordinary intelligence, but also her playfulness, her cheek, and her great heart. Here’s hoping many readers will be tempted to discover new Dorothy Porter territories, such as Crete from 1996 or even Little Hoodlum from 1975 (interesting: the same year McDonald’s Air Ship was published).
Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador 2010) had a physical impact on the way I live. No doubt there are better novels around, better as in reaching for and finding greater and more profound highs and lows, but I enjoyed Room because of the challenge Donoghue set herself: write about entrapment from an innocent child’s perspective, a child who knows no other world than the cell that has been made for him. It does lose some tension in the final stretch, but as soon as I finished the last page I went out and doubled the size of the chook run – I just couldn’t stand to see them cooped up for another minute.
I’ve read and enjoyed all of Christos Tsiolkas’s fiction work and ploughed my way through Barracuda (Allen & Unwin 2013) in three sessions despite its hefty size. It’s a tough book, as can be expected, but it’s also Tsiolkas at his most tender. Australia is unreasonably obsessed with sport, and in Barracuda Tsiolkas goes straight to that particular jugular while also taking the hatchet to the privileged world of elite private schools; he reveals the violence that is so central to Australian mainstream culture and our many hypocrisies around class, race, gender, and sexuality. Despite this, Dan (or Danny), his central character, an elite swimmer whose life doesn’t become what he and everyone else wanted for him, is beautifully brought to the page regardless of – or because of – his many flaws. As others have noted, Barracada does lose some tension in the last third (like Donoghue’s Room), but the novel didn’t lose me.
Staying on the theme of violence, I’m not a fan of reading about war: I’m bored by the strategic machinations, and the human toll can never be anything other than devastating; there might be heroes on the front-line, but every heroic action is blackened by a thousand more tragic ones. Enter Deserter: the last untold story of the second world war by the eminent US/UK journalist Charles Glass (Harper Press, 2013). What this extraordinary and important non-fiction work does is examine the lives of three World War Two servicemen: two from the US, one from England; with a forensic eye and ear for detail he reveals the diverse and multi-layered experiences of these men, and in doing so goes beyond the hero-versus-coward binary.
Just going to put this out there: I adored The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury 2013). Whilst Tsiolkas brings forth the barely hidden violence of ‘the lucky country’, Forna, who was born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain as well as in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, expertly explores the forever lingering impact of the Croatian conflict. In my review for the Canberra Times (republished in the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere), I wrote: ‘Forna flatly refuses to over-dramatise. This is a delicate and restrained work. Indeed at times the narrative comes across as a travelogue augmented with childhood reminiscences of hunting and swimming and fumbling first love, these meandering passages lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Forna’s considerable power comes from not overstating her case, and never taking sides. It’s this refusal to make judgements and draw any kind of conclusion that gives The Hired Man its significance… Through Duro Kolak, a complex, conflicted but ultimately likable character, and the many stories he shares with us, Aminatta Forna does what great writing should do: she illuminates the horrors of our times, those that will follow us to the grave, and she makes us feel as though we, too, have played a role, which is almost always the case.’
I still believe everything I wrote in the review, and I still believe everything Aminatta Forna wrote in The Hired Man.
Can you think of a stranger occupation than writing fiction?
Those of us who do it, ignoring all the mental-health warnings, spend hour after hour, day after day, week after week, year after year, holed up in a room staring at a pad or screen, dreaming characters and predicaments into existence, all the while hoping that one day the words might be read, and with more than a little luck mean something to someone else, that reader, who may even be moved.
That’s all a fiction writer wants: to be read well, deeply, intellectually, emotionally. Which is asking the world of them.
And it all comes down to publication.
Drumroll please: the news
So, it’s with pleasure I can say that, due to the success of Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now (good sales, some gongs – twice short-listed for the ACT Writers and Publishing Award with Fall on Me winning the thing – and, on balance, a warm and generous critical response), the third and final in this series of novellas will be published in mid-2014. The title, contents, and cover are currently under wraps at the request of Blemish Books, but all will be revealed in the first few months of the new year.
But I can say that this novella will follow the general theme – preoccupation? – of the previous two: contemporary Australian family life in all its mess and mayhem. Part of this preoccupation comes from a desire to lift the lid on what’s supposedly a ‘bedrock’ institution, as former prime minister John Howard described it during his long, long, harrowing days in power. Family may well be important to modern living, because, often, it brings life into being. But it also hammers life, stretches life into new and sometimes dangerous shapes; it can – and often does – take life, snuff the daylights out of everyone who steps into its confines or whatever it is that defines this thing.
How to explore the murky depths and live to tell the tale
But family life is also the stuff of fiction – always has been and always will be. Because families are inherently complex. They’re shifty; more often than not they operate in the grey and dark and black. And fiction is a good – the best possible? – means of exploring the murky depths, of finding out who and what ticks and when and how, and to record new findings for the benefits of others.
So, then, the final Blemish novella will be about family.
Surely, surely, I could give away some of the plot?
Well, it involves a beach, a boat, two boats, many boats, a piano, a house by the harbour with a significant view, a river, an ocean, and yellow buckets tied to ankles for safety.
There’s also this.
Until next year
Until next year, much gratitude to everyone who has read Fall on Me and/or I’m Ready Now, who’s offered a kind word, or an honest one, who’s suggested that it might be good to carry on with this literary madness – it’s all so very much appreciated. And, of course, massive thanks to Blemish Books for keeping the faith. It’s true: writing is a tough and sometimes (often?) ridiculous gig, and I’m glad it’s this press that’s by my side.
There’s no doubt that December is the month of looking back, scanning the year for highlights, the things that have mattered. For me, one of the highlights (amongst many) was my three-month time as Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy via the generosity of the University of NSW Canberra. I was in-residence at ADFA from September to November, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I loved every minute of it…even though, for the first few hours, I sat in my bare white office in the Academy Library and thought, Oh my, how on Earth did I end up here?
I remember earlier this year how I’d read through the application details and quickly concluded that a military environment wasn’t exactly the right fit for me. Twice now I’ve protested in the streets about Australia’s involvement in military conflict overseas. Frankly, I’d rather see the defence budget reduced and money on education and the arts – including education in the arts – increased. And then there’s the simple fact that I’m just not interested in the machinations of war: the machinery, the strategy, the winning at all costs (and what terrible costs they almost always are). However, it was said to me that if I was feeling uncomfortable about being in the military environment then perhaps that’s exactly where I should be. So I started working on the application and soon found that I was interested in definitions of masculinity – how are men truly and perhaps profoundly tested in times of extreme conflict?
Needless to say, it was a complete thrill to be awarded one of the two residencies on offer, and as the time came closer I became more and more nervous.
Really, was this the right thing for me to do?
And the question was turned up to eleven on that first day in September when I sat in that bare white office in the Academy Library. Eventually I decided that I wouldn’t approach my research through philosophical or academic lenses. Rather I’d simply expose myself to as much material as I could find amongst the extraordinary resources available (the ADFA Academy Library is known to have one of the world’s greatest collections of military material): fiction, non-fiction, poetry, feature film, documentary; I also had some fantastically energising conversations with UNSW Canberra academics.
One of the things I found very interesting about being ‘in residence’ at an academic institution, in contrast to other residencies I’ve been on (for example, Bundanon, Cataract Gorge, Varuna), is the feeling of connection to the topic, as opposed to being in delicious isolation (which, at the right time, has benefits). On the ADFA campus I was constantly surrounded by material, and it wasn’t only the material in the Library – even going to get a coffee got the thoughts flowing as I was almost always surrounded by men and women in military dress. It all added up to a very stimulating and thought-invoking time.
So, for three months I filled my brain with stories and observations and conversations, and some questions evolved. Who is a man? Who is a good man? Who is a good person? Who is a good being? And then other questions came to the surface, questions about fact and myth, how nations tend to love the latter for not entirely malevolent political reasons. I don’t have the answers, of course, but I’m looking forward to continuing to think about these questions and see what original work might result over the coming months and years, decades even.
Have my views towards the military changed?
I’m not sure they have, but I do feel as though I have a better (though, in the broader scheme of things, still cursory) understanding of Australia’s military history, and perhaps a deeper appreciation of what service men and women go through to achieve strategic goals. I still consider the military mechanism for resolving differences completely and utterly barbaric and absurd. But perhaps I’ve been given a touch of insight into the humans beneath the camouflage, and, more or less, there’s a diversity to people who have served and who are currently serving.
When Australians think of their military history, they might always conjure the larrikin ‘Digger’ in his slouch hat. But that larrikin ‘Digger’ in his slouch hat is not all there is to it.
And that larrikin ‘Digger’ might not even be true.
Much gratitude to UNSW Canberra for the opportunity, and thanks to the staff for being so helpful and welcoming.
Summer is odd, especially in Australia.
The first dose of decent weather – as in clear blue skies, no wind, 35-degree temperatures, and, where I live, 50% humidity (or less) – brings a sense of optimism: finally we’re through the winter and can now go outdoors without worrying about being frozen to death or being blown off the face of the Earth. This week we at last had that feeling, because we had two days in a row of good summery weather. So, yes, optimism.
But this week has also brought sadness. The passing away of Nelson Mandela. Closer to home, we’ve had the death of eminent Australian contemporary artist Martin Sharp at the age of 71. It might be just a little strange to put these two names in the same paragraph, but I think it’s apt, not because of these two men having made similar contributions to the world – they didn’t – but because both lived such genuine and genuinely inspiring lives.
Martin Sharp was – and no doubt will continue to be for some time – Australia’s answer to Andy Warhol. There’s plenty written about him, and there’s certainly been quite a few thoughtful and informed obituaries, including this one from his colleague and friend Richard Neville. To many, Sharp will be remembered for being a founding member of Oz, a radical and irreverent magazine – today we’d call it a zine – that lampooned authority and tradition, particularly the church, including conservative attitudes to sexuality. He also designed some of the most iconic rock-music album covers from the 1960s/70s. Later, he’d become an obsessed champion of Tiny Tim, Ginger Meggs, and Sydney’s site-of-thrills-and-fun Luna Park. He continued to practice for the rest of his life, though became fond of spending years, if not decades, touching up his earlier work.
Amazingly, through sheer luck, in early 2011 I interviewed Martin Sharp in his Sydney home for the Canberra Times. He was warm, generous with his time, thoughtful, always choosing his words carefully, not because he was guarded (though he might have been), but, I think, he just wanted to be clear. He chain-smoked through the entire morning, constantly rolling homemade cigarettes, the tobacco in a bowl in the table as though it was merely just some kind of herb that he was about to use for cooking. I found him to be utterly unpretentious, and during the interview we spoke about his great love of Tiny Tim, Vincent Van Gogh (his life’s great inspiration), and that he thought the best art was being done by school children. He’d become religious in his old age, though in the broad, somewhat mystical sense that artists can become religious (I doubt he went to church), and I remember how he said that in certain contexts conservative thinking can be radical.
I asked him if he had any modern-day heroes, and without blinking an eye he said, ‘Susan Boyle.’ I knew only a little of Boyle, but when I got back home made sure to learn more about her. What was it about this UK talent-show contestant that had intrigued Sharp so? I remember how he said that she’d given her all, everything, put her whole being on the line, words to that affect. So I googled her and was amazed to find myself getting goose-bumps. When I could drag my way from Youtube I wrote up the interview and the resultant feature article – it wasn’t so much about Martin Sharp but about a new (at the time) gallery and arts facility in Goulburn called South Hill, of which Sharp was the patron – and I also wrote a short piece on how Sharp had given me goose-bumps while telling me about his love for Boyle.
Just before I left Martin Sharp’s house that January day, he gave me a copy of a Tiny Tim album that he’d produced (at considerable expense). For some reason I’ve never listened to it; perhaps I just didn’t want to take it out of its resolutely plastic-wrapped sleeve. Maybe I just wanted to keep it as perfect as it had been when it was given to me. Every time I saw the CD in my collection I thought to myself, Wow, what an amazing day that was.
But I’m listening to it now. It’s hilarious. But also important: Tiny Tim, just like Susan Boyle, gives every fibre of his being to his performances.
Thanks, Martin, for your time, your wise words, and, above all else, your art.
If I make it to 71 I’ll be sure to remember that morning with you.