Saturday, April 22, 2017

Inspirational Women Writers Lead to the Stella Prize

Judy Davis played Sybilla Melvyn in the 1979 film, My Brilliant Career
When writing a short story about a family in Australia during the Great Depression, I recently found myself referencing, almost subconsciously, books I’d read in early childhood. Beatrix Potter, author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and May Gibbs, author of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie both came to mind as I related the differences between a childhood set against an English landscape to that of an Australian childhood spent in the bush. Thinking about those influences a little harder, I realised many of those early experiences of storytelling are still informing my writing now.
I didn’t notice these were female writers at the time; that came later, and when these classics were published many females wrote under male pseudonyms, even when writing specifically about and for girls. But women write differently to men and though I read many books by male writers too, the ones who really reached me were the female voices.

Returning to those women writers who set me on the path to literature and writing has been an inspiration. Miles Franklins’, My Brilliant Career, published in 1901, particularly so because it’s written by a sixteen year old girl, who understands the concerns of girls in an unashamedly chauvinistic world. Franklin’s passion and determination to become a writer, at a time when failing to conform to social mores could subject a girl to judgemental psychoanalytical assessment, has inspired feminists and women writers around the world.
Born in 1879, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin published the story of Sybilla, trapped on her parents’ farm near Goulburn in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales and forced to choose between a conventional path of marriage and her plans for a ‘brilliant career’. Writing under her great-great grandfather’s name, Miles, but full of barely disguised biographical detail, her protagonist rebels against the dullness of women’s lives and what she describes as the degradation of marriage which to her is nothing short of unpaid drudgery.
Sybilla’s character is the embodiment of the fears, conflicts and torments of every girl and could well be the topic of magazine articles anywhere around the world today. She is plain and therefore not valuable in the marriage market. She equates ugliness with being unloved. She is rejected as abnormal because she is too outspoken. Sybilla is offered marriage to a man who admires her spirit and character but finally rejects him because she cannot have marriage and career.
2017 winner of Stella Prize, Heather Rose
She was just a little bush girl with first-hand experience of the struggle to make a living as a writer. Now the Miles Franklin Award is Australia’s most prestigious literary prize. Established through the will of Stella Miles Franklin, her bequest honours a novel of literary merit depicting Australian life in any of its phases.
Miles Franklin
Now a major literary prize celebrating great books by Australian women, the Stella Award, saw its first winner in 2013. Celebrating women’s contribution to Australian writing, this legacy of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin raises the profile of women’s writing, encourages a future generation of women writers and builds awareness of the work of Australian women.
Next time you fail to find that creative impulse when facing the blank computer screen, try going back to the early writers who inspired you; read their biographies and stories, and rejoice that you are not limited by low expectations, inferior education or intellectual aspersions. In this have-it-all age, when women writers can choose to combine marriage, children, travel and careers with writing, remember Sybilla and her cohorts had much narrower choices.

Friday, April 14, 2017

3* The Other Side of the World, Stephanie Bishop



   Stephanie Bishop’s story of migration was originally published as, Dream England, a more layered and subtle title than, The Other Side of the World. Why was this changed? In fact, all through the novel, the sense of another hand at play suggests too much intrusion of things that don’t fit. Given the great list of those she thanks, it only adds to the feeling that she has been mislead by well meaning ‘others’ into writing a story that is not hers. She says she is influenced by her mother’s and grandmother’s experiences, and perhaps because of this, she is not writing the story only she can tell.

  Maybe this is why the character of Charlotte is so unappealing. From the outset, she is self absorbed, unloving and an unadventurous whinger. Yes, she may have post-natal depression, but Henry is the one with my sympathy. You wonder how a woman/girl like Charlotte would have had the courage to marry a mixed race person in 1960s Cambridge. That was another thing that didn’t gel. A number of plot devices were not thought through. For example, how did ten- pound-Poms suddenly have the money to fly around the world: Oh, I know, Charlotte can sell a painting. Really? What a writer writes does not have to be true. It is a made-up story after all. But the reader has to feel as though it is true. 

  The migrant experience is central to the novel, but this theme was not actually explored. Charlotte may wish to return to England, but it is not Perth that is causing her melancholia. She is unhappy within herself whether in Australia or England. Perth as setting was not convincing either. It didn’t feel as if Bishop or Charlotte had ever been there. Henry’s trip to India was more convincing and there were some very descriptive passages depicting his surroundings and the turmoil he felt for his mother who sent him away to school. These passages revealed the author’s talent.


 Stephanie Bishop is a lyrical, and at times beautiful, writer. She explores big ideas and is capable of moving and evocative prose. Creative writing schools focus on the eight-point story arc. I think Stephanie Bishops should ignore this prescriptive approach and write her narrative from the heart.

Friday, April 7, 2017

3* Inga Simpson, Where The Trees Were



The Lachlan Valley, New South Wales
     Canberra as setting was a novelty for me. I enjoyed the cycling along its thoroughfares and roundabouts, or circles, as they are called in the capital. I loved the bush descriptions too and related instantly to those free days when children could roam and explore without fear.

     I couldn’t quite settle into the story though as Where The Trees Were swapped back and forth between adult book and children’s book. At times I felt like I was reading to my children and then it would change to adult fare of museums and government departments, which in themselves would make interesting fodder for fiction. 

     Many readers seem to love this novel, but I just found too many references to food and what Jay and her parents were having for breakfast or lunch. This read like a creative writing class. What became of the group of friends was worthy of development but tended to be lost in mundane dialogue.

     Apologies if I’m being too harsh. I plan to try Simpson’s Mr Wigg and Nest to see if it was just Where The Trees Were that didn’t hit the mark.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Does Evie Wyld really reveal the dark side of Australian masculinity?


There might be a few objections to this book being described as revealing "the dark side of Australian masculinity". What would the dark side of English masculinity look like? Fred West, Peter Sutcliffe? For me it was more about the girl, Jake, than her male acquaintances. She certainly has issues but these weren't explored as fully as they might have been and overall the book felt incomplete, as though the author had started something she didn't know how to finish. That happens when you write about something you have not put enough research into or lack experience in. It was all a bit horror-cliche-TV drama and unworthy of the Miles Franklin award.
All the same, I did enjoy All the Birds, Singing and there were engaging passages that should have been continued but dropped away suddenly. Maybe an editor should have advised Wyld to develop her manuscript as I felt the book held considerable potential.
Wyld describes herself as "really from South East London" and this shows. The men she encounters are nothing like the Australian men I know and she clearly has more empathy with Lloyd than the Australians who tend to be characters we have seen in British films and television as roughnecks who can't relate sensitively to females. These are cliches from the British past.
But, and it is a big BUT: I enjoyed the book and recommend it if you don't mind a few gaps in the plot.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Universal themes overcome appropriation concerns

   This review contains spoilers.

Appropriating another culture is now frowned upon in certain quarters, but Nene Gare’s, The Fringe Dwellers, is an example of how a writer can bring to life a story, sympathetic and convincing in its detail, that reveals a culture to a wide audience.
   Published in 1961 and made into a film by Bruce Beresford in 1986, The Fringe Dwellers is the story of Western Australian Aboriginal family, the Comeaways. The protagonists are daughters, Noonah and Trilby. Noonah accepts her life on the fringes of town, but Trilby cannot.
   Themes concerning all women, not just Aboriginal women, give the book universal significance: a mother’s role in the family, how to do the best for your children, taking hard decisions for the long term good, providing material sustenance and nurture in equal measure. There is a real attempt on Gare’s part to expose Aboriginal life to audiences never likely to come in contact with Aborigines. Between the lines, there seems a desire to say, this is why and how decisions are made, so white society should not judge.
   Gare lived beside Aborigines for 10 years when her husband, Frank,was appointed District Officer with the Native Welfare Department in Carnarvon and was later transferred to the position of District Officer for the Murchison Region. Nene Gare wrote from those experiences and from her friendships with Aborigines. In this intimate look inside a family dynamic and in every carefully constructed scene, Gare’s is not exploiting Aboriginal culture, rather, she is exposing her knowledge of it.

   Complaints might be made that she has appropriated Aboriginal culture, but in her exploration of its complexities and the problems and compromises of trying to be part of mainstream culture, she sends a message to white readers. 
   The action takes place in the 1950s and it is important to read the novel in the context of its time and not be deterred by the white author/indigenous characters paradigm. The history of the period serves as a background with social housing increasing, immigrants from Europe and Great Britain arriving, the wharves and the railway, once places of employment for Aborigines are providing work for an expanding white population. 

   Then there is the sad downwards spiral of Trilby, a situation that could apply to any girl in any town or country. I recommend this novel and suggest it is a good place to find some answers on whether art related to a culture that is not your own is acceptable or not.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Girls gone wild without a mother’s guidance


This review contains spoilers

Salt Creek Lucy Treloar 4*


     Women dying far too young, either in childbirth or worn out from having too many children, is regularly visited in stories set anytime before reliable birth control was put in to women’s hands. Even in the 1950s, especially in Catholic families, women’s health suffered through having more children than their bodies could cope with.
     So it is a familiar scenario in Salt Creek, when Mrs Finch dies giving birth to her tenth (I think this is correct) child. As so often happened, the eldest girl, fifteen year old Hester, takes over the domestic chores and plays the role of ‘mother’ or should that be housekeeper. 
One of Treloar’s telling moments is the father’s comment that Adelaide, the younger sister, has run wild without her mother’s guidance. We wouldn't necessarily recognise this attitude today as men take a much greater role in their children’s development. But in the past, even recent past, orphanages were filled with motherless children because their father would not or could not, look after them. I can recall at school a girl ‘turning bad’ because her mother had died and some children were not allowed to play with her because she was now less respectable. This is despicable, but such were social mores. Society may have changed, as has the role of father, but it is still sad to hear of children without the close emotional involvement of their parents.
     I had a few reservations about Treloar’s depiction of the Finch patriarch. He is a very negative character and gradually turns into a hypocritical monster. Although this was probably done by the author to develop the story, this depiction seems unbalanced. In the 1850s when the novel is set, expectations of men were extremely demanding in an unknown world. They had to provide for their many children and be a protector. They had to be physically and mentally strong, and hid their own insecurities by being aloof. Emotional guidance was the mother’s role so many men, faced with bringing up children alone, did not know what to do. It is still fairly recent that men have been expected to do ‘women’s work’ such as child care and domestic chores. Men were and possibly still are, ill equiped to deal with a girl’s sexuality.
     Men’s or boys sexuality was often seen as animalistic with an inability or desire to restrain themselves, for the preservation of their wife’s health. In Salt Creek, the Finch sons and their father consort with aboriginal women without conscience yet for the daughters, sexual risk-taking has profound consequences. I guess this is the heart of the story. In the 1850s, options were limited and society was judgemental. Women had little control over their own lives.
Robe Streetscape
     I didn’t enjoy the opening scenes of the story and was about to discard the book when I found myself involved and interested. Once I reached the conclusion, I reread the first pages and found them more accessible. The historical detail provides a solid background and the story of the Chinese who went to the gold fields via the Coorong and Robe is well, if slightly, woven in. I have read some criticism that the history is not fully accurate, but I didn’t notice any glaring errors.
     The Coorong is a beautiful, wild setting, well described by Treloar without overdoing the description or allowing the setting to take over from the action.

Salt Creek is well plotted, romantic despite the tragedies and well written. I didn't give it five stars because it was not multi layered, but told on one level. I still enjoyed it and recommend it to those who like a good story.
     

The Chinese, unpopular in Victoria and NSW found a route to the gold fields via the Coorong and Robe. Robe still has many historical buildings and a Chinese presence.

Old Customs House Robe 1863





Monday, January 16, 2017

Peter Goldsworthy’s Darwin. Maestro's setting, vibrantly alive, is a character in its own right.


Darwin circa 1967 may seem an unlikely place for literary inspiration, but Peter Goldsworthy’s, Maestro, with its exotic setting and the emotions he attaches to it, is an irresistible combination. Music infuses the story and it is at a piano lesson, that the teenage Paul Crabbe, a recent arrival from the south, encounters the maestro, a refugee from Vienna with a shady past.

I hoped to experience Darwin the way his protagonist, Paul, experiences it. There’s a risk involved in seeking out novel settings and the locations within because they may not be real and if they are real, may disappoint. Writers usually get the detail correct through research, but unless they have lived, even temporarily, in a place they write about, their pages are not imbued with the warm rain and wet earth smearing itself with greenness, like Goldsworthy’s prose is. Like the Crabbes, the Goldsworthy family moved to Darwin in 1966. Would the written Darwin mismatch the real thing or would I understand why Paul loved the tropical hothouse blooms where everything grew larger than life as I walked the streets of this lush and isolated town, a mix or orient and outback, a port to where immigrants drifted as a place of refuge.

Visiting a novel’s setting can be disorientating and laden with a ‘where am I’ aura. The heavy embrace of Darwin’s scent laden air strikes the minute the plane doors open and there’s no mistaking, this is the tropics. Ominous black clouds loom on the horizon and thunder rumbles away in the background waiting for that almighty moment when rain clouds burst, releasing moist compost air, sweet and sour, just as Goldsworthy describes. 

Some novels can be transported to different cities without affecting the overall story, but some narrative locations are inherent in the story and should the action be moved, the story would be different. Maestro, published in 1989, amusing, wise and enormously entertaining, sweeps effortlessly into 1960s Darwin, a tropical backdrop that becomes its own character.

There’s nothing insipid about Darwin and the two seasons, the wet and the dry, provide a dramatic backdrop to even the most bland of locations, a 1960s designed, form matched to function, school. Darwin High School, where Paul took refuge in the music room from bullies, still overlooks Mindil Beach and Darwin Harbour from the headland of Bullocky Point. Not as isolated as it was in the 60s, it now forms part of East Point Reserve a beautiful place for walking where you may spot red-tailed black cockatoos and wallabies and, depending on the season, witness magnificent sunsets or spectacular lightening displays.
Mindl Beach

The Botanical Gardens, where Keller arrives drunk during a concert arranged by the Crabbes, are now a heavenly brew of monsoon vine forest, coastal dunes, mangroves, woodlands and plants that have survived cyclones, wildfires and World War 2.  Concerts continue to be held in the amphitheatre.

The Swan, the fictional crumbling pub where the maestro, Keller, lives in his darkened room above the bar, shuttered against bright sunlight and the noisy locals below, is surely based on the colonial style Victoria, a heritage listed pub built with local stone in 1890. Before Cyclone Tracey hit in 1974, pictures show a large weatherboard accommodation annex, perhaps the inspiration for Keller’s room in the warren of crumbling weatherboard where Paul took his music instruction. Bougainvillea has grown in the courtyard since 1890, but sadly, although the monsoons of beer remain, I’m told the bougainvillea has been removed since my visit. 

Writers capture fleeting moments and no location remains intact forever. But the geography of the setting, the place on the map, its droughts, flooding rains and distant horizons do largely stay the same within the Australian landscape. Our literature often has a complicated, complex relationship with landscape, seeing it as menacing, a place from which we are often estranged. The young Paul’s enthusiastic embrace of Darwin, isolated at the Top End, with Asia to the north and the vast outback to the south, is so infectious, as a setting it becomes a must see.
Victoria Hotel in 1950s, the model for The Swan

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Rural fiction with soundtrack. Take two minutes to listen to Dimming of the Day.

https://m.youtube.com/channel/UC-mwZmMkVzpXQua35mGfrQg

Fever of Animals

Miles Allinson raises some interesting ideas in his novel, Fever of Animals. I particularly liked the theme of art and the artist and for me the strongest scene was when the young artist realises his own art is just not good enough and he will never make the grade. The low point of the story was the repeated denigration of landscape art, as though it is a lesser form. But I guess this was also a comment on the egotistical nature of some artists. He shows how pretentious and insecure creatives can be.
The story held my interest most of the time, but I did start to drift away from the middle chapter and his travels in search of Emil Bafdescu. This is where I felt the writer was trying too hard to create "meaning" rather than letting the prose work alone. It just felt too forced.
There is the potential for two separate novels, the Bafdescu/Romania story and the other, first love/artist's struggle etc, though the character of Alice was very unappealing. As is, combining the two didn't work for me.
Miles Allinson clearly has talent as a writer and hopefully will reach full potential if he refrains from trying to inject literary significance, but instead lets it develop naturally. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Writing as compulsion

    Writing is a compulsion for me, but where does that force within come from, I wonder. I’ve never tried to explain it before, but perhaps it stems from reading. Librarians and teachers of literacy often express a desire for youngsters to “discover the joys of reading”. I’m guessing that joy of reading is behind my urge to write. 

An adventure into another world.
     It is not a desire to recreate the great writers (as if) but to recreate the feeling reading those writers gave me, of entering a different world, a subconscious world, an imaginary world . From those earliest days of my own literacy, I was able to enter other lives, whether it be from the simple story lines and characters of school books to my mother’s magazines which seemed always to feature stories about exotic lives lived on tea plantations in Ceylon or India. Reading was mind expanding and other worldly. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, read as a child in Australia, opened a door to the world that has never been shut, as did Heidi, the story of the little girl who lives with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps. 

The Swiss mountains were a long
way from the Australian bush.

     In retrospect, the revelation of the inner lives of those and other characters, had a profound impact and influences the way I write and what I write about.
     Then there is inspiration. When I first read Faulkner’s, The Sound and the Fury, I remember closing the last page and thinking, wow, how did he do that. It was one of those profoundly moving novels that imprint themselves on the psyche; long after you have forgotten the plot details, you remember that moment of revelation; this writer is different to everyone I have read before. I think it inspired me in many ways to want to be a writer. Not so much to “write” like Faulkner, but to recreate the moment. It’s hard to explain.
     Writers come fairly quickly to the realisation they will not reach parity with the great writers of literature, but that does not stop them persisting, perhaps in a desire to find “the moment” or in an attempt to clarify their thoughts. As Faulkner said, ”I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.”

This post was first published at http://booksbywomen.org/writing-as-compulsion/