Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The sympathizer

Our February book was Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel, The sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards. While not everyone had quite finished the book by the meeting, most enjoyed it.

As usual we started with first impressions:

  • funny, amazingly well-written, playful but also intense. Fabulous to read about the Vietnam era, something which feels like unfinished business (in terms of our understanding/reconciling what was done in the name of humanity, the way nations did, and still do, "bash up against each other", killing citizens along the way.) 
  • dense, graphic, evocative, and packed with ideas. The language is great, but the dictionary was needed for many words. 
  • captivated from the first page, because it was so alive and real. The title puzzled at first, but its multiple meanings became clear. The opening description of the day of the Fall of Saigon was so graphic. The book is as much personal as political, and is about America not listening to Vietnamese voices, just as we are not listening to indigenous voices here! So, this member said, she listened! 
  • sad, bleak, but also witty and stirred up this member's way of looking at things. It's about the refugee experience, showing how refugees feel like aliens. The narrator himself represents this alienness through his mixed race background. This member also liked that the book presents multiple points of view, rather than just one perspective. 
  • hard to read, with the sentences being complex and sometimes "over-the-top" 
  • the voice was great from the beginning, and beautifully sustained. The satire was effective, making us laugh and grimace at the same time. It was good to see a Vietnamese viewpoint about the War (like another recent book about the war, written from a Vietnamese perspective, Hoa Pham's The lady of the realm.) 
  • the audiobook version brought the book's stunning language to life and made it easier for this member to engage with the book after she couldn't initially get into it. The descriptions are effective, and there are so many wonderful and emotive scenes. 
  • a complex book, that was perplexing at beginning, but the language, irony, metaphors, alliteration won this member over. It has pathos, particularly about the refugee experience, one that's not unique to those in the book. This member had recently read Jane Fonda's autobiography, My life till now, in which she talks about how many American lives were lost while they were destroying Vietnamese lives.

We then talked a little about the author, who is a professor at USC in Los Angeles. He arrived in the USA as a refugee with his parents when he was about 4 years old. He said in an interview that he had chosen to not "live" with two languages but to "master" English. However, in doing so he'd been exposed "too well to how Americans viewed the Vietnamese". It was seeing films like Apocalypse now and Platoon which encouraged him to want to tell the story from a Vietnamese perspective. He makes this point explicitly at the end of the movie-set section of the novel, when he says that "not to own the means of representation", that is, of telling your own story, is "a kind of death".

He had three main aims for the book: to expose what America did in Vietnam, to express Vietnamese anger at what America did (something he feels Asians have been reluctant to do), and to expose what the Vietnamese did to themselves. (They were not just victims, he said, but also victimisers.) In other words, while his main target was America's actions, he recognises the universality of corrupt, self-serving behaviour.

 "moth-eaten moral covers"

Our discussion proper then started with the fact that the book is presented as a "confession", which we later learn is part of a "re-education" program. The discussion then went rather free-range, but never strayed far from Nguyen's language and his satirical exploration of the Vietnam/American War from multiple angles. We noted Nguyen's desire to represent different voices and experiences, and that our "bastard"-Eurasian-divided narrator was an excellent vehicle for this representational aim. (Several of us enjoyed how this narrator, this divided-I, became "we" at the end.) Many of the characters represent groups of people and/or ideas and/or parts of society. This is typical, we suggested, of satire. So, for example, the narrator's father reflects the colonial story/the missionary role, while his mother, the colonised/the victim.

We talked about politics, about the fact that the Vietnamese wanted American money but not American imperialism, that America continued the war long after they knew they couldn't win. (And we digressed to the war in Cambodia, and Vietnam's role there.)

We shared many examples of the language, particularly in terms of how it reflected Nguyen's themes. The book is replete with irony and paradox, which is embodied in the never-named narrator himself. He is the ultimate paradox - the son of a Vietnamese maid and a missionary, a North Vietnamese mole working for a South Vietnamese general, a philosopher who is not above acting against his philosophy. So, for example, he says, after the squid masturbation scene:
Massacre is obscene. Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly nonconsensual squid? Not so much. I, for one, am a person who believes the world would be a better place if the word "murder" made us mumble as much as the word "masturbation".
While we'd agree, this is ironic, because he himself murders, and in rather egregious circumstances. Frequently in the book, an idea is presented, only to be turned on its head in another situation.

Members shared other examples of language they liked: a description of the refugee experience as the "metasising cancer called assimilation", and this of our "moth-eaten moral covers".

"we too could abuse grand ideals"

And we talked about the satire - sharing many examples from the book, such as:
The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb 'to cleave,' which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman's cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Man had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the open and closing of a well stuffed billfold.
And this, on the General's plan to mount an attack from America:
The General's men, by preparing themselves to invade our communist homeland, were in fact turning themselves into new Americans. After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else's freedom and independence.
The satire is also conveyed through names. The raped/tortured agent says her name is Viet Nam, and the narrator refers to many characters by description rather than name, including the crapulent major, the baby-faced guard, the grizzled captain, the affectless lieutenant.

Related to the satire is the humour. Some of us called it black humour while others preferred to call it bleak. Whatever we called it, we agreed that the book has many "comic" scenes. We shared some of them, including the "country club" dinner party with the General, the Congressman and the "Asian expert" Richard Hedd.

But what did we make of the ending? We discussed variousideas, including the idea of nihilism (particularly represented by Man); the hypocrisy of fighting for "independence and freedom" (a regular catchcry during the book) only to have it taken away upon victory; and the fact that at the end our narrator is en route back to the USA, this time as a "real" refugee. He implies that he (that they, on the boat with him) might still be looking for a "just cause", but right now they just want to live. He's finally liberated from his old life, as free, we decided, as you can be in the circumstances, which doesn't necessarily say a lot! So, is it a cynical ending, a realistic ending, a hopeful one?

Finally, we briefly commented on some of Australia's writers from immigrant backgrounds, including Nam Le, Anh Do and Alice Pung.

PRESENT: 8 members

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Rabih Alameddine's An unnecessary woman

For our first meeting of the year, we read a book that was probably a little different to our usual fare, Lebanese-American author Rabih Alameddine's novel, An unnecessary woman, which is told first person in the voice of a 72-year-old woman, Aaliyah Saleh, who spends her life reading and translating books. Set in Beirut in the 2000s, the novel has a minimal plot, focusing more on the thoughts and ideas of this reclusive woman.

Following usual practice, we started by asking all present for initial impressions. Most loved it, one didn't and a couple had mixed feelings. The member who didn't like it felt it didn't go anywhere, that not enough happened, and that it was too erudite. Those with mixed feelings liked much of it - especially the ending - but found it a bit tedious in places, particularly in the middle. They didn't like the name-dropping of authors or the overuse of quotes. However, there were mainly positives, which were:

  • it's a beautifully written, though sad book about loss and feelings of guilt
  • it's a fascinating exploration of what it means to be unnecessary (as Alameddine says on a YouTube video)
  • the language is beautiful, which surprised this member who usually likes more spare writing. She learnt some new words! She also enjoyed the exploration of the narrator's relationship with her mother
  • the beginning was interesting, and the ending was great, despite being a little tedious in the middle. One member who felt this never thought she'd be reading a book about someone living in Beirut and translating translations into Arabic. Put that way, it it does sound odd! Another who felt this disagreed with the idea that the narrator felt guilty. She felt that the narrator had built a life for herself that suited her.
  • it is somewhat erudite, but the name dropping, the ideas, made it fun to read.
  • it's a funny, engaging, but also sad exploration of a woman's rich inner life, and is great for keen readers because it shares a joy in literature. It is multi-layered, exploring such ideas as ageing, culture, living under siege, being reclusive. This member felt these ideas were handled well, never becoming laboured. She admitted, though, that she started out being prepared not to like it, that she was on her feminist high-horse because the book is by a man writing in an older woman's voice. However, she was won over by Alameddine's writing
  • it explores the woman's life very well
  • it is a fun, clever fiction about fiction. This member loved the humour of the book, such as the narrator's statement that "Most of the books published these days consist of a series of whines followed by an epiphany. I call these memoirs and confessional novels happy tragedies. We shall overcome and all that. I find them sentimental and boring" because, in fact, this is what the narrator herself has written. 
  • it's a beautiful tribute to Beirut, but this member did have a little "sex identity" crisis in the middle of the book when she suddenly realised the author was a man. However, she got over this and loved the book.
We shared some favourite scenes. We all liked the ending in which the three women helped the narrator and praised her translations, and the scene in which the narrator washes her mother's feet (in a Christ-like action.) We also liked the grand-niece in this feet-washing scene.

Why unnecessary?

We discussed this question in some depth, particularly regarding the gender implications. What does unnecessary mean? Is Aaliyah unnecessary because she's a woman with no role (she has no husband or children, and is occupying an apartment which her family felt she has no right to.) We discussed the fact that older women are often invisible to others, and that men and young people can have a sense of entitlement they don't accord to older women. (Early in the novel, in fact, Aaliyah comments that "My half brothers, like so many men and boys, have the impatience of the entitled")

It was also suggested that she could be seen as unnecessary because her existence didn't seem to matter to anyone. However, we agreed that she was strong, determined to retain her apartment and to not be forced to care for her mother (who had never, it appeared, cared for her.)

A member mentioned Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh's biography of her mother, The locust and the bird: My mother's story, which also exposes the vulnerability of women in the same era that An unnecessary woman is set.

We noted the story Aaliyah shares in the novel about a Nazi officer trying to protect a Jewish artist, because he's "a necessary Jew". Necessary, here, meant "useful" to the Nazi. In other words, are you only "necessary" if you perform some valuable role in society?

In some ways, Aaliyah had made herself "unnecessary" by withdrawing, by isolating herself, from others.

What does reading do for us?

At one point in the novel, Aaliyah says:
Nothing is working. Nothing in my life is working. Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life?
We discussed what reading does for us, why we read. And our reasons were many - for fun, escape, time-out; to widen our horizons and explore times and places unknown to us; for the beauty of how things are said, how ideas (old and new) are expressed; to reassure us that we are not alone or odd.

We briefly discussed Aaliyah's discussion of the role of causality in fiction and in life. She argued that our desire for a cause encourages us to separate ourselves from others. For example, she says:
If you read these pages and think I’m the way I am because I lived through a civil war, you can’t feel my pain. If you believe you’re not like me because one woman, and only one, Hannah, chose to be my friend, then you’re unable to empathize.
On practical matters, Aaliyah says about reading that "my books show me what it's like to live in a reliable country".

Other discussion ...

As always, our thoughts roamed far and wide. We noted that Aaliyah makes several negative comments about Lebanese people's lack of interest in literature and history.

Several members mentioned the gorgeous language in the book, such as this description of a derelict building:
Amid the proliferation of unsightly buildings, this crumbling Ottoman house with its triple arcade and red tile roof stands out as starkly as a woman in parliament. There are a few of these houses here and there in the city, but none is as decrepit or as defeated as this one, none as beautiful.
And this, which could be a metaphor for Aaliyah herself as an ageing woman:
The rim of the saucer’s depression is lightly discoloured – a dusting of rust and red and brown, remnants of teas gone by that did not wish to be washed away, refused to be forgotten, the age rings of a small plate.  
She "did not wish to be washed away", she "refused to be forgotten" despite her "age rings".

We talked about marriage. Aaliyah was briefly married, unhappily, to an impotent man, and prefers being alone to such marriage. She quotes Chekhov's statement that "If you are afraid of loneliness don't marry".

We also talked about translation (and that for Aaliyah it was as much about the process as the end-product); about the use of defilement as an act of control during war; and about how our lives can be as much defined by the paths we don't take, the decisions we don't make, as those we do.

... and finally

Given this book is about the love of literature and that the narrator references many books, a member asked whether we were inspired to read any book as a result? Some of us were, and named:

  • Junot Diaz
  • WG Sebald's Austerlitz
  • Marguerite Youcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian

One member, intrigued by Aaliyah's discussion of the art of translation, suggested that we schedule a book that's been translated multiple times and organise for different members to read different translations.

And, given Ursula LeGuin's recent death, it was suggested that we could read one of her books, although it was remembered that we've read her before.

PRESENT: 11 members

Monday, 18 December 2017

Minerva's top picks for 2017

In what may become a new tradition, Minerva, in its 30th year, decided to try something different at the end of the year - ask each member to vote on her top three picks of the books we read as a group this year. Would there be definite winners we wondered? Well yes, there are, so read on...

All eleven of our currently active members voted, resulting in 32 votes cast. (One person nominated only 2). Here are the results:

1. Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee (our review) (7 votes)
2. The museum of modern love, by Heather Rose (our review) (6 votes)
3. Black rock white city, by AS Patrić (our review) (5 votes)

Highly commended were Nutshell, by Ian McEwan (our review) (3 votes), and Our souls at night, by Kent Haruf (our review) (3 votes).

Of course, this is not a scientific survey. Votes were all given equal weight, even where people indicated an order of preference, and not everyone read every book, which means different people voted from different "pools". If we'd all read every book Pachinko may have had even more votes!! (Seriously, because my suspicion is that every one, or almost everyone, who read it voted for it.)

Some observations on our votes:

Kate voted for the three books which ended up being our winners, while several of us voted for two of the top three, suggesting a high level of accord in our reading likes?

A few, including yours truly, tried to sneak in some extra "votes" but they were rejected by yours truly! The extra "votes" proposed were for Stan Grant's Talking to my country, Kent Haruf's Our souls at night, Kim Mahood's Position doubtful and AS Patrić's Black rock white city.

A few commented that there wasn't one book in our schedule that they didn't enjoy! Now, that's an achievement!

Some comments on our top five choices:

"the history of Korea and Japan and their people was so interesting and so unknown to me. The story was told so very well without pathos but with sympathy for the victims. Excellent read." (Sylvia)
"fascinating cultural stuff" (Celeste)
"I really enjoyed learning about the Korean/Japanese history" (Anne)
"for the insight into South Korea and Japanese history" (Kate)
"for the background into the Korean experience in Japan, so engagingly written" (Sue T)

"specially coupled with the movie which was rivetting" (Celeste)
"it was almost perfect. It satisfied on so many levels" (Deb) 
"A revealing look at Abramovic the artist and the relationship with her audience" (Kate)
"for so thoughtfully exploring the meaning of art, love and home" (Sue T)

"I wasn't really expecting to enjoy it but found I was totally absorbed very quickly" (Anne)
"a fabulous and quirky story related to the migrant experience" (Kate)
"I started with low expectations and his beautiful writing won me over" (Deb)

"beautiful writing and a very innovative theme, makes me look at foetuses in a different way" (Denise)
"clever, quirky and a lot of fun" (Sue B)

"a real gem" (Celeste)
"very moved" (Janet)
"deceptively simple with big themes and big heart" (Deb)

Let us know what you think, in the comments!

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Caroline Moorehead's Dancing to the Precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution

Our last book of the year was Caroline Moorehead's biography of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, who has been described as the Pepys of her generation. The biography, titled Dancing to the precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution, chronicles her life from her birth in 1770 to her death in 1853, a period which covers some of Europe's and, in particular France's, most tumultuous times. The aristocratic-born Lucie de la Tour du Pin saw most of it up close and personal.

As always, we started by each of the seven members present giving her impressions, which are summarised as follows:
  • A couple noted that the book was "solid going" and perhaps included more detail than was needed. Most of us felt that a time-line [there is one in the Kindle edition] and family trees for Lucie and her husband Frédéric would have helped.
  • We varied in our knowledge of the French Revolution, and some wondered whether knowing the history would have helped their enjoyment. However, everyone - at least those who had finished it - were glad they'd read it, and most of those who hadn't finished it said they would keep reading it!
  • Most of us found it a interesting story, and thought Lucie must have been "quite a person" to survive what she did. Resilient was the word most of us used for her. We all admired her for what (and how) she survived.
  • Some found the book harder going at the start, feeling there was not much substance to her in the beginning, while others liked the beginning and felt it got bogged down in detail as the book wore on.
  • One of those who liked the book's beginning did so because of Moorehead's introduction of the 18th century philosophers, such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau.
  • Most found the book well-written, but some felt that it could have been a little tighter or more focused which might have seen some more extraneous detail omitted.
  • While some found the amount of detail - particularly the huge cast of characters - overwhelming, we did enjoy the details about life at the time. Moorehead paints, we all felt, a vivid picture of France of the period. We liked the description of the huge hats, the smells, the food, and so on.
  • A couple noted that they particularly enjoyed reading about Lucie's time in America, with one wondering whether that's because Lucie was particularly happy there.
  • One member commented on parallels to modern life - such as the challenge of taxing the rich, and the idea of "fake news". She felt the book had a modernist feel.
  • The member who recommended the book would love to read Lucie's memoirs, from which much of the biography was drawn, and which, apparently have never been out of print. 
Overall, one member said, and we all agreed, it is a "dizzying" read.

We commented that the book's title comes from Lucie's own words about the period leading up to the storming of the Bastille: "Amid all these pleasures we were laughing and dancing our way to the precipice." Moorehead writes that Lucie added that while this blindness was pardonable among the young, it was "inexplicable in men of the world, in Ministers and above all, in the King". Not surprisingly, then, we spent some time discussing the politics of the time, including Lucie's aristocratic leanings. Moorehead presents Lucie and Frédéric as having strong moral values, but as nonetheless believing that aristocrats should be in control, that they were the best people to govern. They supported a more English-style of constitutional monarchy, rather than a republic.

We discussed Frédéric's diplomatic work for Napoleon in Brussels, his refusal to carry out some of Napoleon's harsher orders, and his recognition that the nobility was often happier to give up their sons to Napoleon's cause than their money! We noted that, although Lucie was a monarchist, she was fascinated by Napoleon, and managed to win his approval. She was astute about people - managing to retain powerful friends like Talleyrand - and this, together with some lucky decisions about when to leave France, ensured their survival through tumultuous times, despite their royalist leanings.

We were fascinated to meet various characters we've heard of - but didn't know or had forgotten where they fit into history - such as writer and diplomat Chateaubriand, bishop and diplomat Talleyrand, and salon leader Mme Récamier (who was depicted by many artists of the time, including Jacques-Louis David.) We also enjoyed references to American and English figures like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Lord Wellington.

We liked Lucie's describing her life, in a letter to god-daughter Félicie, as being like "a chest of drawers" with each drawer representing skills she could draw on when needed. When she needed those of being a lady or ambassadress, for example, she would close the housewife drawer, and so on. Lucie proved herself again and again to be resourceful, practical and a hard-worker, skills she had to learn as a young child growing up in the emotionally cold home of her grandmother Mme de Roche.

A couple of members liked Frédéric's throughts on history, which Moorehead described as follows:

He now spent much of his time in his room, reading and writing to [grandson] Hadelin, long letters mulling over his own life and urging the young man to study, to think on serious matters, to develop a taste for reflection. He should turn, he wrote, towards ‘the vast questions of humanity: there you will find true riches’. More than anything Frédéric ever wrote, these letters to his grandson revealed a thoughtful and liberal man, intelligent, full of fears and doubts about the future, and intensely clear about the nature of responsibility. It was in history, he told Hadelin, that he should seek to find ways of understanding the world, and to learn how to make his mark on it; for it was to history that ‘one must look to discover motives and judgements, the source of ideas, the proof of theories too often imaginary and vague’. Reflection, he added, was ‘the intellectual crutch on which the traveller must lean on his road to knowledge’.

Other aspects of the book that we enjoyed were its portrayal of the life of France's émigrés (a term which was created during this time), many of whom left and returned to France more than once over the decades of upheaval. We enjoyed reading about the ways they supported themselves while away from their estates - making hats, cooking, teaching dancing, and so on.

We were surprised to discover that the idea of "the left" - referring in this case to the "anti-monachicals" - was first used during France's revolutionary period. We also talked about about other historical figures who were born around the same time, such as Beethoven (in 1770) and Jane Austen (1775).

One member said she'd read that the book is "novelistic"* but another strenuously disagreed, arguing that the book reads as straight biography rather than as belonging to those non-fiction writings sometimes described as "creative" or "narrative" non-fiction. Yes, there is a narrative to the story, but it is in the form of a typical chronological biography, and yes, there are some lovely descriptions, but most of these stem from Lucie's own writing. Moorehead, she argued, has not had to fill in gaps in knowledge, for example, by using the sort of narrative techniques found in novels/fiction and which might justify the use of "novelistic" to describe this book.

Those of us who didn't know were surprised to discover that author Caroline Moorehead is the daughter of Australian journalist and war correspondent Alan Moorehead and his English wife.

Overall, we agreed that Dancing to the precipice was an interesting book that either taught us, or reminded us, of a fascinating time in European history.

* POSTSCRIPT: After the meeting, I found that one reviewer described Lucie's life as being like one you might find in historical fiction. It may have been this rather than the style of writing which prompted the "novelistic" description.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Some suggestions for 2018, Pt.1

Some ideas for our next six months organised by category
(most from the side-bar, but I've dropped some that have been there for a while)


Alameddine, Rabih An unnecessary woman
Howard, Elizabeth Jane (one by her)
Robinson, Marilynne (One by her: Housekeeping or Gilead or Home or Lila)

Indigenous Australian

Cobby Eckermann, Ali Ruby Moonlightand/or Inside my mother and/or Too afraid to cry
Coleman, Claire Terra nullius

New books from Aussie favourites

de Kretser, Michelle The life to come
Flanagan, Richard First person
Laguna, Sofie The choke
Miller, Alex The passage of love


Blackman, Barbara All my Januaries
Griffiths, Tom The art of time travel


Nguyen, Viet Thanh The sympathizer (Pulitzer Prize 2016)
Saunders, George Lincoln in the Bardo (Booker 2017)
Stow, Randolph The merry-go-round by the sea (Past Miles Franklin, could also be our Classic)

Recent suggestions from members

Harper, Jane The dry
Harper, Jane Force of nature

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Stan Grant's Talking to my country

It is a particularly pertinent time for Minervans to be reading this challenging work.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s issues have been much in the news in the last few days: knockback of their idea of a consultative assembly by the Federal government,  their banning of climbing Uluru from 2019, and in the ‘Conversation’ recently an article on a project to correct a huge omission in the Australian Dictionary of Biography by the addition of many articles about prominent Indigenous members of Australian society since 1788.

Before we started discussing Stan’s book we were shown the literary site called: Writing black.  Edited by Ellen van Neerven, this anthology was developed by the black&write! Indigenous writing and editing project at the State Library of Queensland. We were also encouraged to visit the current exhibition at the NMA called Songlines: Tracking the Seven sisters—a journey into the heart of Australia.

Stan Grant’s polemic is that Aboriginal people have faced a very tough life in the last two hundred years and are still finding it extremely difficult in 21st century Australia. He is a proud Wiradjuri man from Western NSW (ie. Canowindra and region). He discusses his life, his parent’s and grandparent’s struggles with poverty, as well as his teachings and thoughts about his own son’s appreciation of his Aboriginal heritage. He discusses the great hardship and discrimination suffered by his father and grandfather in particular. He remembers fondly his paternal grandmother (a white woman) who struggled greatly with poverty but was always very loving. He intersperses his family history with ponderings on Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian history and discusses the many assumptions held by the European society since 1788.

The main assumptions:
  • Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders would die out in the 19th century
  • Modern Aborigines should just ‘move on and forget their history’
  • There was aggression between Aborigines and the invaders from the beginning and his Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people are still fighting a battle against injustices but it has not been properly recognised by non-Indigenous Australians
  • Aboriginal love of country is a dominating feature in Stan’s life (as it is for most Indigenous people), no matter where he is in the world.  
  • Lack of formal recognition that Indigenous people have lived here for over 60,000 years is still an issue
  • Aborigines have to accept non Indigenous people as they are so few and have no choice (see page 6)

The book is divided into 10 chapters (and unfortunately they are not labelled by theme). There is a structure, however some of us found it hard to categorise. It is not chronological as he has already written a memoir called: The tears of strangers. Here is a review

Grant’s book is a challenge to read as it made many of us very angry with our ancestor’s treatment of Indigenous people. However racism is still active in 2017 Australia and we all felt very emotional when he talks about the shocking incident in 2015 when the footballer Adam Goodes’ suffered constant ‘abuse and humiliation until he could take no more’ (page 5).  We spent a little time discussing this incident and Goodes’ treatment.

Many of the group discussed incidents where they too had seen open displays of racism against Aborigines. One member made us realise that there is a terrible antagonism held by some Australians who cannot tolerate hearing anything about Aborigines or their issues. Overseas, people are more interested in Aboriginal life in modern Australia but there is great resistance here.

Another member working in a government department has recently done a course in cultural awareness of Indigenous issues and she drew our attention to the ‘sorry’ speech by Kevin Rudd and how that was a significant step in reconciliation. Many Aboriginal people are prepared to forgive us – they do not want to blame us. However that is often not the view of some Australians. Canberrans possibly react in a different way about this issue, possibly because we are more educated.

Stan’s book reminded us of the many other books and speeches over the last 25 years which talk about some of these issues. Such as Carmel Bird’s The stolen generation their stories which is based on the report, Bringing them home.  Also we were reminded of John Howard’s refusal to apologise to the stolen generation and Kim Beazley’s approach – for instance see this ABC report.

We also briefly talked about Eddie Mabo and the 1992 decision: ‘The judgments of the High Court in the Mabo case recognised the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their islands in the eastern Torres Strait. The Court also held that native title existed for all Indigenous people in Australia prior to the establishment of the British Colony of New South Wales in 1788.’

One member has recently been reading Robert Hughes’ Fatal shore and the impact of the convicts on Aborigines and their lifestyle. It was pretty devastating to say the least.

I talked about our recent interaction with the Adnyamathanha people of the Flinder’s Ranges and our enjoyment and education from them in the welcome to country ceremonies and the tours we attended. The welcome to country is becoming much more accepted and recognised as part of normal beginnings of meetings at universities and other institutions too.

Many members had stories to tell of their interactions with Aboriginal people. Some of the memories evoked are not good, such as memories of humpies in the 1960s. Others are more positive, such as a lady known by Deb who was a warm and friendly person in Deb’s early life in country New South Wales.

One difficult idea was raised by a member who mentioned that writer Kim Scott is worried about books in Aboriginal languages. He is worried that the languages may be appropriated by non-Indigenous writers, representing another dispossession. However non-Indigenous scholars and researchers have been working in this area since the beginning of white settlement.

We all admired the language used by Grant in this book. He is angry but the language is not unreasonable. He is trying to explain his emotions in the simplest way possible so that all Australians can understand his feelings. On the dust jacket it states: ‘the book that every Australian should read’. That is a difficult aim for any writer.

We particularly discussed some of the points raised by Grant on page 148:
how many times have I heard that we should forget our history and move on ?…Long term conflict may never have been a viable option for us and this country has been spared the internecine warfare of other lands, but the impact on us is no less real ... I grew to understand that conflict doesn’t end when the guns stop, that its legacy is passed through the generations. 

(This is Epigenetics according to one member.)

Such terrible injustices were suffered by some Aborigines, such as losing their families and even their identity through being part of the stolen generations and taken to missionary establishments and other institutions.

We also discussed some of the present day challenges for Aborigines such as poor hearing and how that impacts upon their whole lives – often preventing them from a good education and subsequent jobs and satisfactory lives.

A difficult read because of the subject matter but very worthwhile.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Resources relevant to our discussion of Stan Grant's Talking to my country

Here are some resources - books, songs, film/video - that are relevant to Stan Grant's book Talking to my country:
  • Archie Roach's song, "They took the children away", set to scenes from Rabbit Proof Fence 
  • Bob Randall's song, "My brown skin baby (They take him away)". Randall is a Yankunytjatjara Elder and a traditional owner of Uluru (Ayers Rock). This song from the early 1970's became an anthem for the Stolen Generations. There was a Chequerboard program on Randall and his story in 1970 (the link is to some notes and a couple of clips).
  • Carmel Bird's anthology Stolen children: Their stories 
  • Ellen van Neerven's anthology Writing black
  • Frank Hardy's Unlucky Australians: a story of the 1966 strike at Wave Hill Station by Gurindji stockmen & their families, available on iView (until 1 August 2018)
  • Kanyini: Living Black. Here’s a program about the movie (which seems to be about the above-named Bob Randall)
  • Stan Grant's speech on racism and the Australian dream.
There's a lot more of course ... but these are a start.