Category Archives: Non Fiction

Dark Emu

Captivating non-fiction on Aboriginal agriculture, aquaculture and architecture 

One thing that is no secret is that I have been making an effort to read more books by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors over the past two years. I’ve read several novels such as “Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms“, “Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior” and “Terra Nullius“. I’ve also read some non-fiction, most notably “Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia“. Each of these books has had a significant impact on the way that I view this country, and has helped to shed a little more understanding to counteract the misguided or absent knowledge I learned about our first nations people when I was young and failed to take enough steps to correct as an adult. A few people recommended that I read this book, especially after having read “Guns, Germs and Steel“, and I finally bought myself a copy.

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The artwork is a magnet my friend bought for me while working in the Northern Territory. The artist is Susan Wanji Wanji, and her art is available via the Munupi Arts and Crafts Association and Alperstein Designs

“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe is a non-fiction book that compiles records from early white settlers to the continent of Australia to extrapolate a more accurate history of Aboriginal people and their relationship with the land. The book is broken up into several chapters that cover topics including Aboriginal agriculture, aquaculture, population and housing, storage and preservation and fire. Pascoe patiently examines each of his sources going through quotes that refer to Aboriginal grain crops, cuisine, wood and stone housing, penned animals and dams.

You can read my review which is going to be quite long and heated, or you can listen to the far more eloquent speech given by the author himself at the National Library of Australia.

Anyway, to be perfectly frank, any history books currently on the curriculum teaching Aboriginal history should be thrown in the proverbial bin and replaced with “Dark Emu”. Up until this point, for the past 230 years this country has been complacent about the biggest example of collective gaslighting of all time: that Aboriginal people did not manage their land and that Aboriginal people allowed themselves to colonised. Slowly, the fiction has evolved over time. terra nullius morphed into the hunter-gatherer story. The hunter-gatherer story changed to the fire-stick farming story. However, until more recently, Aboriginal people have largely been excluded from telling their own stories and their own histories. Until more recently, people didn’t know about the frontier wars, the truth of the Stolen Generations, or the validity of Aboriginal science.

It must be acknowledged that perpetuating this story of “primitive” Aboriginal people is in the best interests of white Australia. The belief that the people who were already here were not really people, or not as sophisticated as the settlers who arrive, has helped to justify white acquisition of land. As an adult, I have heard stories from people while drinking around campfires of Aboriginal artifacts and burial sites being discovered on farmers’ land and removed and destroyed. When I first heard stories like this, I thought it was through callousness and disrespect that someone would do something like that. However, on reflection and after reading this book, I think that ever since colonisation people have actively destroyed evidence of Aboriginal occupation of land because of the threat of native title.

This book is exceptionally well-researched and Pascoe weaves through a carefully considered commentary and some of his own personal experiences alongside excerpts from diaries and letters of early settlers. The book is meticulously divided into easily accessible sections and I actually found this much, much more readable than the important but relentlessly repetitive “Guns, Germs and Steel”. This is a book that is critically relevant to this country’s past and this country’s future. People ask me from time to time, given the area that I work in but certainly not because of any special personal experience, what I think should be done to create a better future for Aboriginal people in this country. I truly believe that we cannot have a better future until we fully acknowledge the past.

I was desperately sorry that I missed Pascoe’s recent talk at the National Library of Australia, but as I said you can watch it online. I cannot recommend this book more, it is an excellent and necessary edition to Australia’s literary scene and I look forward to seeing the works that emerge from future Aboriginal authors through this newly opened door.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture

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Foot Notes

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Foot Notes” by Benjamin Allmon is a memoir about a last ditch attempt to make it as a musician. Ben records an album, renames himself Smokey and sets on a 1,000km trek from Queensland to Sydney. Smokey sets out full of confidence that he’ll be able to sell albums, walk the whole way and sleep rough without any dramas. However, it quickly becomes clear that his expectations about weather, terrain, performing and even his audience were not even close to reality.

This was a really interesting read about a pretty extraordinary journey. Allmon’s experience walks a line between pilgrimage and homelessness. The only assets he has are his guitar and CDs to sell. He has no tent, no cash and no support aside from friendly strangers he meets along the way. I’ve driven up and down the Princes Highway between Sydney and the Gold Coast more times than I can count, along that hellish road between those north coast towns. A lot of the places Allmon walked through were places that I had visited. Beautiful coastal scenery and towns that are plagued with unemployment. On foot, Allmon observes far more than I ever have out the window of my white sedan on cruise control. More importantly, he observes his own responses to the people that he meets. Elitism is a hard trait to maintain when you’re sleeping under a plastic garbage bag on the beach. I think one of the most important parts about this book is Allmon finding himself through finding his audience.

When reviewing a memoir, it’s always tricky to critique the book without critiquing the author’s experiences. I think that Allmon wrote an incredibly honest story, and for the most part it was pared down to the most interesting and dramatic parts. I think where I really enjoyed Smokey’s interactions with the locals (flora and fauna included), I was a bit lost during some of the passages where Smokey is overcoming physical and emotional hardship. I think the pragmatist in me was very frustrated by scenes such as the crossing of “the Sahara”. I felt like many obstacles could have been avoided with a bit of preparation, and so I think I wasn’t quite as willing to come to the party about how meaningful overcoming them was.

Ultimately though, this book was a pleasant surprise. I would recommend it to anyone who feels like the pursuit of their dreams is getting a bit stale, or anyone who wants to get a good look at life on the north coast through a fresh pair of eyes.

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Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia

Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and it’s a good day to review a book like this. I bought my copy of this book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, right after I saw a panel of four of the contributors speaking about the book at an event. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to do a write up of this event (or Gay for Page and the one on toxic masculinity) so I’ll just give a bit of overview before I jump into the review, and if you want to hear more you can listen to my podcast episode on the festival.

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The panel was hosted by editor Dr Anita Heiss and also included contributors Marlee Silva, Liza-Mare Syron and Natalie Cromb. Liza-Mare said that she had been waiting for the right fit for her story, whereas Marlee and Natalie were both tagged in the call out. Marlee talked about how one day someone painted colour into here life by pointing out that her dad’s skin colour was different to her. Liza-Mare said that everyone has something to say about your identity when you’re Aboriginal. Natalie said that she was taught that she would have to fight for her place in the world, and would have to work harder than everyone else. The panelists discussed how they feel like as Aboriginal people, they always have to be on their best behaviour and there is a lot of pressure to succeed. Marlee drew on her experiences mentoring Aboriginal kids across the country and said that if you have high expectations for Aboriginal people, they exceed them. They shared so many amazing and very personal stories, many of which are in the book, but I’ll just share some insights from the contributors:

Liza-Mare: Only my community identifies me.

Marlee: We are a culture that has continued for 60,000 years, do you not think we’re sophisticated enough that it’s more than the way we look?

Natalie: Go and read a book, it’s not my job to educate you.

Anita shared that her hope for this book is that it reaches a school audience and that it starts a whole new dialogue with the next generation.

Instead of taking questions, Anita shared a poem from contributor Alice Eather. Alice was born the same year as me, but she didn’t make it to 30. Shortly after submitting her story, she committed suicide. Her family said they wanted it included, and it was a heart-wrenching end to the event. Anita finished by saying in the spirit of reconciliation, the contributors would sign books. I very happily got my books signed by all four women, and I couldn’t wait to read this story.

“Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia” edited by Anita Heiss is an anthology of short autobiographies by 52 Aboriginal people. The contributors are incredibly diverse, young and old, male and female, from the city, from the country. There are some very well-known names in there like Celeste Liddle and Adam Goodes. There are people who are at once ordinary and extraordinary.

There’s no way of going through each of the stories here, so I won’t try. However, I do want to talk about how even though each story is unique and different, there are echoes that resonate across this book of shared experiences. Of families torn apart by the Stolen Generations policies. Of blatant and subtle racism. Of mixed race children feeling neither white enough nor black enough to fit in. Of resilience. Of family. Of kindness. Of stories. Of losing and finding culture. Of connection.

I completely agree with Anita, this book should be taught in schools but I think that all Australians can learn something from this book. This book captures a collection of experiences of growing up in this country that not enough people know about or understand. Reading this book is an exercise in empathy and empathy is a muscle we should never stop exercising.

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Persepolis

This is a book that I have been meaning to buy for a long, long time. I’m a pretty big fan of graphic novels in most genres, but I really enjoy the perspective that you get from non-fiction graphic novel and this one is meant to be one of the best. I finally picked up a copy with a gift card I got for my birthday this year.

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“Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi is a graphic autobiography about Marji’s experiences growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution. Marji’s parents, politically active and reasonably well-to-do, protest tirelessly against the regime of the last Iranian monarch, the Shah. However, when fundamentalists seize power, Marji’s family publicly acquiesce to the new and frequently changing laws while they watch friends and family around them suffer under the brutal new regime. Living an educated and liberal life at home, but forced to wear a veil and be submissive in public, Marji starts to chafe against the double life she lives. Her parents decide to send her overseas to live and continue her education in Austria. However, when she arrives, Marji’s expectations and the reality of a new country and culture seem worlds apart.

This is a fascinating take on a part of recent history that before reading this, I knew nothing about. The black and white artwork is very understated which allows the dialogue and the narration to take the forefront of the story. However, Satrapi’s creativity really shines through when young Marji is imagining the things that she doesn’t always see herself but hears about from her family, the news and her friends. I thought another particular strength was the way that Satrapi depicted Marji’s deteriorating mental and physical health during here time in Austria, and the overwhelming challenges of navigating another country as a teenager with no support.

I think probably the only thing that was a bit challenging as a reader of this book is that unlike most graphic novels, this one takes much longer to read. Part of that is the complex and heavy subject matter, but part of it is that the subtly of the artwork is quite demanding and the images are a bit hard to distinguish between sometimes. This means that it takes a lot of concentration to interpret what is going on in each page.

This is a challenging but incredibly important graphic novel, and if you would like to learn more about the diverse history of Iran, this is a really great place to begin.

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The Trauma Cleaner

Content warning: gender identity, trauma, suicide, neglect, abuse, mental illness

The author of this book came to speak at an event in Canberra earlier this year, and although I unfortunately couldn’t make it – I did manage to meet the author later on in the evening. Having heard the premise of this book, I knew it was one I was going to have to read. Then I had the absolute pleasure of seeing her speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

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“The Trauma Cleaner” by Sarah Krasnostein is a biography of transgender Melbourne woman Sandra Pankhurst. A trauma cleaner whose business is in cleaning up humanity’s worst messes from suicides to hoarding situations, Krasnostein’s book explores how Sandra went from a neglected little boy to a successful and resilient woman. Interspersed throughout Sandra’s story are the stories of her clients: sad and lonely people who are being suffocated by their traumas.

Krasnostein writes with a piercing depth that is difficult to encapsulate. She applies an academic rigour to the story, but also manages to reach multiple layers of humanity both in sharing Sandra’s story as well as the story of her clients.  This story is so thoroughly researched yet so honest about where the limits of verifiable fact lie. Sandra is a fascinating person and Krasnostein explores each of her many lives with an exacting sensitivity that demands empathy from the reader. Krasnostein maintains her sense of candour when describing Sandra’s sad upbringing, exiled to the shed by her neglectful and occasionally violent family; her brief stint as a father and husband; the shocking grief of losing her girlfriend; her years working as a sex worker; her years as the wife of a businessman; and, finally, her life as a successful businesswoman.

Having worked in the mental health sector, I thought that Krasnostein did an excellent job navigating the stories of Sandra’s clients. Hoarding is a particularly insidious mental health issue and although it is actually relatively common, it can be difficult for others to relate to. I think one of my favourite parts of the book was when Krasnostein captured Sandra’s finesse and compassion in speaking to these people and asking them to help her help them.

I think the only thing that felt a little jarring was that on a few occasions, Krasnostein goes to some lengths defend Sandra and her choices. However, I think that Sandra’s story really speaks for itself. Sandra’s kindness radiates off the page and the occasions where she made mistakes just make her feel even more relatable.

Anyway, there is absolutely no question why this book won two prizes at the Victorian Premier’s literary awards. It is excellently written and excellently researched, and it tells the story of someone whose story would otherwise never have been told.

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The Anti-Cool Girl

Content warning: mental illness, addiction, suicide ideation. 

My experience of this book was a bit different to my usual reviews because I didn’t read it, I didn’t listen to it as an audiobook per se, but I listened to it as a podcast called “Mum Says My Memoir is a Lie“.

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“The Anti-Cool Girl” by Rosie Waterland is deeply personal memoir about Waterland’s experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family plagued by mental illness, addiction and poverty. Waterland chronicles her sometimes hilarious and sometimes deeply painful memories from birth up until just before publication. Although Waterland’s mother Lisa’s alcoholism had prevented her from reading the book when it first came out, Lisa has since sobered up and is ready to challenge Waterland on some of the things depicted in the book. On the podcast, each episode begins with Waterland narrating a chapter from the book and then Waterland and her mother Lisa spend the rest of the episode discussing the events of the chapter, especially around whether Waterland’s recollections are correct.

I think it’s difficult to separate out the book from the podcast because so much of podcast is the book, so this is going to be a kind of combined review. Waterland is a very funny writer, and has a exaggerated, self-depreciating sense of humour that balances out the more serious parts of the book. Waterland is also unflinchingly honest about her feelings and experiences, sometimes in quite shocking (and refreshing) detail. This book is overall an incredibly telling insight into Australia’s care and protection system, the public housing system and the mental health system. Rosie also shares her personal experiences with depression, suicide attempts, bullying and weight gain and then her remarkable success in her writing.

When I first started listening to this podcast, hearing Waterland read a chapter of her book, my initial judgment was that her mother Lisa was a terrible mother whose alcoholism traumatised her children. I think that if I had read the book by itself, that would have remained my judgment the entire way through. However, having Lisa participating in the podcast and responding to each chapter did lead me to think that Waterland was perhaps not always the most reliable narrator, especially in the chapters about her younger years. It also gave me a lot more empathy for Lisa and a better appreciation of her own struggles. However, where the facts aren’t completely clear or when some of the subject-matter gets a bit dark, you can count on Waterland to bring the mood back up with a joke or an embarrassing story about herself, even if it’s a bit embellished.

This is a powerful, hilarious and insightful book that is given a whole new layer of depth through this unconventional storytelling platform. I think the book is good, but the podcast is excellent and it is a very rare opportunity to listen to frank conversations between an author and her subject-matter: her mum.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

Joe Cinque’s Consolation

Content warning: death, mental illness, murder

I’ve been listening to the podcast “Chat 10 Looks 3” which is hosted by Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb for a while now, and they are both enormous fans of Helen Garner. I have actually never read anything by Helen Garner before, and so I was inspired to try one of her books. I wasn’t quite sure where to start, but there was one story (as someone who lives in Canberra and went to the Australian National University) that I have always wanted to know more about.

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“Joe Cinque’s Consolation” by Helen Garner is a non-fiction book about the killing of engineer Joe Cinque by his girlfriend Anu Singh with a lethal injection of heroin in Canberra in 1997, and the subsequent trials in the ACT Supreme Court. Although not present for the aborted joint trial by jury, writer Helen Garner attended the trials of Anu Singh and her friend Madhavi Rao and interviewed friends and family of the accused as well as Joe Singh to try to understand why this death happened.

This was a really difficult book to read. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the surroundings to me – parts of Canberra, the ACT Supreme Court, even the street where Singh and Cinque lived. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the mental health system to me. Maybe this book just felt a bit too close to home.

Also, maybe it was Garner’s writing style. She had a compelling but really terse tone that seemed quite at odds with her descriptions of her own emotional reactions to the events around her. I read the book and didn’t feel like I found much empathy or even information but instead found a lot of judgment. There was something about this book that reminded me of a Louis Theroux documentary I saw once. Unable to get an interview with Michael Jackson, Louis Theroux instead spends his time interviewing everyone he can who is as close as possible to the pop star, trying to find out the real story. I felt like Helen Garner in this book was a smarter version of Louis Theroux. She tried to get to the heart of the story, but in the end, without being able to speak to Anu Singh directly (which was hardly Garner’s fault) the book felt unfinished somehow. I also felt like despite trying to instead shift the focus on Joe Cinque, and having access to his family, the picture of Joe Cinque was incomplete as well.

There were two other things that got under my skin as well as made me think. The first was that despite all the focus on Anu Singh and her actions, you simply cannot tell this story without shining a spotlight on the inaction of the people closest to her. I think this was a source of tension in the story because although the temptation is to think of Anu Singh as some demonic succubus, the reality is that she did what she did because the people around her didn’t stop her. It was a completely preventable crime, yet nobody prevented it – despite Singh’s clearly deteriorating mental state. I felt like this was a concept that Garner herself struggled with, because I felt like Garner’s gut reaction was to dislike Anu Singh.

This leads me to the second point – Anu Singh through a feminist lens. I think Anu Singh herself was problematic because although everyone who knew her was attracted (or repelled by) her beauty, histrionics, fragility and body image obsession – apparent paragons of femininity – she then rejected that femininity by becoming a criminal of the worst kind. Suddenly she wasn’t a thin, pretty and melodramatic young woman anymore. She was a sinister she-devil who used sex to commit an abhorrent crime. I think perhaps Garner struggled to find an objective medium when it came to Singh’s character, especially one that encompassed mental illness, and particularly a personality disorder. Garner focuses a lot on femininity and female relationships in this book, but despite being drawn to the women she meets while researching this book, she never quite seems to be comfortable in that kind of discourse or those kinds of relationships. The lingering of the book over what Singh and Rao are wearing, how they were sitting, how they were reacting during the trial irked me. Perhaps these superficial observations would have been less prominent if the book had been written today. Perhaps today there would have been more of a focus on Singh’s deteriorating mental health and the inability of society to prevent her from hurting herself and others.

The entire time I was reading this book, I kept misremembering the title as “Joe Cinque’s Desolation”. I was looking for the consolation, as I think Helen Garner was as well, and I honestly don’t think in the end either of us found it. I think this is a powerful, insightful and well-researched book (given the circumstances) but I don’t think that it contained any revelations larger than the fact that Australia’s mental health system needs some significant improvement and people need to take threats their friends make seriously.

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