Black

I supported this graphic novel on Kickstarter. The original campaign ran in early 2016, but like a lot of Kickstarter fundraisers, it took about two years for my copy of the book to actually arrive. I can’t remember where exactly I came across the The authors had been sending me digital versions of chapters via email as they were completed over the time, but I decided to wait until I had the entire paper volume in my hot little hands before I read the story.

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“Black” by Kwanza Osajyefo and Tim Smith 3 is a graphic novel about a world where superpowers exist: it’s just that the only people who have them are black. Kareem is walking home with friends after playing some basketball when they are shot dead by police who recklessly mistake them for somebody else. When Kareem comes back to life in the ambulance, he breaks out to run for his life. Little does he know that the police are not the only ones after him and healing factor is just the beginning of his powers.

This is a very fast-paced story with a complex plot. Aside from the cover and the chapter title pages, the entire graphic novel is in black and white. The art is both striking and consistent with the superhero genre, and effectively captures the diversity of the cast of characters. Kareem is a particularly interesting character who is determined to find his own morals in a new world that tries to convince him everything is black and white. I think there are some great messages in this story and that brings really important social issues into a popular but perhaps underutilised genre.

I think that there were only two things that I found a bit challenging about this book. While I completely appreciate the significance of the use of a monochrome palette, the lack of colour did make the different superpowers a bit unclear – especially in the action scenes. This story also does feel like it is quite rushed. Not rushed in the sense of quality, but rushed in the sense of the reader is not really given a lot of time to process information and meet new characters. I actually think that the contents of this story could have been stretched out over a few volumes rather than squeezed into the one volume, and it would have given a bit more space to explore some of the great characters and themes that were introduced.

Nevertheless, this is a fun and hard-hitting graphic novel that I was so glad to finally get in my mailbox. I’m looking forward to seeing what the authors come up with next.

 

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Sydney Writers’ Festival – Sarah Krasnostein: The Trauma Cleaner

Content warning: trauma, abuse, LGBTIQ issues, death, suicide

My second event for the Sydney Writers’ Festival was Sarah Krasnostein: The Trauma Cleaner. I was really excited for this event because I just recently finished Krasnostein’s book (review pending) which won two categories in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award – the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Prize for Non-Fiction.

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The event was held in a huge auditorium at Carriageworks and we arrived just as it had started. Krasnostein’s book is a biography on a trans woman called Sandra Pankhurst who is a trauma cleaner. The book flits back and fourth between Sandra’s traumatic childhood and early history to Krasnostein’s own experiences accompanying Sandra on cleaning jobs. Krasnostein was interviewed by Australian novelist Ashley Hay.

Hay asked Krasnostein about Sandra’s clients, and Krasnostein said that she went to see three times the number of clients that made it into the book. Krasnostein reflected on the enormity of the mess in the houses caused by bodies left unfound, suicides, hoarding and animal hoarding. She said, “You need an industrial cleaner for those environments”.

Krasnostein read a passage from the book about her difficulties in establishing when exactly events in Sandra’s life took place. Throughout the book, Sandra struggles to remember exactly when her parents kicked her out of the house as a young boy, or when she began to transition, or when she started working as a sex worker. Hay asked Krasnostein about the gaps in Sandra’s memories, and how she coped with the knowledge that she was never going to get a clear timeline. Krasnostein said initially she was frustrated that nothing would align but eventually she realised that the disjuncts “weren’t screwing up the story, those disjuncts were the story”.

Hay asked her about her own role in the story and Krasnostein explained that sometimes the writer has to become a character, and that putting herself in the story as the railing or the banister was guiding the reader through the story.

Hay then asked about how her background in law, forensics and justice came into play in researching and writing the book. Krasnostein said “context is everything”. Law taught her how to go about fact-finding and the difference between discernment and judgment. She said that her background taught her when to rely on her intuition. Krasnostein wryly said that as much as she wanted to include 20 pages of endnotes, she was discouraged. She said that apparently other people don’t enjoy reading footnotes as much as she does (though I certainly do!).

Hay asked Krasnostein about whether this book might be considered voyeuristic. Krasnostein cheerfully responded by saying “Come for the voyeurism, stay for the lesson”. She said that one thing she learned while writing this book was empathy, and that the clients of Sandra’s she met were no different from us at all. She said that when life threw them that phone call that we’re all just two seconds away from, they didn’t have the support they needed and now they are literally buried under decades of pain.

Hay brought up Marie Kondo’s bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and asked how that might apply to some of Sandra’s clients who were struggling with hoarding. Krasnostein said that in her opinion, it was less about whether a sweater brings you joy, and more about letting go of the past. She talked about the excruciating vulnerability of making connections with other people. Although she doesn’t have the experience of growing up trans in Melbourne in the 1960s and 1970s, she has felt shame and pain and that helped her make a connection with Sandra while writing the book.

Sandra gave Krasnostein a huge lesson about the nature of resilience, and also showed her how hugely important it is to sustain those human connections around us. Krasnostein said that we love imperfectly. You have to get over the stuff that doesn’t matter because that closeness and vulnerability is what will save you.

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Artefacts and Other Stories

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

Artefacts and Other Stories

“Artefacts and Other Stories” by Rebecca Burns is a collection of short stories. Set largely in the UK, many of the stories are set before, during or in the aftermath of World War I. These are stories of ordinary people with jobs, families, memories and traumas as much as they are about the people who have left them behind.

The short story is a tricky art form, but Burns’ vignettes are compelling. Each story tackles the delicacy of human life and the fragile beauty of love, and finishes on its own unique and poignant note. Burns uses objects and everyday events to explore the complexities of human emotion, and some of my favourite stories in the collection were “The Last Game, August 2014”, “The Bread Princess” and “The Greatcoat”. “Artefacts” also stuck with me long after I had finished the book.

I do think some of the stories were stronger than others. Burns has a real knack for capturing the tone of early 1900s England and those historical fiction stories about the tragedy and futility of war really stood out.

If you enjoy short stories, or are fascinated by World War I history, then I think you’ll get something out of these.

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Sydney Writers’ Festival – SWF Gala: Power

Content warning: language, queer issues, adult themes

This was my first time attending the Sydney Writers’ Festival and it was an absolutely epic weekend. I had tickets to 7 events over 3 days and I travelled up to Sydney with my friend Kendall with a bag full of books to get signed. I’ll be sharing more about the trip as a whole later this week, but for now I’ll be blogging about each event I went to.

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The first event I went to was SWF Gala: Power, the big Friday night event at the Sydney Town Hall. This was also my first time at the Town Hall and it is an imposing venue. The perfect place to really get into the nitty-gritty of what power means.

The panel was hosted by Jamila Rizvi who opened the evening with a meditation on the subject of power from a great Australian poet:

“This time, we know we all can stand together
With the power to be powerful
Believing we can make it better

Ooh, we’re all someone’s daughter
We’re all someone’s son, oh
Give a look at each other
Down the barrel of a gun

You’re the voice, try and understand it
Make the noise and make it clear, oh-o-o-o, woah-o-o-o
We’re not gonna sit in silence
We’re not gonna live with fear, oh-o-o-o, woah-o-o-o”

Farno

The audience was pretty warmed up with that introduction, and each of the panelists took a turn talking about their understanding of power.

Aminatou Sow

Sow, who hosts the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” said that she was just trying to make Oprah proud. She said the first book she read in English was “Feminism is for Everybody”, which was simply about seeking an end to sexism and the successes and failures of feminism. She said it was 140 pages that changed her life and gave her a vocabulary to put into words what she had felt all along and what she didn’t have the models or the words to explain it in her native language, French.

Sow was the queen of one-liners and said, “I do not drink from the koolaid of women’s empowerment”. She said that if activism is fun, you’re probably not doing the work. She said that it’s easy to spot someone who has no skin in the game – they do not read books.

Sow stressed the importance of giving credit to those who have shaped your ideas. She said, don’t just call yourself an activist – DO activism. She told people to “read books and find the language to end oppression”.

Masha Gessen

Gessen is an author of a number of books including “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia” and “The Man Without a Face: the Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin“. 

Gessen reflected that at a Sydney Writers’ Festival some years ago, she said something that got her into so much trouble that she was driven out of Russia. Prior to the Australian marriage equality vote, she had made comments about the institution of marriage. A conservative newspaper published a story along the lines of “Homosexual activist reveals true goal of LGBTIQ movement”, the story was published in Russian, and her life was changed.

Gessen said that she was interested in the power of uncertainty. Uncertainty, she explained, was at odds with journalism and writing with certainty: the certainty of certainty that we see in Trump’s America, and even the certainty of experience.

Gessen asked the audience to imagine a post-war world where people value each other for being human and their different ways of learning. At this point, the audience clapped (which the Auslan interpreter also signed). Gessen then asked the audience to imagine a world without borders, architects who can build buildings with no set entrances and that can be taken apart, political parties with no platform.

Gessen ended on a discussion of uncertainty of gender and said that when people ask about preferred pronouns, Gessen says “I have no preferred pronoun. There is no reason to use third person pronouns in my presence”. On androgyny, Gessen said that at the airport, there was a question of who should pat her down: the male security guard, or the female security guard. Gessen simply said, “I don’t care”, and removed embarrassment in a tiny island of uncertainty.

Sally Rugg

Rugg was a campaign director at GetUp! for the marriage equality campaign and began her talk with statement that power was how the country won marriage equality.

Rugg first realised she was gay at the age of 19 when she had a penny drop moment. She said at the time it felt like cancer, something she didn’t want and that she couldn’t control in a world suddenly hostile towards her.

She talked about the first same sex kiss on Australian TV and Lloyd Grosse’s HIV activism, and said that every inch of LGBTIQ progress has been fought for with stories. She said that queer couples would haul their children to parliament so they could look MPs in the eye and beg for their families not to be put to a vote.

Rugg explained the power of stories to make political change, but noted the pressure on marginalised groups to be perfect. She said the story she told about being gay feeling like having cancer, she didn’t tell the other parts of realising her sexuality and the stories of losing her virginity or making out with girls in nightclubs. Rugg said that when marginalised communities are forced to sanitise their stories so that they appear worthy and look like the powerful, then it is not true equality.

She said that the stories must not just be preserved for the audiences we are trying to persuade.

Tanya Plibesek

Now, Plibersek’s talk was good, but Jamila Rizvi’s introduction was amazing. She introduced Plibersek like a character from Game of Thrones: Tanya Plibesek, of the House on the Hill, first of her name. Plibersek is the deputy leader of the Labor Party and an MP in Australia’s Parliament.

Plibersek also opened with a reference to music, however she went with John Lennon’s “Power to the People”. She noted that power is not bestowed by divine right, it lives in the people and it belongs to them. It remains the people’s gift to bestow and withdraw. Her talk was focused on the power and value of democracy.

Plibersek paraphrased Winston Churchill, who said

“…it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The audience was a bit slow to warm to Plibersek.

Plibersek told the audience that this is the 12th consecutive year of global decline in freedom. There has been a decline in the support of democracy, particularly in among millennials. She said that the best way to support democracy is to broaden the circle of people it applies to.

Plibersek said that the price of democracy around the world is high, and we dishonour the people who fight for it by taking it for granted. She implored people to reject cynicism and jump into the fray. She said that democracy means engagement in civil society and things like memberships in unions and a free and diverse press.

Plibersek warned that Australia’s level of media concentration is one of the highest in the world and it is getting worse with fake news and social media echo chambers. Plibersek says that the is a proponent for free speech. Not the pretend kind, the kind that gives you the right to be a bigot, but the ability to criticise government.

Tayari Jones

Author Tayari Jones spoke next, and she said that she had been apprehensive to speak about power. As a woman of colour, she often felt like her conversations about power involved necessary discussion about being excluded from power and she just didn’t want to have to go through it all again.

She said that she could talk about the impact of police violence on her community, all the way to the fact the microphone doesn’t match her face.

Jones instead decided to tell a story about how she managed to regain some power. She had already had two books published and was writing her third when her publisher decided not to run it. Her publisher had bought some software called BookScan – and I tell you now, the way that Jones said the word BookScan was utterly compelling – and BookScan told the publisher that she hadn’t sold enough books. Her publisher decided not to run the book, and even though she kept working on the book and tried to live by the lessons she taught her students – don’t write what you think will get you published, but try to get published what you want to write – nobody else would publish the book either.

Some time later, Jones was invited to a writers’ festival. She was the only black woman invited, however she didn’t want to go because of how ashamed she was of the impact BookScan had had on her writing career. However, she nevertheless felt obligated to go because of the fear that if she didn’t, they wouldn’t invite other black women.

She got a call from the festival saying they couldn’t find any copies of her books to sell. It turned out that not only had her publishers cancelled her third book, but they had put her first two books out of print. Jones was mortified, and had no idea what to do. Shortly afterwards, she got another call saying that they had found four books for her to sign at the event. It turned out her dad had sent through the two copies and had hit her uncle up for two more.

Jones spoke to her dad and asked, what would she do when she ran out of the four books she had? Her dad said, if you run out, just smile and tell them you’ve sold out.

So Jones went to the event, she signed her four books, and sure enough a fifth person came along. Jones smiled, and told her that she had sold out. However, the woman said that she had heard Jones was out of print. More than that, she had heard that Jones couldn’t get a publisher. Jones said she was so embarrassed.

The woman took her hand, led her across the foyer, and literally put her hand in the hand of a publisher. One that had already rejected her third book. She and the publisher chatted for a bit, and then the publisher turned to her and asked how she knew Judy.

Jones was confused, and said I don’t know a Judy. The publisher said, you know, the woman you came over with, Judy Blume! Jones said it was like her nerdy childhood had come to rescue her in the time of need. However when she turned to where Judy had been, she had disappeared like a magical fairy godmother.

Jones said that her hard work had intersected with Judy Blume and her generosity and power, and finished by concluding that art will always find a way.

Warwick Thornton

Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton was up next.

He started out by reminiscing about how when he was 6 years old, he lived on the kind of street that all towns have – where the kids are hungry, the mums are working and the dads are full of shit. He said that he had a best friend called David, and by sheer coincidence, he became a camera assistant and David became a boom swinger.

They had adventures together on sets all around Australia. They got older and uglier and they moved from documentaries to features. They worked together on the film The Sapphires, and his friend told him that he had a great idea for a movie.

Now, Thornton said that he hears that a lot, and usually says to them go ahead and write it. He said, 99% of the time he never hears from them about it again. However, this time, when he met David up in Arnham land on a project, David told him he had written the film.

Thornton was torn: he wanted to be a good mate, but what was he going to do if he read it and it was terrible? He’d have to tell him it was bad. He put it off and put it off but then he finally read it: it was terrible, but it was also brilliant because David had something to say.

He had written it from the heart. It didn’t have any structure, but Thornton said that he had been unable to recognise its brilliance when he first read it due to elitist crap. He told David what he thought, and that it needed a lot of work. David told him that he understood: he had just wanted to tell his grandfather’s story.

David had told the truth about his grandfather. Thornton said that history was told by the coloniser, and that it had been told with a lead pencil and an eraser. Thornton said that he had lost his connection and had been too busy focusing on what Hollywood expected. So he hooked David up with a screenwriter called Stephen, and together they made a film called Sweet Country.

Wesley Morris

The last speaker of the day was Wesley Morris, a journalist and critic with the New York Times.

Morris began by saying that he was feeling very literal today. He hadn’t gone to therapy this week, and he hadn’t really prepared a talk, so he wanted to talk about something that had happened to him recently.

He said that he had been dumped about a week ago. It was a plutonic dumping, they weren’t romantically involved, but the person had been in his life since he was about 17 years old.

He actually hadn’t heard from him for about 9 months, and after a few unanswered messages, the friend finally agreed to talk to him about what had happened. Morris got slotted into a 10:00am to 10:40am timeframe, and so he knew it wasn’t going to be a long, in-depth conversation.

He said that he had worked with his friend for about 2 years, and his friend told him that the reason they weren’t speaking anymore is because that he apparently did not help his friend at a moment when he needed help. Morris said that he had no idea his friend needed help. His friend said that Morris had the power to help him and chose not to use it: he could have used whatever clout he had in his position to speak on his friend’s behalf.

Morris was taken aback by this. He said that he had never though of himself as really having any power to help others like that.

Morris said that one factor in this equation was that he is black and his friend is white. He doesn’t carry himself through the world thinking about the power he has, but his friend does think, when moving through a space, about the power he carries. Morris said he doesn’t even know what that looks like because he simply doesn’t believe he has that power.

He said that his friend has the power – he gets himself into nightclubs, and can get people to call him back.

Morris realised that this is a fundamental difference between them. When his friend goes to work, he takes his family and his day-to-day life with him. When Morris goes to work, he takes 400 years of people working so that he has the right to go to work every day. He doesn’t have time to think about the power he has and how he can use it on people. He doesn’t think of himself as having institutional power.

This was a curiously intimate discussion, and Morris clarified he wasn’t looking for a response. He said he wasn’t sure what was going to happen with his friend, but he asked the audience to think about the power they do have and how they use it.

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The Stone Sky

This is the third book in the series, so if you haven’t started it yet, you might want to go back to book one or book two.

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“The Stone Sky” by N. K. Jemisin is the third book in the “Broken Earth” series, a science fantasy series about a woman called Essun whose world is crumbling around her, literally. Her mentor Alabaster is gone. Her daughter Nassun is lost. The comm Castrima is in tatters, with nothing left but desperate people. The season is upon her and while the angry earth rages around her, she is no longer able to draw on her power as an orogene to still it without risking losing herself completely.   However, Essun can’t help thinking she has never been able to save anyone. She has been tasked with the impossible: to try to save this broken Earth.

This is a series of truly epic proportions. While the second book maybe felt like it suffered a little from sequelitis, spending a lot of time setting the scene, this finale was definitely much more high octane. Jemisin’s imagination seems to have no limits, and she uses the whole planet to tell her story – a story that has been told over and over throughout humanity’s history, and is told again in a new yet familiar way.

I think the only thing about this book that is a bit hard to deal with is that everything is just so important and monumental all. the. time. I appreciate the scale of this story, but sometimes the dialogue felt like everything was dripping with such significance and so oversaturated with italics that it sometimes was a bit hard to tell what was really significant, and what was only kind of significant.

Anyway, this truly is an incredibly original series and I’m glad I spaced it out and savoured it over a longer period of time. When fantasy is so full of the same old elves and dwarves and orphan boys with incredible secret ancestry, this series was such a breath of fresh air. Even though it’s set in a world so different from our own, it resonates, and what else can you ask from a book?

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Heart of Brass

If you listen to my podcast, you might recall that a couple of episodes ago I interviewed local Canberra author Felicity Banks about interactive fiction and her project “Murder in the Mail“. A while ago, by coincidence, my partner bought me a copy of her book at CanCon, completely unaware that Felicity and I had already been chatting!

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“Heart of Brass” by Felicity Banks is the first book in her pre-Federation Australian steampunk series “The Antipodean Queen”. The story is about a young upper class Englishwoman called Emmeline whose family has a lot of secrets but not much money. One of those secrets is that Emmeline, a keen inventor, has a steam-powered heart made of brass. When her attempts to save her family’s financial situation through a strategic marriage go very awry, Emmeline is sent to the colonies on the last convict ship and finds herself in Victoria. In this strange new land, she realises that she has a lot more freedom and opportunities than she perhaps had at home, but also has a lot more enemies.

This is a very fast-paced book full of action and intrigue. Banks introduces a very diverse range of characters that give a really holistic sense of the kinds of people who made their way to Victoria during the gold rush. This steampunk book involves a little bit of magic, and I really enjoyed the subtlety of Banks’ magic system and the way people can interact with metal. I think that it worked really well in a steampunk setting, and particularly well in a goldrush setting. I liked the way that people tapped into the properties of metal and used them to express themselves and enhance themselves in the clothing that they wore.

Now, I absolutely have to mention something about this particular book that really made it enjoyable for me. At the end of the book is a short choose your own adventure-style story called “After the Flag Fell” about a true historical figure called Peter Lalor, but set in Banks’ own steampunk reimagining of the Eureka Stockade. This was such a fun and cleverly done little story, and I was flipping through trying to achieve all the goals and collect all the items with absolute delight.

I think maybe the only thing I found a bit challenging in this book is that there is a lot going on, and Emmeline and her two new companions Matilda and Patrick are on the run for the majority of the book. Sometimes this made it a little bit difficult to keep up with all the action, but I think for people who really enjoy adventure fiction, this isn’t going to be much of an issue.

A fun story with an especially fun choose your own adventure bonus at the end, Banks’ novel is a fresh look at Australia’s history and blows apart some of the dark areas of our past with explosions, metal and lots and lots of steam.

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Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

Like many fanciful young girls who spend too much time daydreaming, I loved “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the sequel “Alice Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll when I was a kid. So of course when I saw Muse was going to be running a high tea event themed on the Mad Hatter’s tea party, I knew I must attend. I received an email a few days beforehand asking that we dress up and that we bring some of our favourite editions of “Alice in Wonderland” to share with the other attendees. Nobody every has to tell me twice to dress up! Of course, given my love of bunnies, I had to go as the March Hare.

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When I arrived on 22 April 2018, I was very relieved to see that this wasn’t the kind of party where I was the only one who bothered to dress up (having been to one just the day before), and there was a Tweedle (unclear which), the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, an Alice and someone who hadn’t dressed up specifically as a character but who had the most incredible Disney Alice in Wonderland skirt.

The long table was beautifully decorated with playing cards, tea pots and little signs saying “Eat Me” and “Drink Me”. Everyone received a copy of “Mad Hatters and March Hares“, a collection of short stories inspired by Lewis Caroll’s works, and we were joined by local authors Kaaron Warren (who also has a story in the anthology) and Robert Hood (an Alice enthusiast and extremely knowledgeable about the life and times of Lewis Carroll). In the background, a projector was playing the Disney version of the story.

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This was an absolutely lovely way to spend an afternoon. When I had arrived, it had just started drizzling which made it feel extra English. Paul got us all started with a glass of champagne (of which, owing to my over-enthusiasm the previous night, I only took half) then took our tea and coffee orders. Dan brought around the most amazing little cakes and sandwiches on tiered stands, and then the scones with fresh cream and jam came out as well.

Unlike your everyday book event, this one was very participatory. All the guests took turns introducing themselves and sharing some memories about how they first fell in love with the Alice stories. Kaaron told everyone about her story, and her horror writing generally. Robert shared fascinating tidbits about some of the more adult jokes disguised within the children’s books. Then we all got to talk about the editions of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” that we brought along, and I was very pleased to talk about the copy that my mum used to read to me when I was a kid and some of the fancier new editions I have.

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This really was the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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