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Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark

Part self-help book, part memoir about finding your inner glow

Content warning: cancer

I think it’s pretty obvious why I picked up this book: it is breathtaking. The unique hardcover design is covered in subtle, intricate silver foil and it is truly eye-catching when you walk past it in a bookshop as I did. I saw Julia Baird speak some years ago about her biography of Queen Victoria, but I haven’t yet managed to tackle that very large book. However, this book seemed much more manageable and I think we can all agree we need a bit of brightening up.

“Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark” by Julia Baird is a non-fiction book that blends memoir with self-help. Drawing on her own experiences in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, Baird considers what it is that nurtures us during challenging times and how we can foster our own phosphorescence. Baird divides her book into four main sections that loosely deal with our physical environment, our identity, friendship and finding hope.

There are a lot of thought-provoking ideas in this book. Baird incorporates snippets of various philosophies and research to support the things that she does in her life that she finds helpful. I enjoyed the earlier chapters about nature the most, especially about the physical phenomenon of phosphorescence. Reading Baird’s account of swimming at Manly Beach has made me want to get into distance swimming even more and Baird’s awe for cuttlefish was nice to read around the same time as I watched “My Octopus Teacher“. Baird is a spirited writer who beautifully captures the awe nature inspires in us. I was also quite interested in reading about the movement within the Anglican Church to allow women to be ministers and how instead of accepting the idea, the patriarchs doubled down on including women.

However, for a lot of the book, I didn’t feel very engaged. I think the book that I was hoping for was something more like “H is for Hawk” with phosphorescence in the natural world as more of a central theme. I’ve always been captivated by things that glow, and some of my happiest memories are seeing unexpected fireflies at dusk and swimming with bioluminscent plankton, so I was expecting a blend of memoir and natural history. Unfortunately, this book only touches briefly on this phenomenon and the majority of the book is about Baird’s experiences living in New York, surviving cancer and, directly and indirectly, her religion. Without a clear central theme, it did feel a bit more like a collection of Baird’s essays and ruminations vaguely organised by theme. This book actually reminded me a lot of Leigh Sales’ “Any Ordinary Day“, except rather than forensically trying to figure out why events happen in anyone’s lives, Baird is more concerned with sharing the details of little decisions she has made to try to make sense of her own life. She also included two chapters that were letters to her own children which, while I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure really aligned with the rest of the book. I also felt that the audience this book is written for was quite a narrow one, and Baird doesn’t really acknowledge that a lot of her experiences are the result of significant privilege.

A book that will certainly cheer you up sitting on your bookshelf, but could have used more glowing jellyfish.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Pretty Books

No Matter Our Wreckage

Memoir about online grooming and inter-generational trauma

Content warning: online grooming, child sexual abuse, emotional abuse, trauma, death, grief

2020 was not a good year for book releases. During the before-times, when someone has a book published, you could reasonably expect that they would do some local events and, if they were lucky, some interstate events to discuss the book, sell the book and meet readers to have their copies signed. Unfortunately for writers, in these uncertain times book events are often limited or cancelled altogether by social distancing restrictions. Some authors flexibly promoted their book through livestream events, but they are tricky to set up and you don’t have the opportunity to sell copies at the door. Although restrictions had eased in September last year, my at-the-time undiagnosed voice issues meant that I was reluctant to attend even the smallest events. I ended up buying a copy of this book by paying the author via PayPal and collecting my signed copy from her letterbox.

Image is of “No Matter Our Wreckage” by Gemma Carey, an indigo paperback book with pink and turquoise writing positioned in front of several envelopes in matching colours.

“No Matter Our Wreckage” by Gemma Carey is a memoir about the death of Gemma’s mother and about being groomed online and sexually abused as a child. Although aware of the abuse, Gemma’s mother never spoke to her about it and Gemma was left to take the extraordinary action of reporting the abuser to police alone at the age of 16. In the wake of her mother’s death, Gemma asks herself the question she was never able to ask her mother directly: why didn’t her mother stop the abuse? Using her skills honed in her career as an academic, Gemma forensically researches her family history to find answers to why her otherwise privileged upbringing left her so vulnerable to and unprotected against abuse.

This is a fearless book. To write so frankly about your experiences, let alone about your family, takes guts and Carey has guts in spades. Growing up in a family where things were kept secret, Carey’s decision to throw open the doors and air out her family’s trauma is not just an act of defiance against a culture of silence but a commitment to breaking a cycle. Similarly to Caroline Baum, Carey explores how a seemingly well-to-do family can nevertheless foster an unshakable sense of loneliness in the context of inter-generational trauma. Just before I read this book, I had watched a TV series called “Patrick Melrose” which is about a man addicted to drugs who struggles to deal with being sexually abused as a child. The series is excellently done, and the character Patrick is played by a compelling Benedict Cumberbatch, but the part I couldn’t understand was why Patrick’s mother didn’t protect him from the abuse. Carey’s book answers this question. Although the chapters about Carey’s research into her own family’s secrets are incredibly confronting, what she finds goes a long way towards better understanding her mother and making peace with what was left unsaid before death.

One of the most interesting parts of this memoir was Carey’s writing about the abuser. As easy as it is to assume that an abuser is an obviously scary stereotypical bad guy, the reality is that abusers are often otherwise ordinary and unimpressive people who use extreme manipulation as a tool over time to get what they want. Carey provides a nuanced, objective view of a man whose life and already poor mental health are made even worse by his actions. Comparing her own life trajectory to his, Carey examines how factors other than class can leave a person vulnerable to abuse. From a legal perspective, Carey’s case is very interesting as one of the earliest matters prosecuted in Australia involving the use of the internet to groom a child, and provides a first-hand perspective about one of the dangers of being online. It was also really interesting to compare Carey’s experience of the court system with author Bri Lee‘s experience, including the abuser’s rationale for pleading the way he did.

This is a challenging book that refuses to simplify serious issues and instead faces them head-on in all their complexity.

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Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow

Third book in children’s fantasy series “Nevermoor”

Content warning: pandemic

If you haven’t yet read the first two books in this series, I would skip this review and go to the beginning.

Image is of a paperback copy of “Hollowpox: The Hunt of Morrigan Crow” placed next to a black and white Koolie dog with a red and purple face mask and a small bottle of hand sanitiser

“Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend is the third book in the children’s fantasy series “Nevermoor”. In her second year as a scholar at the exclusive Wundrous Society, Morrigan is finally permitted to study the so-called Wretched Arts of the Accomplished Wundersmith. She eagerly jumps into her lessons, keen to master her new abilities. However, only able to watch records and without the guidance of a teacher, Morrigan’s progress is frustratingly slow. Meanwhile, a mysterious illness has struck Nevermoor throwing the city in chaos. Worse, it only seems to affect Wunimals, taking away their ability to reason and leaving only their most basic animal instincts. Morrigan is suddenly under even more pressure to master her abilities to save Nevermoor and her Wunimal friends.

This is a series that is getting better and better as it progresses. Townsend explores a plethora of social issues in this book from stigma and discrimination to diplomatic relations. Where I found the magic a bit chaotic and confusing in the first book, Townsend has settled into the story and created a great structure for Morrigan to progress through her education mastering different skills. I’m really enjoying the dynamics of her friends in Unit 919, and some of the personalities are really starting to develop in interesting and amusing ways. There were also some really lovely new characters like Sofia. However, the highlight of this book was without a doubt the visit to the Gobleian Library. Without spoiling anything about it, it was a wild couple of chapters that really captured the spirit of Nevermoor. Unlike some authors, Townsend has also introduced with little fanfare a same-sex relationship which was a nice addition.

I think my only warning is that if you’re a bit exhausted hearing about public health issues, then a book about a disease that races through a city sending society into panic might not be the book for you right now. I think from a kid’s perspective, this would be a good lens to consider some of the human rights issues that arise as a result of trying to protect individuals from the unknown, but in that respect it may be a bit heavy and too close to home for some.

A cracking read that has really hit its stride, I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

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The Yield

Literary novel about Wiradjuri connection to family, Country and culture

Content warning: missing child, Stolen Generation, racism, colonialism, eating disorder, sexual assault

This novel won the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award, so it was already on my radar. I bought it a couple of months ago, but was inspired to make it my next book by the recent IndigenousX #BlakBookChallenge.

“The Yield” by Tara June Winch is a literary novel about a fictional place called Massacre Plains. The story is told from three point of view characters: Aboriginal man Albert Gondiwindi, his granddaughter August Gondiwindi and Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf. Albert has found out that he does not have long to live, and spends his last living days recording the language of his ancestors in a dictionary that uses vignettes from his life to explain the words and their meaning. Shortly afterwards, August finds out her Poppy has died and returns home from the UK for his funeral after many years of estrangement. Things in Massacre Plains are both exactly the same and completely different as she reconnects with her Nana, cousin, aunties and an old flame. In 1915, Reverend Greenleaf pens a letter to the British Society of Ethnography to tell the truth about what happened in the Mission he established in Massacre Plains.

This is a brilliantly crafted novel that combines three narrative techniques to create a compelling and multifaceted story. Albert’s dictionary in particular was such a unique way of storytelling. Albert, who was taken from his family as a child and placed in a Boys’ Home, is visited by his ancestors who lead him through time to gently and patiently teach him the language and culture that would have otherwise been lost to him. His chapters are all the more poignant because they cast into relief how much was stolen from Aboriginal people through colonial violence and racism, making the knowledge bestowed by his ancestors critical. Greenleaf’s chapters are also interesting because they provide the dramatic irony of someone who genuinely believes that they are doing the best for the people in their care, but who is ultimately contributing to their loss of culture and who is powerless to protect them, especially the women, from slavery and sexual violence perpetrated by settlers.

Although less avant-garde in structure than the other chapters, August’s story is no less compelling. When she returns to the home her grandparents raised her in, she struggles to make sense of Prosperous House’s painful memories and the plans for it to be repossessed by a mining company. August’s chapters are in some ways the most heartrending. August has to confront the old trauma of losing her sister Jedda, who went missing when they were young, and face the new trauma of being displaced from her home. These traumas take their toll on August, who throughout her life has struggled with disordered eating. Her journey to the city with her aunty to visit the museum and see her people’s artefacts showed how painful it is that so much Aboriginal history is not even accessible to the people whose heritage it is. Through this experience Winch touches on the idea of repatriation, consistent with the strong theme of returning home that underpins this novel.

Finally, I also really enjoyed reading the Author’s Note and Acknowledgements which provide plenty of recommendations for further reading, some historical context for the compilation of Wiradjuri language and a little bit of insight into Winch’s own research, writing process and family. Winch is a fantastic writer and this is an excellent and original novel committed to truth-telling and full of heart.

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Stone Sky Gold Mountain

Historical fiction about Chinese siblings during the Queensland gold rush

Content warning: racism, mental illness, sex work

When I heard this book was coming out, I was really excited. I absolutely loved the author’s first book “The Fish Girl” and was really looking forward to this release. Unfortunately, this book came out around the same time as the pandemic starting which meant that lots of authors missed out on the usual author events and publicity that accompany a new release. However, one advantage of everyone going remote is that I didn’t have to worry about travelling for an event, I was able to sign up and livestream. The cover is really pretty – my photo doesn’t quite do it justice but it has little flecks of gold foil in the lettering.

“Stone Sky Gold Mountain” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novel about two siblings, Ying and Lai Yue, who have travelled from China to Far North Queensland to seek their fortune on the gold fields. Older brother Lai Yue takes responsibility for saving the little gold they find, purchasing supplies and making decisions. However, when Ying, disguised as a boy, begins to weaken from the hard labour and lack of food, the siblings eventually must move to Maytown to seek more stable employment. With Ying settled in as a shop assistant, Lai Yue takes a job with a team of men headed for a sheep station and the siblings must each make their own way in this strange and hostile country.

This was a fantastic book. Riwoe is a phenomenal writer and in a full-length novel really stretches her muscles to bring to life an era from somewhere that is now nothing more than a ghost town. Ying is a curious, resourceful and flexible character who quickly adapts to her role as shop boy. Enjoying the freedom that a male disguise buys her, she pushes boundaries and befriends a white woman called Meriem – another point of view character. I really found myself cheering Ying on and enjoying her delight in the world and her adventurous spirit playing different roles. Meriem is a complex character who has run from her past to work as a housekeeper for a sex worker. Riwoe does an exceptional job of examining Meriem’s initial prejudices against Chinese people and sensitively handles the stigma and allure of sex work in the Maytown community.

However, I think the real masterpiece of this book is Lai Yue. Laden with the responsibility as the older brother, Lai Yue buckles under the weight. I was initially reminded of the older brother Seita in the film “Grave of the Fireflies“, with Lai Yue initially hoarding the gold they find away instead of using it to buy food Ying so desperately needs. However, as the book progresses, we learn that there is a lot more going on with Lai Yue. Riwoe’s exploration of how mental illness and self-esteem are intertwined is heartbreaking, and initial frustration with Lai Yue quickly makes way to empathy. Riwoe also doesn’t shy away from the many types of racism experienced during this period of history. Unflinchingly, she depicts Chinese people participating in brutal acts of violence against Aboriginal people while back in town, Chinese people themselves are victims of racist attacks and discrimination. At a time when people of Asian heritage are increasingly experiencing racism, it is an important and timely reminder that racism is a part of our history and that we can and must do better.

This is a rich, touching novel and I honestly could continue to wax lyrical about it but instead I very much recommend you read for yourself this critical and necessary contribution to Australian historical fiction.

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Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism

Non-fiction book about the invisibility and dominance of whiteness in feminism

During National Reconciliation Week this year, while sharing recommendations of books by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, I came across this tweet:

I hadn’t even read this book let alone included it on my list, so I immediately bought a copy.

“Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism” by Aileen Moreton-Robinson is a thesis on the whiteness of Australian feminism. Across six chapters, the book explores:

  • Indigenous women’s own life writings,
  • the representation (and invisibility as the “norm”) of white women in feminist theory,
  • representations of Indigenous women in white women’s ethnographic writings,
  • representations of Indigenous women in white Australian feminism,
  • white women’s self-presentation in white feminist academia, and
  • Indigenous women’s self-presentation within white Australian feminism.

Moreton-Robinson argues that because of feminism’s inherent but insufficiently examined white perspective, Indigenous women are excluded, minimised or merely tolerated conditionally. She argues that because race is considered to be something that is “other”, white feminists are unable to acknowledge their own race and associated privilege, their own role in perpetuating racial discrimination and are therefore unwilling to relinquish some of that power. Moreton-Robinson stresses that because of this, white women are unable to recognise that for Indigenous women, sexism is inextricably linked to racism, and that until racial oppression is addressed, sexism cannot be adequately dealt with.

This is a complex and well-researched book that highlights an enormous barrier to intersectionality in feminism: a lack of self-awareness among white feminists. Moreton-Robinson combined literature reviews, oral history, writing by Indigenous women and other women of colour and interviews with white feminist academics to produce this work. This is an original and critical text and even though Moreton-Robinson wrote this book 20 years ago, the messages are just as relevant today as they were then. The University of Queensland Press has just released a 20th Anniversary Edition which came out a month or so after I bought my copy, which I understand includes additional commentary by Moreton-Robinson that reflects on the book’s reception by white feminists. I’m tempted to buy a copy of that as well!

Although the book is not very long, it is not an easy read. Moreton-Robinson uses an appropriately academic tone to explore complex and challenging concepts, and asks the audience – predominantly white feminists – to critically examine their own assumptions, privilege and complicity in continuing to centre whiteness in feminism. For readers new to feminist theory, this book is a great starting point because Moreton-Robinson provides an excellent historical overview of feminism. However, although Moreton-Robinson is a succinct writer, it is a lot of information to take in and this book unearths some uncomfortable truths about the role white women have played in facilitating racial oppression in Australia, especially in relation to the removal of children and stolen wages. I think the most challenging parts for me were considering mistakes I had made in the past, the diversity of perspectives I surround myself in and roles played by myself and my ancestors in perpetuating racial oppression.

This is an extremely important book that is just as relevant (if not more so) today as it was at publication 20 years ago. I recommend white women reading this book with an open mind, an open heart and a willingness to commit to taking on board the lessons the book has to offer to improve feminist practice starting with acknowledging whiteness and its associated privilege.

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Troll Hunting

Non-fiction book about the motivations and impact of online trolling

Content warning: sexist and racist slurs

I have seen this Canberra journalist and writer speak at quite a few author events over the years, including with Carly Findlay, Margaret Atwood and Miriam Sved. However, despite being familiar with her work in cyberhate and online trolling, I had not actually read her book. Just when COVID-19 lockdown started to kick off, I saw that she had some signed copies available so after a contactless swap, I finally received a copy. After very recently being trolled for the first time (though certainly not harassed online for the first time), I thought it was high time I read it.

Troll Hunting

“Troll Hunting” by Ginger Gorman is a non-fiction book about the phenomenon of online trolling.  The book is divided into three sections: Trolls, Targets and Troll Hunting. Against the background of her own experience on the receiving end of trolling, Gorman walks the reader through what trolling is, who the perpetrators are, who the victims are, the emotional and financial impact of trolling and how effective different mechanisms are in trying to prevent, curb and prosecute trolling.

This is a fascinating and insightful book that lifts the veil a little on something that is almost always hidden by the anonymity of the internet. Gorman uses her investigative journalism skills to connect with numerous and, in some cases, infamous trolls to unpack the motivations behind trolling. As she develops relationships bordering on friendship with her sources, Gorman finds herself asking ethical questions not only of them, but of herself. However, it is Gorman’s ability to empathise with and relate to these (mostly) young men that draws out why they spend their time trolling.

Gorman’s chapter “Deep in the grey” was one of the strongest and most unsettling in the whole book, and we learn that while online trolling has IRL (in real life) impacts on victims, the victims themselves are not always perfect either. The sources themselves are incredibly interesting characters, and by the end of the book, some of the trolls start asking themselves the questions that Gorman asks them about why they participate in trolling. Particularly unnerving is how much trolling is underpinned by sexist and racist beliefs, how organised some trolling is and how far it has to go before legal action is taken. I also really liked the Notes in the margins where Gorman provides a frank overview of how being a victim of trolling and writing a book about trolling starts to take a toll on her.

In terms of solutions to trolling, Gorman explores the pros and cons of stronger legislation, complaints-handling agencies, better training of police and even removing the anonymity of the internet. These are all systemic solutions, however following Gorman online, she clearly has developed ideas and strategies about how to target trolling as an individual. I think the only thing I would have liked to have seen in this book is a bit more about what we as individuals can do to tackle trolling. I had reasonable success with just being more annoying and inane than my troll, but I think in a future edition I would love to see an additional chapter on what strategies Gorman has since found that work well.

This is a book is full of nuance and depth that explores an issue that almost everyone is aware of but almost nobody truly understands. An important read for internet enthusiasts and policy-makers alike.

 

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Medalon

Medieval fantasy about religious persecution

Content warning: sexual assault

This was the most recent set book for my fantasy book club. I picked up an eBook copy, but unfortunately I thought book club was a week later than it actually was so I only got through about 10% in time for the evening. I’ve been battling with the remaining 90% ever since.

Medalon ebook by Jennifer Fallon

“Medalon” by Jennifer Fallon is a fantasy novel and the first in the trilogy called “The Demon Child”. The book is about R’shiel, a girl in her late teens who is the daughter of a high-ranking Sister in a secular matriarchal society called Medalon. The Sisters of the Blade govern Medalon from the Citadel, which is protected by an army of men known as the Defenders including R’shiel’s brother Captain Tarja. However, when their mother makes a grab for power, and Tarja uncovers a plot involving R’shiel, the two quickly find themselves running for their lives. Hiding out in the regional areas of Medalon, they discover the beginnings of a rebellion and eventually R’shiel’s true identity.

This is a classic example of a medieval fantasy novel with all the tried and true themes: mysterious parentage, red hair, a chosen one, special powers, rebellion and even a dragon. Fallon is quite a macro writer who conceptualises her book as a sort of chess board with politics and big picture ideas without being overly concerned by the details. Brak was probably the most interesting character and I enjoyed his rather acerbic interactions with the gods he came across. One interesting thing about the book’s premise was the way Fallon depicts demons and their ability to almost swarm together to form larger creatures as a collective.

However, for the most part, this book was a real slog. The book has three main point of view characters: R’shiel, Tarja and Brak, and Fallon has a frustrating habit of recapping the same events over and over from each character’s point of view making a lot of the writing was really repetitive. For example:

“What will they do to us?”

“I really don’t know, R’shiel,” he lied, and then he gave into the blackness and lost consciousness again.

R’shiel suffered through the uncomfortable wagon ride, wondering what was going to happen to them.

I can tell you what was going to happen to them. R’shiel spends the vast majority of this book being held captive not once, not twice, not even three times but four times. Plot-wise, this book is completely lacking in suspense because Fallon either foreshadows or outright explains almost every event, reveal, plot point or twist long before R’shiel is made aware of them.

This is a really long book, and despite describing in detail R’shiel being captured multiple times from multiple perspectives, I actually found the story quite lacking in other areas. Fallon doesn’t really flesh out the idea of a secular matriarchal government at all, and the reader spends almost no time in the Citadel learning how women are selected as sisters, what they study, what governing roles they play and how this impacts family structures in the home. There doesn’t appear to be any explanation for why women can’t be Defenders, or why in a secular matriarchal society the Sisters are still very against issues like sex work (regulated but looked down upon) and abortion (condemned yet practised in secret).

The culture of this book is clearly derived from Western fantasy standards, but is otherwise strangely lacking. Fallon does very little worldbuilding and apart from the Harshini aversion to killing, all the countries seem more or less identical with nothing by way of language, dress, cuisine or custom with the exception of religion. Medalon is itself meant to be secular, with traditional faiths stamped out through “purges”. While I appreciate religious discrimination is an issue, there is no real explanation for why people of faith are targeted except to say

in Medalon they had progressed beyond pagan ignorance centuries ago.

But progressed to what? Fallon doesn’t spend any time considering what kind of society and types of laws would emerge from a nation uninfluenced by religion except to suggest that it would be bad. There is no exploration of technological developments, morality or philosophy except to suggest that education is largely restricted to the Sisters. Instead, all power seems concentrated in the First Sister and the council known as the Quorum, with the exeption of the Defenders who execute orders given by the First Sister for no reason except for oaths and fear of retribution (despite the Sisters wielding no weapons or magic or anything other than convention). The legal system is flimsy, contradictory and absolutely corrupt with starting a war being considered very bad, but extrajudicial killings being considered totally fine. There seems to be a total absence of any court with the First Sister exercising the role as both lawmaker and adjudicator.

So the book was repetitive with little worldbuilding, but surely the characters and their relationships were interesting right? Wrong! Apart from trauma following sexual assault and anger towards her mother, R’shiel doesn’t change much at all. The characters swap sides, get outraged at perceived betrayals and come together again without any kind of rationale or lingering distrust. There is basically no romance nor any real, lasting friendships in this book and very little chemistry between the characters except, as I mentioned earlier, between Brak and some of the gods. There was barely any magic!

After receiving a pretty negative reception in the book club, one of the readers did make the observation that when this book was written twenty years ago, publishing books where the chosen one was a woman was trailblazing at the time. However, I think that with brilliant fantasy authors like Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, Jacqueline Carey and Juliet Marillier all publishing compelling, heart-wrenching books at the same time, a book like this can hardly be praised for trailblazing.

A long book without much in the way of tension, character development or worldbuilding.

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Family

Children’s picture book about family and First Nation cultural philosophies

I won a copy of this book from the publisher, Magabala Books.

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The artwork on the postcard that the book came with is by Johnny Warrkatja Malibirr

“Family” by Aunty Fay Muir and Sue Lawson, and illustrated by Jasmine Seymour, is a children’s picture book about the different shapes families come in, the different roles family members play, and the things you can do with your family.

This is a beautiful, warm book that is a strong collaboration between Muir and Lawson. The powerful text draws on Muir’s culture and knowledge as a Boonwurrung Elder and is a great starting point for young readers who are beginning to learn about nouns, proper nouns, verbs and adjectives. The positive messages in the text about family and Country are reinforced by Seymour’s beautiful illustrations. Seymour uses layers of hand-drawn figures, native plants, prints and textures to create rich scenery highlighting different cultural practices and landscapes. I really enjoyed the diversity of the families in this book, and the important role each family member plays in teaching, learning, sharing and participating.

A lovely book that would make a great gift for a young reader.

 

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Red Dirt Talking

Mystery novel about field research in an Aboriginal community

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

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“Red Dirt Talking” by Jacqueline Wright is a novel about Annie, a recent anthropology graduate who receives a grant and ethical permission to research massacres for her master’s thesis in a remote Western Australian Aboriginal community called Yindi. In her late 30s with plenty of personal issues left behind in Perth, Annie is eager to get started with her research and ignores Mick, the community project officer, when he advises her to take things slowly. When the connections she starts to build in Yindi take her research in a different direction, she finds herself in the middle of a child’s disappearance.

This is a very rich, considered novel that unflinchingly explores the hubris of academia and the disconnect between urban and remote Australia. It is hardly surprising that it was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013.  Annie is a fascinating, idealistic character who, despite the dysfunction in her own personal life, is convinced that interviewing Aboriginal people is going to solve all their problems. Wright does an excellent job of lancing Annie’s presumptions about both the magnitude and the nature of her own importance. I also think that academic failure and practical difficulties following research plans that are scrupulously checked by supervisors and approved by ethical committees is a really interesting concept to unpack. Quite a few years ago, I conducted field research in Indonesia for my own master’s thesis and the cringe-worthy mistakes I made and dead ends I hit helped me really empathise with parts of Annie’s story.

I also felt that Wright did a really good job critiquing Annie’s white saviour complex. The extent to which white authors should be writing about the stories of people of colour is something which is being debated hotly, most recently through discussion of the novel “American Dirt” and the #OwnVoices movement. However, I think that Wright struck a good balance with this book because of her obvious research, lived experience and, most importantly, consultation with Aboriginal elders and authors. Wright effectively used the perspectives of lots of different types of characters to explore white attitudes to Aboriginal people and the lingering impacts of massacres, deaths in custody and the Stolen Generations on Aboriginal people. Maggot in particular was an interesting character who, as the garbage collector, collects snippets of gossip as he drives around Ransom, the town closest to Yindi. Through Maggot’s eyes, we get to see the people that Annie has met through a different, sometimes more sinister light. Wright is a very flexible writer who convincingly captures the essence of the many characters.

This is a good book, but it is not always an easy read. Wright packs in a lot of information in a relatively short novel, and there is a broad cast of characters, some with more than one name, that can take some time to get your head around. I also felt that all the threads that had been so carefully laid down by Wright did get a little tangled right at the very end.

An enjoyable, engaging novel that explores different points of view, tackles important issues and is worth the work.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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