Friday, December 20, 2013

Anita Heiss: Am I Black Enough for You?

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

Anita Heiss is an Australian writer and proud Koori woman. Koori is a general term for the First Peoples (aka Aborigines or Indigenous) of New South Wales and Victoria.

Am I Black Enough For You? is a memoir interweaved with an account of a controversial racial vilification court case. It is ironic that the latter has spawned this book. We should be grateful to the Herald and Weekly Times’ political commentator and blogger, Andrew Bolt, that he has unwittingly enabled us to:
“…come to appreciate without criticism or concern, the diversity and complexity of Aboriginal identity in the twenty-first century, and that the power of self-identity and representation is a right we should all enjoy.”
Anita’s story is a window on what defines her identity. Family is central to her being; especially her parents - aboriginal mother Elsie and Austrian immigrant father Joe. You’ll have to read the book to discover the incredible people who make up the rest of her kin.

Her Aboriginality is solidly connected to country, namely Wiradjiri land. She also has strong links to Gadigal country through as a long-term Sydney resident. She is keen to point out that she is an urban dweller who is no fan of camping in the great outdoors.

Anita is definitely a 21st Century citizen of the world. She travels extensively both inside and outside Oz. She has most of the modern neuroses including concern about body image and a love of shopping (her Westfield Dreaming). Her personal and professional networks are huge, especially her “tiddas” [sisters]. Her support group includes a life coach. Her biggest hero is Oprah Winfrey whose “self-faith and optimism” get a big tick. In fact, at times this book feels a lot like a self-help tome. Her blog was an outcome of Oprah’s Oz visit in 2009. It is ‘largely about gratefulness - hers and others - but she also posts about things important to her including books, reading, literacy and Aboriginal arts and culture’.

Anita is not just an author of non-fiction, historical fiction, poetry and children’s books, she writes a sub-genre of 'chit-lit' (commercial women's fiction), dubbed 'choc-lit' by one of her mates. She has been an academic – her PhD was in Media and Communication focusing on Aboriginal literature and publishing. Her ongoing interests include indigenous literacy and reconciliation.

Her experience as an activist and in social commentary certainly came in handy when Andrew Bolt decided to indulge in some of his own. On 15 April 2009 he penned a highly contentious newspaper article (It’s hip to be black) and blog post (White is the new black). Anita was one of several prominent people whom he accused of being “professional” aborigines who identify as such to help their careers. She joined a group who took legal action against Bolt and his publisher under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act:
(1) It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

(a) the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and

(b) the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.
It is the so-called ‘vilification’ section. Heiss describes Bolt as: outspoken denier of climate change, the Stolen Generations [link added], and now, the right of for Aboriginal people to self-identity.
Many have gone a lot further in questioning his issues with race. Their case was upheld in September 2011 but has continued to be controversial. In fact, it is very topical at present as Australia’s new Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised before the recent election to repeal this section to “champion free speech”.

Moreover, the Attorney General, Senator Brandis, has made the very controversial appointment of Tim Wilson as ‘freedom’ commissioner at the Human Rights Commission (HRC). In his role at the right-wing think tank IPA (Institute of Public Affairs) Wilson has argued in the past not only to get rid of Section 18C but also to abolish the HRC itself. Free speech should make for some spirited discussions around the table there. He famously tweeted in 2011:

Anyway, there are plenty of views in Am I Black Enough for You? and Anita's blog as well as elsewhere online. She sees it as being about "finding a balance between freedom of expression and racial discrimination" but there are plenty ready for an argument about that.

Despite the serious nature of the issues raised, this is a most readable and enjoyable book. Anita’s direct and open style, coupled with her sharp sense of humour, make her upbeat approach to life highly infectious.

By the way, my answer is Yes!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Australian Women Writers: Hannah Kent's Burial Rites

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

Burial Rites: coming ready or not!

Hannah Kent's first novel Burial Rites has captured the imagination of potential readers in Australia with long waiting lists for reserve copies at local libraries. It is an ambitious and substantial offering set in an unlikely time and location.

We are taken to rural Iceland in 1829 where Agnes Magnusdottir awaits her execution for a double murder. One of the victims, Nathan Ketilsson, was her employer and lover at the time.

It is based on a true story that Hannah has researched in detail. If you're expecting a crime thriller, forget it. The unfolding of Agnes' part in the deaths certainly presents a mystery of sorts, though none of the revelations are particularly surprising or startling.

Her developing relationships are key to her transformation. She stays with district officer Jon Jonsson’s family, awaiting her fate. There she talks with a young assistant rector Toti whom she has requested as her spiritual advisor. In addition to his role as ‘confessor’, Jon's wife Margret and one of their two daughters Steina, help to bring Agnes out of herself.

We also get first person accounts of her life past and present. From these, we learn more about the factors that have driven both her inner-life and her working-life.

Agnes is literate and well-informed for a farm worker in a remote northern part of a very remote country. The rural setting plays an important part in the novel. After her degrading imprisonment, Agnes gradually revives as she resumes her life as a farmworker.
I feel drunk with summer and sunlight. I want to seize fistfuls of sky and eat them.
Of course, this stay is not meant to last. As summer slowly fades to autumn and finally the symbolic and literal winter, the landscape and the weather reinforce the harsh and dark nature of this tale.
Snow lay over the valley like linen, like a shroud waiting for the dead body of sky that slumped overhead.
Life in the miserable interiors of the farmhouses, where much of the story takes place, underscores the bleakness of their rustic existence.

On top of this, the illnesses of Margret and Toti are a pervasive reminder that violent death is not the real challenge for these communities. Death and religion are ever-present as the Icelandic Burial Hymn emphasizes:
O Grave, where is thy triumph?
O Death, where is thy sting?
Come, when thou wilt, and welcome!
Secure in Christ I sing.
But this is not a morality tale. Good (or god) does not necessarily trump evil. Redemption is far more elusive. We are left to wonder what it means to be ‘ready’ for our burial rites.

However, there is a villain in the person of district commissioner Bjorn Blondal, who could sit comfortably in judgment with the self-righteous in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. He is someone who “wants to set an example”. Blondal has much to protect as Toti’s visit to his property reveals.

The first two-thirds unfold slowly but it is worth the effort. Its powerful concluding chapters are both disturbing and uplifting.

Life and death – coming ready or not.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hanifa Deen: On the Trail of Taslima

Hanifa Deen’s quest to unravel the story of Bangladeshi dissident Taslima Nasreen (Nasrin) has been a glorious obsession for nearly twenty years. The publication of On the Trail of Taslima has finally put that fixation behind her.

Since Taslima hit the headlines in the western media in 1994, Hanifa has sought out the key players around the globe to document their firsthand accounts. She first met Taslima in 1997 in Sweden, her country of refuge.

This book is an update of her 2006 The Crescent and the Pen: the strange journey of Taslima Nasreen. Hanifa describes her story as:
"A behind the scenes account of what really took place during the 'save Taslima Nasreen’ campaign that captivated the world in the 1990s, brings to light a complex narrative filled with larger-than-life personalities with their own agendas and shifting loyalties. Nothing is what it seems."
The central theme: Why was Taslima so readily embraced by the international community of human rights advocates, freedom of speech organisations, humanists and liberal media? Hanifa dubs them the dragon slayers.

When she went into hiding in 1994 and sought asylum outside her homeland, Taslima was accepted by many as the new Salman Rushdie. In fact Rushdie was one of the first to be recruited in her support. Moreover, the excessive zeal of many of her early supporters resulted in unfair comparisons of Bangladesh with Iran.

We meet a host of potential heroes/villains. Among her first champions was journalist Gabi Gleichmann who was head of Swedish PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists). The international organisation’s motto is ‘Promoting Literature, Defending Freedom of Expression’. It is the world’s oldest human rights NGO. It is not surprising that they had the ear of the Swedish government who offered the exile a home.

As a poet and essayist, Taslima’s prosecution in Bangladesh for blasphemy made a natural fit. Hanifa presents Gabi as a key mythmaker and dragon slayer who became disillusioned with the fictional aspects of her media profile that he had helped to create. Taslima is a larger-than-life character but not the one that many, including Gabi, were expecting when she ‘escaped’ to Europe.

Other key players in this saga include feminist Meredith Tax, Taslima’s publisher Christianne Besse, and New Yorker Warren Allan Smith. Early support also came from Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), Amnesty International and numerous humanist and rationalist groups. Taslima’s vocal atheism attracted many who thought of her as a natural ally.

Hanifa Deeen has tracked down most of the important dragon slayers over the years. Her face to face interviews are remarkable, not just for the candour she haselicited from them, but also for the human portraits she has penned of these fascinating individuals.

The Bangladeshi end of the Trail has dimensions that readers can tease out for themselves: the still pending court case; her early writing career and notoriety; her family and three husbands, the complex web of religious, cultural and political life in South Asia. The author has made numerous trips to Bangladesh and found important ‘local’ voices in other parts of the world.

Her final word on Taslima the ‘victim’ comes from Eugene Schoulgin, Norwegian writer, PEN activist who has extensive connections with the Islamic world:
‘She is a victim of everyone’s expectations, the political manoeuvres of the West and a victim of her own pride’.

Anyone who is involved with human rights advocacy or freedom of speech campaigning should put this book on their must-see list. Its 260 pages encompass a detailed, thoughtful and passionate exploration of this remarkable writer. The ‘carousel’ that just keeps revolving as a visit to Taslima's website well attests.

"HANIFA DEEN is an award-winning Australian author who writes narrative nonfiction and lives in Melbourne. She now works full-time as a writer, which she sees as the perfect medium for a woman with an irreverent tongue, a maverick Muslim perspective on life, and a passion to subvert stereotypes wherever they lurk."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Australian Women Writers: Laraine Dillon's The Pitts in Paradise

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

In her sequel to The Easement, Laraine Dillon’s writing career has blossomed with The Pitts in Paradise. It is the second in her ‘Travelling North’ series.

Maggie and Max Stewart have resumed their northward quest to Port Douglas and beyond. This time they get as far as a beach near Proserpine, just near the famous Airlie Beach resort.

In contrast to the somewhat slow start to The Easement, the opening hot dream is followed by some not-so-steamy sex. A less than promising response to Maggie’s advances finally gets some poetry: “there was movement at the station”. But sex is something left to your imagination. For heavens sake, this is a family story. Even the roughest characters are only allowed to yell, “Oh, f..k!”. “Bugger!”, on the other hand, is quite acceptable.

Like its predecessor it’s a frantic comedy, packed with the kind of characters you would only meet in the top end. The undercover police are the exception. ‘Hollywood’ is not your typical copper from tropical Oz.

Mind you they haven’t even reached FNQ (Far North Queensland) yet. It’s just the Whitsundays. Anyway, it is still the home of cyclones, Ross River fever, the deadly stinger irikanji jellyfish, sleazy males and women with attitude. True to Laraine’s style, we meet a cast of hundreds. Very few of them are people you’d want to spend your dream holiday or sea change with.

The timeframe is a little mixed up. Narrator Maggie writes a diary entry for 1997 yet Paul Keating still seems to Prime Minister. Nevertheless, the banana republic reference is very apt. It’s a world of dodgy operators, especially their first contact, sleaze bag Toby Tyson, who has more than one proposition for the Maxwells.

We encounter lots of new Pitts, relatives of their former neighbours at Reflection Bay, and some old ones as well. They have charming names such as Moth who ironically is not a fly-by-nighter. All seem to have been brought up on kickboxing rules.

Reg (Pitty), the manager of the Paradise Cove Resort, welcomes them to the “Redneck Riviera”. He’s the kind of bloke who says “blimey” without a hint of self-mockery. Strewth!

The extended Stewart family and their allies create the usual pandemonium but they are much closer to the normal end of the spectrum than the fun loving, sun loving and sometimes gun loving locals. Maggie even gets to learn what a real nature lover is.

Laraine is a visual writer, of the action madcap genre. Her plot and characters emerge from a comic Australian cinema tradition: Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Muriel’s Wedding, The Castle and Crocodile Dundee, to name but a few. In both of the novels, real estate plays an important role but so do weddings and funerals, plus lots of food and drink. Maggie says she prefers funerals. Coincidentally, so does Casper, an elderly local who quenches his thirst by attending every wake in the area.

Maggie is very politically correct. Must be her indigenous heritage. However, she is a true member of her baby boomer generation, being more PC in her attitudes than her language. The male gossips are allocated to the "knitting circle". Her idea of “dark forces” is an unusual one to say the least, a term borrowed from her bigoted mother. Maggie has known for some time that she has “a touch of the tar”.

With shades of Priscilla, it is inevitable that we meet Frankie again, the gay staff member from Maxwell’s restaurant. He’s one character who doesn’t get accused of being “homo faux”. If you’re new to this terminology, you’ll just have to read the book or google if you must. There is also a new chapter in the LGBT story, with a lesbian couple joining the Stewart circle.

Maggie is a hoot. Or is it really Laraine, who shares much with her protagonist. In fact they seem to be morphing, as Maggie embraces the essentials of Write Your Own Story and becomes a diarist. Her autobiographical title is Once Upon a Dreamtime.

Maggie is also a bit of a dag, with echoes of Lucy aka Lucille Ball. She doesn’t hurry - she boot scoots. You never know when she might slip into slapstick or get tied up in some harebrained scheme. However, she’s not beyond a bit of self-analysis and wonders about her “changing demeanour” – what Max calls “mingling in something that does not concern” her. Fortunately, she is able to put her “new” attitude down to menopause.

Plot and character connections come together in Laraine’s signature frenzied finale, with a king tide of revelations and reunions. It’s a big, mostly happy, family that would fill several resorts.

Let’s hope that when the Maxwells finally get to Port Douglas, they are not too disappointed that it has more in common with the crowded Sunshine Coast than the tranquil world of Leo McKern in the movie Travelling North.

The Pitts in Paradise is just the paperback to slip into the backpack when you’re heading up north.

Thanks to the Queensland publishers CopyRight Publishing for the complimentary copy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Australian Women Writers: Laraine Dillon's The Easement

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

Queenslander Laraine Dillon's first novel, The Easement, was obviously bubbling in the back of her mind for many years. Published in 2008, it is a passionate and irreverent tale of moving to the seaside in the late 1980s.

After a slowish start dealing with shifty real estate agents and lawyers, first person narrator Maggie Stewart takes us on a whirlwind adventure. It is shared with laconic husband Max, complete with his silver hammer, daughter Amber and a family that extends exponentially as the story progresses.

It is the world of the 'white shoe brigade' who were known to sell land below the high-tide mark in the Sunshine state. Probably still do. This is not a tale of the Aussie battler. The magnificent seascapes of Reflection Bay are viewed from their swimming pools. But nor is about the silver-tails. Our heroes are the aspirants making good.

Their eccentric neighbours, the Pitts, are the vehicle for much of the dramatic tension and a considerable amount of farfetched farce. The Stewarts get lots of help in creating mayhem from their friends, especially Irish lawyer Markus and his wife Madonna, and a group of Harley bikers known as the Ulysses Club.

What 21st Century novel would be without some cuisine flavour. The staff of their new restaurant 'Maxwell's' also come to the party, lead by the stereotypical gay Frankie.

The pace gets more frenetic and the plot farcical, as the climax explodes at a wedding and an auction. To quote Maggie from earlier in the story, things are "all over the place like a fart in an colander".

Laraine certainly enjoyed writing The Easement, so I'm looking forward to her latest The Pitts in Paradise. Just hope she can spare us the camel scene this time.

A major theme involves connections with the indigenous world, with Duncan Ryan as a very modern aborigine. Identity and land rights are important aspects. Laraine dedicates the book to her family and her ancestors but "sadly" she has no indigenous ones that she can find.

Thanks to the Queensland publishers CopyRight Publishing for the complimentary copy.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Australian Women Writers: Kylie Ladd's After the Fall

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

After the Fall is a romance about couples. There are two married couples at the centre of the story. Plus two people from these couples make a third, of the extra-marital kind.

If you're into the contemporary romance genre, then Kylie Ladd's first novel may be for you. The existence of a hot, tangled affair that threatens both marriages is made clear from the start. The main characters are straight from comfortable, educated middle-class Australia: a pediatrician, an advertising exec, an anthropologist and a geneticist.

We experience the unfolding events in detail from first person narrations by the four principals plus some of their friends. Chapters vary from a paragraph in length to several pages. These different points of view create a sense of multiple realities. Fortunately, with one major exception, the plot does not rely on misunderstandings based on misinterpretation of what is actually happening.

Kylie's background in neuropsychology plays little part in helping the reader to understand why apparently rational people make seemingly irrational decisions based on being in love, the quality of the sex or what used to called pure animal magnetism.

There are a lot of sexual encounters in the novel but by and large we are spared much of the intimate detail. The first kiss is probably the hottest moment of the story.

We get close up to a range of human attributes from altruism to egoism, from passion to stoicism, from bubbling self-confidence to personal insecurity.

There is plenty here to keep your interest but the insights don't add a lot to understanding what makes modern relationships succeed or fail. Or what drives seemingly self-destructive behaviour in those relationships.