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.