The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2020 Australian Book Industry Awards.
The link below is to an article that reports on the shortlists for the 2020 Australian Industry Book Awards.
The origin story of Australian modernism often centres around Heide – the Melbourne artistic community where, from 1934, bohemian art patrons John and Sunday Reed nurtured talents such as Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester and John Perceval.
But nestled in the heart of Melbourne’s city laneways was another birthplace of Australian modernism. At 166 Little Collins Street, near the “Paris End” of Collins Street, was the Leonardo Art Shop – a bookshop that during the 1930s and 40s inspired a generation of young artists to create a homegrown avant-garde.
The bookshop was the creation of Gino Nibbi, born in Fermo, Italy, in 1896. Nibbi trained as an accountant, but his passion was modern art. He migrated to Melbourne with his wife in 1928 and established Leonardo Art Shop several months later.
First in Post Office Place, then on Little Collins Street behind King’s Theatre, Nibbi stocked the shelves with imported foreign-language books and colour prints of contemporary European paintings, exposing his customers to images and ideas never before seen in Australia. For the next two decades, Leonardo Art Shop – also known as Nibbi’s – was a “direct link to Europe” for artists and intellectuals ravenous for avant-garde culture.
An intellectual salon
Melbourne then was a far cry from today’s sophisticated and cosmopolitan metropolis. The interwar decades were the heyday of the White Australia policy, and the non-Indigenous population was calculated as 98% “British”. With little diversity and few outside influences, Melbourne was a staid and conservative city, suspicious of new ideas that might challenge the status quo. “The dictatorship of the smug” was how cultural critic P. R. Stephensen summed up the local culture in 1936.
In the art world, this conservatism manifested as a fierce antagonism towards the modernist aesthetics revolutionising art in Europe. Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Gauguin – artists we now revere as visionaries – were dismissed by Australian critics as degenerates whose abstracted and expressionist forms threatened the principles of academic painting.
Under the directorship of arch-conservative J. S. MacDonald, the National Gallery of Victoria refused to acquire post-Impressionist art (this position was slowly reversed when MacDonald was replaced in 1941). Throughout the 1930s, art world gatekeepers like MacDonald and critic Lionel Lindsay spurned modernism as an “imported and perverted art” hailing from “the dead hand of European decadence”.
Although local painters Arnold Shore and William “Jock” Frater had begun to experiment with modernism, the nationalist pastoral landscapes of Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen remained the gold standard of Australian art. When Mary Cecil Allen returned home to Melbourne from New York in 1936, she was excoriated by local critics for exhibiting “distorted” and “bizarre” abstracts that exemplified “the superficial nature of modern painting”.
Melburnians were cut off from the latest artistic and cultural trends. Although mass media circulated modern ideas and aesthetics via design, advertising, cinema and magazines like The Home, the “high culture” fine art world remained wedded to 19th century ideals.
This is where Nibbi’s played a crucial role. Prior to the explosive 1939 Herald exhibition of contemporary European painting, Nibbi’s was the only place in Melbourne where it was possible to view high quality colour reproductions of post-Impressionist art.
Local artists flocked to Little Collins Street to feast on the latest Cezanne, Gauguin or Van Gogh prints newly arrived from Europe, marvelling at the bold colours and abstracted forms. Although the original artists were long dead, their work was little known in Australia. In 1930s Melbourne, avant-garde art from the late 1800s was still breaking news.
Future giants of Australian modernism – including Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend – had their minds and eyes opened at Leonardo Art Shop. As the artist Len Crawford recalled, Nibbi’s had a “powerful effect” on local artists, introducing them to things “you’d never dreamed of”. Crawford regularly stopped by to pour over the displays. When funds allowed, he’d splash out on a six-penny postcard to take home.
The shop boasted an unparalleled range of books and magazines in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Norwegian and Dutch, as well as English works by risque writers such as Casanova and Norman Lindsay. A great supporter of the local literary scene, Nibbi stocked small poetry chapbooks, magazines and plays by Melbourne writers. For writer and broadcaster Alister Kershaw, Nibbi’s was simply “the most enchanting bookshop in the world”.
Meals and mentors
Nibbi’s was a gathering place and intellectual salon, where modernists-in-the-making could meet like-minded souls. Stimulated by the images on display, patrons would linger for hours, chewing over the latest trends in contemporary culture. Heide’s John Reed and poet and artist Adrian Lawlor were both regulars, haunting Nibbi’s to talk art, ideas and politics.
After working up an appetite, the Nibbi’s crowd would head to a Chinese cafe at 201 Lonsdale Street known as Dooey Din’s, the best place in town to catch up on art-world gossip. Also in the neighbourhood was Albert Tucker’s Little Collins Street studio and Cynthia Reed’s interior design shop. At 367 Little Collins, Cynthia Reed’s was notorious in the mid-1930s for exhibiting controversial modernists like Sam Atyeo. Just a few doors down was another independent bookshop, run by Margareta Webber, whose “delightful store” at 343 Little Collins sold imported literary fiction to a similar clientele as Nibbi’s.
Nibbi himself was a beloved figure, a polymath who knew everyone and – as artist Len Crowford put it – “had his fingers in everything”.
Nibbi mentored emerging painters, writers and musicians, providing an informal education in modern culture and giving feedback on their work. One of his greatest discoveries was the painter Ian Fairweather, who went on to have his first exhibition at Cynthia Reed’s in 1934. In Crawford’s words, Nibbi was a “most valuable man”, who “did more for general education in Melbourne than anyone I knew of”.
Alongside his wife Elvira, who taught Italian at the Melbourne Conservatorium and the Berlitz School of Languages, Nibbi was a leader in Melbourne’s Italian community. The couple even developed an Italian course for ABC radio, which broadcast on Saturday evenings. Nibbi promoted the Italian language through his Italian-English Reader, self-published in 1936.
The culture wars
Nibbi was an active critic who regularly went into battle for modern art in the press. As he wrote in the Melbourne Herald in 1931, modernism was not a “capricious vogue” but rather an “expression of the spirit of the time”.
He faced considerable resistance in the trenches of Australia’s culture wars. In 1930, he was fined £20 for importing an unnamed “obscene book”, while his art criticism attracted a barrage of reactionary ire.
Most notoriously, in 1937 Nibbi was thrown into the national spotlight when Australian customs seized 50 prints of Modigliani’s Lying Nude (1917) imported for sale at Leonardo Art Shop. Although Modigliani nudes hung in the world’s leading galleries, customs officials deemed the image pornographic and earmarked the prints for destruction. Officials feared the nude would “appeal to other than art collectors”.
This incident outraged artists and reignited a larger debate about censorship in Australian culture. The notoriously combative Adrian Lawlor leapt to Nibbi’s defence, condemning the “bumble-foots” with “ridiculous powers of censorship” working in the customs department. In his view, Modigliani’s nude was a great work of art, “entirely innocent of the least breath of pruriency”.
The Victorian Artists’ Society also protested the decision. In a letter to the customs minister, the society insisted Lying Nude contained “no hint of obscenity”, and was instead the work of a “consummate artist”.
Nibbi himself appealed the seizure of his prints, which he had obtained at great effort and expense during a visit to Italy. In November, the matter was referred to the Book Censorship Board, established in 1933 to advise the customs minister on the censorship of imported books. Under Section 52(a) of the Customs Act, anything judged blasphemous, indecent or obscene would be banned.
The archive is silent as to the board’s final decision regarding the Modigliani prints, but records in the National Archives of Australia suggest it was unmoved by artists’ protests. Although board member Sir Robert Garran admitted the original Modigliani painting was not obscene, he advised Customs that a “crude reproduction” sold at “picture-postcard price” would attract buyers more interested in titillation than “artistic merit”.
Nibbi was not cowed by the controversy. The following year, 1938, he helped establish the Contemporary Art Society alongside Lawlor and George Bell. It was a bold organisation that hosted exhibitions and public lectures about modern art. Over the next decade, the CAS battled against the Australian Academy of Art, a Canberra-based conservative stronghold established in 1937 that was much resented for – in Bell’s words – its “sanctification of banality” and “strict preservation of mediocrity”.
The end of an era
In 1947, the lease on Leonardo Art Shop was not renewed. Melburnians mourned the demise of a local institution that had “fostered a cosmopolitan atmosphere” and “didn’t bother with meretricious sidelines”. Unable to secure alternative premises, Nibbi returned to Italy, where he lived until his death in 1969.
He maintained links with Australia, a country he had come to love. In Rome, he opened a bookshop and art gallery called Ai Quattro Venti (To the Four Winds) that became popular with Australians visiting Europe. In 1952, Nibbi hosted a Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker exhibition, introducing Australian modernism to Italian audiences.
In 2020, as our independent booksellers are threatened by coronavirus, it is timely to reflect on their importance to Australia’s cultural life.
In the internet age we’re no longer reliant on bookshops to bring news from overseas, but they remain vital incubators of fresh ideas and creative community.
Leonardo Art Shop seeded a homegrown modernism. Who knows what innovations our contemporary booksellers are bringing into life? We’ll only find out if we give them sufficient custom to survive the pandemic.
Australia’s literary journals are produced in a fragile ecosystem propped up by a patchwork of volunteer labour, generous patrons and, with any luck, a small slice of government funding.
The Sydney Review of Books, the Australian Book Review and Overland were among a group of publications who sought four-year funding from the Australia Council in 2020 but were unsuccessful.
The Meanjin funding cuts: a graceless coup?
These magazines are vital for today’s publishing industry. For many authors literary magazines provide the first opportunity for publication. For editors and arts administrators, they provide a training ground for life-long careers in Australia’s creative sector.
The past decade has seen a steady decline in arts funding going to individuals and organisations. According to Chairman of the Copyright Agency and former media executive, Kim Williams, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald:
[…] if funding for literature had been maintained as in the mid-70s, considering inflation and population growth, it should be at $12 million, at least. Today, it stands at just $5 million (compared with $4.2 million 30 years ago).
The list of defunded writing-focused organisations in the most recent multi-year funding round is stark. Those losing their multi-year status include Artlink, Eyeline, Art Monthly, the Australian Script Centre, Playwriting Australia, Sydney Writer’s Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival.
Without securing medium-term support, these organisations face an uncertain future.
In response to the 2020 funding announcement, editor of Australian Book Review, Peter Rose, stated the decision demonstrates
little understanding of [the magazine sector’s] contribution to the literary ecology, and no appreciation of the dire consequences for readers, authors, contributors and publishers.
The cultural discussions within the pages of literary journals set the agenda for the more higher-profile but slower-moving institutions such as publishers, prizes and festivals.
Literary magazines are often the first place authors are published. Against the backdrop of an industry largely staffed by white, middle-class people, small magazines are at the forefront of bringing more Australian writing to the surface from writers of colour, First Nations writers, disabled writers, trans writers and working-class writers, challenging those who hold power at the top of the sector.
Writing in 2015 about the position magazines such as Island or Overland occupy, Emmett Stinson noted these publications:
[…] are essential to contemporary literary culture: they showcase new and emerging writers; […] offer more extended literary debates and discussions than the broadsheets; comprise a venue for journalism that contains views outside of the liberal mainstream; serve as rallying points for different communities of readers and coteries of authors […]
Ben Etherington’s essay about the parallel lives and deaths of Mudrooroo and Les Murray, Cher Tan’s exposition and critique of taste production on the internet, and Blak Brow – which was written, edited, illustrated, curated and performed by First Nations creators – are among countless examples of the ways literary magazines carve out space for critique, expression, consideration and reflection.
In shifting funding away from small magazines, we lose the place for these discussions.
Not a competition
Uncertainty, instability and fragility are perhaps the defining characteristics of small magazines.
The decisions to not fund literary magazines not only have a significant impact on the individual publications, but also to Australian cultural discourse.
What gets published within the pages of these magazines can entertain us, it can inspire us to critically examine the world around us, and can help us understand culture that moves us.
Vibrant discussion about culture, society and the arts does not happen by accident. It must be carefully nurtured and requires financial support.
The Australia Council make extremely difficult decisions about what gets funded and what doesn’t.
Not every organisation and publication and festival can receive funding. Those who don’t secure funding are no more or less worthy than those who do. Reduced financial support for Australia’s creative endeavours encourages artists to turn against one another in judgement of what should and should not receive funding.
Australian artists entertain us, challenge us and allow us to see things from different perspectives. Fulfilling a capitalist desire for competition, however, only distracts from the importance of Australian artists and the contribution the creative sector makes to our lives.
Correction: a reference to the Wheeler Centre has been removed as they did not apply for funding in 2020.
Landing in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, it may seem strange former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir has generated so much political controversy.
In A Bigger Picture, Turnbull deals candidly with his antagonists inside the Coalition, who fought him bitterly on the same-sex marriage reform and climate policy. Similarly, he names and shames those he blames for the leadership insurgency of August 2018. All of this was expected, but none of it must please the current government.
But is the book any more inflammatory than previous prime ministerial memoirs?
Political controversy is a trademark of political memoir publishing in Australia. A Bigger Picture is just another page in that story.
Until the 1960s, prime ministerial memoirs were the exception, not the rule. Between 1945 and 1990, just three former prime ministers chose to publish books about their political lives. Two of them – Billy Hughes and Robert Menzies – produced two books each, and both political veterans sought to avoid “telling tales out of school”. Both seemed more interested in foreign affairs, particularly our imperial relationship to the UK in the case of Menzies.
The dismissal of the Whitlam government provoked both Sir John Kerr and Gough Whitlam to publish their memoirs. After reading extracts of Kerr’s Matters for Judgement, Whitlam decided to “set the record straight immediately” by writing The Truth of the Matter. His second book, The Whitlam Government, was also designed to make a political splash. Promising to explain the “development and implementation” of his policy program, the book was timed for release on the tenth anniversary of the dismissal itself, ensuring maximum publicity.
Since then, political controversy has accompanied prime ministerial memoirs, in part because incumbent political parties and leaders have had a vested interest in how these books might affect their popularity.
In his 1994 political memoir, Bob Hawke accused his rival and successor, Paul Keating, of calling Australia “the arse-end of the world” during an argument about the Labor leadership. Further, Hawke accused Keating of failing to support Australia’s involvement in the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Keating, who was attacked in parliament in October 1994 over the claims, called both allegations “lies”. Hawke offered to take a lie-detector test to prove his sincerity. Senior ALP figures recorded their outrage at Hawke’s memoir. But Hawke hit back, describing them as “precious self-appointed guardians of proper behaviour”.
Hawke’s predecessor also damaged his relationship with his own party in the process of publishing his memoirs. Malcolm Fraser’s Political Memoirs, written with journalist Margaret Simons, was recognised as one of Australia’s top ten books of 2010. His outspokenness – in the book and in his post-prime-ministerial life more generally – earned him many attacks from Coalition MPs.
John Howard handled the politics of his memoirs better than most politicians. Though the book was antagonistic toward his former treasurer, Peter Costello, Howard promised to “deal objectively” with events and relationships in Lazarus Rising. Ever the party stalwart, Howard and his publishers re-issued the book after the 2013 election with a new chapter that touted Tony Abbott’s “high intelligence, discipline […] good people skills”.
Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard both publicly took aim at one another in their memoirs, which made for plenty of media fodder. In My Story, Gillard described Rudd’s leadership as a descent into “paralysis and misery”. Rudd returned fire, calling her book her “latest contribution to Australian fiction”. However, he was unable to dent the book’s commercial success.
Four years later, Rudd in The PM Years accused Gillard of plotting “with the faceless men” to become prime minister. In a bid to patch over the historic rifts, he subsequently promised the Labor Party’s 2018 National Conference that the “time for healing” had come.
Critics of Turnbull’s book – such as Sky News’ Andrew Bolt and 2GB’s Ben Fordham – have argued that he and his publishers, Hardie Grant, were wrong to “betray confidences” and divulge “private conversations”.
In reality, political memoirs have always pushed against conventions of political secrecy. In the 1970s, British cabinet minister Richard Crossman published his Diaries, which included detailed descriptions of how cabinet functioned. The British establishment subsequently conducted the Radcliffe review into political memoirs and diaries. It found such material should be kept secret for 15 years, but that civil servants could do little to stop their political masters from publishing.
In 1999, Australia’s Neal Blewett was warned that publishing his A Cabinet Diary, recorded seven years earlier, could lead to prosecution under the Crimes Act because it revealed confidential cabinet discussions. Calling the public service’s bluff, Blewett published anyway. He explained in the book that “a few egos will be bruised, but cabinet ministers are a robust lot”. His diary shed significant light on the trials and tribulations of a ministerial life.
Since then, countless MPs and ministers have published books that claim to accurately represent personal conversations, some based on private notes (as Costello claimed in his memoirs), others on diary entries (as is the case in Turnbull’s book). In recent years, politicians have reproduced text messages and email exchanges in their books, as Bob Carr did in his 2014 book, Diary of a Foreign Minister. In each version of history, the author is the essential policymaker.
In his book, Turnbull reveals private conversations and WhatsApp exchanges with colleagues, world leaders, public servants and more. His accounts of cabinet discussions are hardly ground-breaking: cabinet debates about the economy and national security under the Abbott government, for instance, were thoroughly detailed in Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin, while the acrimonious debates about energy policy, same-sex marriage and home affairs inside the Turnbull government were laid bare in David Crowe’s Venom. Similarly, Turnbull’s criticisms of News Corporation’s biased reporting have been aired elsewhere, and stop short of Rudd’s argument in The PM Years that Rupert Murdoch should be the subject of a royal commission.
Turnbull’s book is another addition to the history of incendiary political memoir publishing in Australia. Political parties and their media associates have confirmed once again that a successful parliamentary memoir requires deft political management.
Ultimately, A Bigger Picture is not the compendium of revelations that some may perceive. Instead, it is another picture of politics in which “character” and “leadership” reign supreme at the expense of all other political forces.
“Katrina, I had in mind a prayer, but only this came,” Bruce Dawe wrote to his infant daughter, new-born, in intensive care, her life in the balance, declaring as poets must that their poems are the best and only real gift they can give.
I did not know Dawe, who died aged 90 on Wednesday, but I knew his poetry from my first years of reading poems. For decades, the first contemporary poems many Australians read were his.
Born in 1930 in Fitzroy, a failed student after attending seven schools, he worked as a labourer like his father, a farmhand, a postman, and spent a year on the University of Melbourne campus where he became a poet and a Catholic. He joined the RAAF in 1959.
As well as publishing a growing list of books, he studied part time until he achieved a PhD. His teaching life at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education and the University of Southern Queensland lasted from 1969 until 1993. By then he was easily Australia’s most well-read and well-loved poet. His death this week is a significant moment for poets and readers of poetry.
A skilled mate
We know that poetry is somehow central to our nation’s soul, but mostly we like to keep its presence at the margins. In living memory, Les Murray and Dorothy Porter managed to bring poetry to wide audiences, but neither of them so broadly, neither of them prompting the passion of Dawe’s many readers.
When it comes to poetry, readers know pretty quickly what is authentic. Dawe’s poems are real enough to talk to you with one arm over your shoulder, or sit beside you, inviting you to look with them at what this whole damned creation is doing now.
But he couldn’t have survived as a poet by simply being genial. His poetry always held a deep steadiness of purpose in its gaze. This was his special skill. He was able to bring us in to seeing for instance how “the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry” (from Homecoming) when dead soldiers are freighted home.
He was uncannily capable of making poetry that talked plainly but still mysteriously about the most extreme of our experiences: funerals and suicides, drowned children, a mother-in-law’s glorious death falling out of her chair at a barbecue, the last nail being driven into the body of Christ (“the iron shocking the dumb wood”), the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, or the hanging of Ronald Ryan.
You cannot read his poems without finding some personal connection to them too; my grandmother who once held a telegram announcing her son’s wartime death, and whose home was opposite Ronald Ryan’s bloody shootout on Sydney Road, had seemed to me to have had her life marked by images in Dawe’s poems.
In Australia, we know there’s another job requirement for any poet worth their salt, and that is a dry and thoroughly demotic wit. Dawe’s hilarious At Shagger’s Funeral is just one gem that Lawson would have been proud to have chiselled out.
Tests of time
New themes of gender, ethnicity, identity politics, the explosion of poetry since the avant-garde experiments of Fluxus might seem to leave Dawe’s poetry suspended in a historical moment, but this is to say no more than what happens to every strong and distinctive poet.
No one wrote poetry quite like Dawe. Lots of poets took inspiration from him too, many without realising it – the vibrant “street poetry” movement in Melbourne through the 1970s and 80s, morphing into performance poetry and spoken word – each take their impulse from Dawe’s confidence in poetry’s place as a voice for, about, and from life as it’s lived by the most desperate and the most ordinary of us.
The bravery of his poetry, its wit and sensitivity to the world are there in one of the most stark and touching love poems you could imagine reading:
Hearing the sound of your breathing as you sleep,
with the dog at your feet, his head resting
on a shoe, and the clock’s ticking
Like water dripping in a sink
– I know that, even if reincarnation were a fact,
given the inherent cruelty of the world
where beautiful things and people
are blasted apart all the day long,
I would never want to come back, knowing
I could never be this lucky twice …
(from You and Sarajevo: for Gloria)
He has been praised for the technical achievement of blending the colloquial with the lyrical, something he often got “right”. But beyond this deftness, his poems always reach towards our most humane responses to the world.
We know from our present troubles as a nation, as a planet, and as a species, that we need poets as right and true as Bruce Dawe to continue this sometimes visionary and sometimes laughably inadequate work.
Words can help us imagine the world more deeply. Even as we retreat into our homes in this time of crisis, words can help us reach out to each other and pile up strength.
The Stella Prize is awarded each year to celebrate Australian women’s writing. This year’s shortlist brings together some of the best Australian writing in any genre. They are books about courage, strength, compassion and love. And they give us something of what we need – teaching us that to be alarmed is not to be cautious or careful; that to try to bear everything on one’s own is not necessarily to be strong.
These books can help us draw on our inner resources; to dig deep. Not only to find a point of calm, or, indeed, relief from boredom as the lockdown wears on – but more importantly, compassion, altruism, the capacity to cross social distances, reach out, help and support each other and our society in a time of crisis.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
When you read The Weekend you’ll probably learn some things about yourself that you didn’t know, and a few you’d rather not. This book takes a long look at women’s lives and friendships as we get old, at a time in life when everything we thought we knew – about ourselves, about our loved ones – is being thrown into doubt.
Three grieving women gather together for Christmas to clean out the beach house that belonged to their friend Sylvie, who has died. There is Jude, a once famous restauranteur, who has spent her adult life in a love affair with a wealthy married man. Adele, a once-famous stage actress, who is newly impoverished, having just broken up with her partner Liz. She is yet to tell the others. Finally Wendy, a public intellectual in her waning years, grieving for her dead husband. Without Sylvie to balance them, tensions rise.
This book cuts like a knife through social pieties but never loses its humanity. In one particularly wicked scene, Adele conducts a “leisurely inspection” of her best friends’ washbags, casually laying bare their “private vulnerabilities”: who has constipation, who takes Valium, and who still uses age-defying face cream.
As the characters clean out the house of “depressing old things” that “nobody wanted” the tensions of grief and emotion pull them in unexpected directions. Old betrayals are unearthed, words can’t be taken back (“out it slithered in a disgusting mass”) and lives shatter.
Wood has a keen eye for the emotional havoc life wreaks, even – or especially – as we amble off into old age. Her observations are knife-sharp, often merciless, but also warm and deeply alive.
The Yield by Tara June Winch
Language can take you deep inside experience – because words teach you not only how to speak, but also how to think and feel. A large part of Tara June Winch’s new novel is written as entries in a Wiradjuri dictionary, put together by the dictionary-maker Albert Gondiwindi. The first word – the “once upon a time for you” – is yarrany, Wiradjuri for a hickory acacia or spearwood tree, and Albert tell us “from it I once made a spear in order to kill a man”. Another word is baayanha meaning yield, which Albert calls “a funny word”. In English the word “yield” is the reaping, the things than man can take from the land”. But in Albert’s language “it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things”.
The action of The Yield centres on Albert’s granddaughter, August, who has returned to Country for her grandfather’s funeral after years in exile. Memories resurface, as August is entangled in circles of kinship, with aunties, nieces and cousins.
There are sombre notes. To August, everything is “browner, bone-drier”, and the evocative place name Massacre Plains reminds us that this is a site of invasion and violence. And then there’s the mystery of August’s missing sister, Jeddah.
The community is besieged by a mining development. Diggers roll into town, flanked by military-green Humvees. Winch charts the relationships between white activists and Indigenous rights groups, as they organise acts of resistance.
Aunty Betty and Aunt Carol Gibson get themselves locked against a fence in an act of protest. “Don’t fight back” says Mandy to August. “They can’t arrest us for sitting in”. Hours later rocks are hurled, water cannons discharge, and police squirt teargas. The past “filtered into their voices as they screamed together ‘Re-sist!‘”
Of course, Albert’s dictionary – “the old language, kept safe. Digitised. Captured forever” – is another kind of resistance. When August listens, she can hear the way “English changed their tongues, the formation of their minds”. This is also a book of hope in this resurgent language.
Here Until August by Josephine Rowe
The opening story in Josephine Rowe’s collection is called Glisk, a Scots word meaning a split second: a flash; a single instant. It’s a wonderful opening title in a short story collection that seems to telescope, stack and compress time, propelling characters across continents, through stark or solemn landscapes, or pinning them down in small towns.
Rowe’s characters are mostly fleeing grief or trauma, trying to find solace in strange lands. In Glisk, protagonist Fynn returns after working in a whiskey distillery in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The title conjures the fatal car accident that drove Fynn from Perth. But it also describes an earlier accident in which Fynn and his siblings built a raft with foam and buckets so they could journey out to an island to see the bioluminescence in the ocean. Only that time, catastrophe had been avoided.
These are wonderful stories. In Chavez, an agoraphobic young woman grieving for a dead husband, stays at home watching terrorist videos, until a neighbour asks her to look after her dog, forcing her to engage with the world. In The Once-Drowned Man a taxi driver and her passenger head for the Canadian border, engaging in an oddly uncomfortable struggle over grief and hurt.
Rowe’s stories deftly capture the fleeting and precarious moments that can shape and place us, or move us – like Fynn – towards a faltering redemption, “with the dark folding over the top of him”, all in a glisk.
There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett
Parrett’s third novel opens with an image of extraordinary dislocation, evoked through all the “little brown suitcases … on trains, and on carts” or “strapped to the top of buses” carried by people whose lives have been uprooted by war. Inside the suitcases, not just clothes and toiletries, but “all they can hold … your heart, your mind, your soul”.
Favell’s novel tells the story of two sisters, Liska and Ludek, who are separated as teenagers, firstly by the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and then by the Cold War. Ludek stays in Prague, while Liska travels to London and on to Melbourne.
Liska negotiates the problems of a second language, together with her husband’s straightened work opportunities. Ludek travels the world as a member of Prague’s Black Light Theatre, a child kept at home to ensure her return to life behind the Iron Curtain. Both raise children in vastly different worlds. Both build and sustain homes that are marked by love.
Parrett paints a picture of the sometimes troubling life lived in a communist state, coloured by vivid details of 1980s culture. The prose is lyrical, and the child’s perspective is diffuse with a kind of magic.
This is a book about strong women. It is a story about complicated family lives, longing for home, and the worlds women build – through love – for their families.
Diving into Glass by Caro Llewellyn
Just after her 40th birthday, Caro Llewellyn – recently arrived in New York, working her dream job as director of the PEN Festival for writers – collapsed as she ran through Central Park. In hospital a few days later, her neurologist told her that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an illness associated with the central nervous system – chronic, debilitating and lifelong.
This memoir is a record of Llewellyn’s struggle not to be defined by her disability. Its title enviably encapsulates the things that glitter and shimmer and exhilarate in this book. A sense of breathless energy just leaps off the page. “I was a runner all my life,” Llewellyn writes. Not just long and short distance, but also hurdles and relay. “It didn’t matter what I ran, so long as I was spent when I crossed the finish line”.
This is a book about many things: Llewellyn’s career, the strength she draws from her charming and ingenious father who was wheelchair-bound, having been struck by polio at 20. He married twice, courting his first wife – a hospital nurse – from deep inside an iron lung. Llewellyn learned a lot from her parents, though not always strictly wise. They included, “carry on like absolutely nothing’s wrong”, “build an impenetrable wall around your weaknesses”, or best of all “no matter how impossible it seems, how long the odds, words and a good story can help you overcome every single thing stacked up against you”.
But, as Llewellyn writes, “The day my legs went numb on the running track in Central Park, every one of those lessons evaporated”. This is not a book about overcoming illness or disability. It ends – much like it starts – with Llewellyn’s gaze on the horizon, searching.
See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill
Jess Hill’s book is a deeply felt exploration of institutional failure. It opens with Hill standing in her backyard “hanging clothes out to dry on a stunning summer night alive with the screeching of fruit bats”, in a place where she “felt content, peaceful; safe”. Then comes the stunning realisation that many women do not get to feel safe, not at night, and not in their own backyard.
It’s 2015, a year on from the morning Australians woke up to see Rosie Batty, “a solitary woman, raw with grief” on their television screens. In front of her was “a clutch of reporters who’d barely hoped for a statement”. Batty told the media about the murder of her son – 11-year-old Luke Batty – at the hands of his father. It was the scenario she’d warned about countless times, in courts and police stations, in front of lawyers and judges and to social workers. Her pleas had been dismissed and disbelieved.
See What You Made Me Do brings together stories of domestic violence and survival from all walks of life – from the affluent neighbourhoods of Sydney’s Bible Belt to struggling remote and regional communities. Hill investigates the social and psychological causes of domestic abuse and its terrifying consequences. She talks to frontline social workers, counsellors who work the hotlines, and police.
Hill’s book maps the contours of a twisted public debate, through which the rights of children and women to safety – to feel secure, to live free from violence – are repeatedly brought up short by politics.
The Stella Prize will be announced online by Julia Gillard from 8pm (AEST) on Tuesday 14 April 2020.
The link below is to an article that reports on the winner of the 2020 Victorian Prize for Literature.
A recent project to encourage South Australian prisoners to write provides insights into how prisoners may benefit from written expression.
The project, Life Sentences, gave more than 70 contributors professional feedback, certificates of merit and publication in a booklet produced annually from 2017 to 2019.
The submissions revealed a surprising diversity of topics, considerable talent and self-awareness.
The back story
We wondered if prisoners may also want to express themselves through writing. Department for Correctional Services officers promoted Life Sentences and prisoners responded with interest. After the program, Life Sentences booklets were available to the public at the Art by Prisoners exhibitions.
Firsthand writing from and about prisons isn’t new. Prison literature has a rich tradition, with writers such as Jack London, O. Henry and Oscar Wilde writing about their experiences in jail. The nine years Dostoyevsky spent in Siberian imprisonment and exile gave him the focus and depth of understanding to become one of the greats.
Conversely, illiteracy in Australian prisons is prevalent. A recent government report found around one in three Australian prisoners had only completed Year 9 (or under) at secondary school. One aim of Life Sentences was to provide encouraging feedback for prisoners of varying literacy levels. Although not all of the writing submitted was grammatically perfect, feedback focused on what the prisoners did well in their writing. This was seen as a first step in getting prisoners to enjoy writing and begin the adventure of literacy.
Stories of pain and humour
What Life Sentences contributors wrote about was telling. Most entries directly related to what American criminologist Greshem Sykes called the “pains of imprisonment” in 1958. This wasn’t surprising, and it is hoped writing about such pains was healing for the writers. What was more surprising was the number of entries not directly about imprisonment.
Of 77 contributors over three years, 26 expressed pain, fear and depression from imprisonment (even suicidal thoughts), and often how much they missed their children or loved ones. The heartbreaking lines from a 26-year-old woman’s poem called Little Treasure illustrate this:
But I will never forget
His sweet little smile
My darling little boy
Is now their child.
Although male and female prisoners both expressed tender feelings towards their lost partners, the male writers would at times also express sexual longing for their loved ones or for imagined partners. In Prisoner’s Lament, a 61-year-old male wrote:
I can but lament the way my life went,
Before I ended up here,
Instead of a gun and a greed-driven bent,
I’d be armed with a babe and a beer.
Eight of the poems – both fictional and autobiographical pieces – describe prison life using humour. In Lean Cuisine, a man, 45, wrote of the food, gloryless food he got over the course of a week:
Friday’s no surprise with some sort of sloppy pasta
Nothing is as bad as that tomato disaster.
Saturday is early lockup: chicken wings and rice
Some blokes sprint for seconds, yelling ‘This shit’s so fucking nice!‘
Although some contributors wrote about their abusive childhoods, others wrote with nostalgia about their upbringings. A 51-year-old man’s poem, Edge of the World, tells of spending a day on a jetty with his father and siblings:
Like well-practised commandos
we inched along the side rail
dodging gut stains
jagged notches and salty scales.
Eight entries philosophised about life, and two honoured religious deities. Two contributors wrote about their lives, with the goal of inspiring others to stay out of jail and lead happier, more productive lives.
Five entries pondered the personal meanings of art or writing. Other themes explored drugs and alcohol, futuristic societies, rock band membership, friendship, political statements (Fuck the System), dreams and the supernatural (The Love of a Lycan was a song about a werewolf). Three entries were hip hop raps.
The Western Australian literary journal Westerly included several of the 2017 entries in a special edition about South Australian writing.
Hidden talents emerged. A 22-year-old male rapper demonstrated advanced verbal skills in his Laggin Rap:
I want my chance to climb but I’m firmly underground
proud to get his lips clappin louder than a thunder cloud.
Man, Hip Hop’s beautiful — totally therapeutical —
better health benefits than pharmaceuticals.
Another contributor submitted two novels in 2017 and two more in the following competitions. Although already an accomplished writer, he incorporated the feedback he received in the first year. His manuscript was an exciting adventure set in 18th century France. The novel begins:
The battlefields were torn by heavy hooves and ran red with blood. Pieces of meat that used to be men lay tossed about and were scattered in windrows. Mud made it difficult to distinguish between uniforms, yet they found uniformity in a death that made a mockery of it all. It was not yet lunchtime.
The same author printed, bound and illustrated his own novels. He and other contributors also revealed a pattern by the third edition of Life Sentences: a growing awareness of their new identities as writers.
What Prisoners Need
Australian prison libraries are often inadequate for supporting prisoners who seek to improve their literacy skills.
Knowing what prisoners like to write about could inform decisions about the types of books to stock in prisons to encourage reading and writing. Prisoners who wish to write motivational books could be exposed to notable authors in this genre, such as Tony Robbins and Dale Carnegie.
Education is a powerful way to prevent prisoners from reoffending once they leave jail.
To stay out of prison, ex-prisoners need to achieve what criminologists call “secondary desistance”, meaning both the prisoner and society see the prisoner as changed and occupying a law-abiding role in society. Writing might be one way to achieve this and open up new career paths. Writing may also allow prisoners and “civilians” to connect. As one Life Sentences writer put it:
Without seeing their individual faces, I recognise that I am part of the greater consciousness that makes up the brotherhood of writers across the world.
Fifty years after her death, Australian writer Charmian Clift is experiencing a renaissance. Born in 1923, Clift co-authored three novels with her husband George Johnston, wrote two under her own name, produced two travel memoirs, and had weekly column widely syndicated to major Australia papers during the the 1960s.
Clift has long been overshadowed by the legacy of Johnston, whose novel My Brother Jack is considered an Australian classic. Her novels and memoirs are sadly out of print, yet she is increasingly recognised for her important place in Australian culture.
In 2018 she, along with Johnston, was inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame in recognition of her work as a columnist. She is also being reimagined in fiction, as the subject of A Theatre of Dreamers (2020), a forthcoming novel by English author, Polly Samson, and in Tamar Hodes’ The Water and the Wine (2018).
The revival of interest in Clift is more than a collective nostalgia or feminist correction of the historical record, although both are relevant. Many of her readers from the 60s still remember her newspaper column, and the impact that it had on their view of Australia’s place in the world, with great affection.
Younger generations, particularly women, have also been exposed to Clift’s clear and passionate voice after the columns were published in several volumes in the years following her death. That Clift and her writing continue to resonate with contemporary Australia tells us something about both her and the nation.
The Hydra years
Much of the renewed interest in Clift is focused not only on her writing, but also on the near decade that she and Johnston lived on the Greek Island of Hydra. In late 2015, artist Mark Schaller’s Melbourne exhibition, Homage to Hydra, featured paintings depicting Clift and Johnston’s island lives, with several featuring other residents from Hydra’s international population of writers and artists, including Canadian poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen.
The same year, Melbourne musicians Chris Fatouros and Spiros Falieros debuted Hydra: Songs and Tales of Bohemia, marrying Cohen’s songs to a narrative about Clift and Johnston’s time on Hydra.
In 2018, our book, Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreams and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964, told in detail of the fabled decade of Clift’s life as a bohemian expatriate.
To date in 2019, Sue Smith’s play, Hydra, has been staged in Brisbane and Adelaide, casting Clift in ways that resonate sympathetically with the concerns of contemporary audiences. As Smith writes in her script’s introduction:
Charmian was a woman ahead of her time. We see this in the choices she made both in her personal life, whether it be scandalising the Greek locals by wearing trousers and drinking in bars, to insisting upon her personal and sexual freedom and, of course, through her work.
‘Charm is her greatest creation’
Modern readers might respond to Clift the writer, but the focus on her years on Hydra suggests there is also great interest in her charismatic personality and tempestuous life with Johnson, as their dream of a cheap and sun-soaked creative island life slowly soured.
While researching the couple’s lives on Hydra, we came across a suggestive, eye-witness diary entry by a fellow writer, New Zealander Redmond Wallis, written in 1960.
Charm is her greatest creation, Charmian Clift, the great Australian woman novelist. Charmian is very curious. She is, potentially at least, a better writer than George but she has and is deliberately creating a picture of herself … which one feels she hopes will appear in her biography some day.
The head of a literary coterie, beautiful, brilliant, compassionate but still the mother of 3 children, running a house. Sweating blood against almost impossible difficulties – a husband inclined to unfounded jealousy, the heat, creative problems, the children, the problems foisted on her by other people … and yet producing great art.
Wallis’s observations are accurate, and prophetic, in noting Clift’s capacity for self-mythologising and her belief that both she and her Hydra idyll would be remembered. Nearly four decades after Clift returned from Greece to Australia amid the acclaim for My Brother Jack, she did become the subject of an excellent biography, Nadia Wheatley’s The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001).
But there were also failures amongst the success. The vision she and Johnston shared for a writing life on Hydra floundered amid poverty, alcoholism and illness. Their return to Australia in 1964 was an unlikely triumph for Johnston following the success of My Brother Jack, but Clift did not return with the same profile.
Wheatley also traced another of Clift’s great disappointments – her failure to complete her long-dreamt of autobiographical novel The End of the Morning, a struggle that was the subject of Susan Johnson’s 2004 novel, The Broken Book.
Clift did, however, leave an autobiography of sorts, in her newspaper articles. These often focused on domestic circumstances and everyday thoughts – ranging from conscription, to the rise of the Greek military junta after she left Hydra, to the changing social circumstances in Australia, and her daughter’s engagement.
These articles might not have always reflected the experiences of her readers – not everyone invited Sidney Nolan over for drinks – but Clift’s first-person narratives of a life lived with great passion and a sceptical eye to the consequences, garnered a large readership.
These readers responded to an incisive intellect with a vision of a culturally enriched Australia. She understood well the need for the country to outgrow its entrenched conservatism in order to realise its potential; and she emerged as a generous spirit who realised that the dreams and passions that drove her life were found everywhere in Australian suburbs.
Wallis’s detection of Clift’s hubris and narcissism paints her as a potentially tragic figure. It was a fate she perhaps fulfilled, when Johnston eventually wrote of Clift’s infidelities on Hydra. Clift took her own life on July 8 1969, an event that curtailed her voice while leaving behind a legacy of loyal and grieving readers.
A natural cosmopolitan
Clift’s is one of the voices – and one of the most important female voices – that rose above the crowd during the post-war period, as the western world unknowingly girded itself for the social revolution that was to come.
Through her columns she advocated for a bolder, more outward looking future, and as someone who was naturally cosmopolitan she was avidly interested in seeing Australia become more open to the world and better integrated into the Asia-Pacific.
She didn’t always get it right (an essay decrying the rise of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones stands out!), but she helped navigate the path to a more broad-minded and inclusive vision of Australia.
Over the years Clift has emerged as someone who was not only modern, but also engaged in that most post-modern of activities, self-creation. For while Wallis scorned Clift’s self-mythologising at the time, it might now be recognised as the finest gift of the creative artist – to re-make oneself in the image of a world yet to be made. It was her gift to her readers and Australia.
Tanya Dalziell, Associate Professor, English and Literary Studies, University of Western Australia and Paul Genoni, Associate Professor, School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry, Curtin University