Two of Lohrey’s previous novels (Camille’s Bread in 1996 and The Philosopher’s Doll in 2005) have been shortlisted for the prestigious $60,000 prize. Her latest has been recognised as the literary volume that best presents Australian life now. She is the second Tasmanian author to ever win the prize.
As a long-time fan of Lohrey’s voice and eye, and someone with a lifetime of longing for more recognition of women’s achievements, I am thrilled to see her novel and her protagonist Erica achieve this standing.
Erica is an often prickly but generous and appealing character. Though she grows up “in an asylum, a manicured madhouse”, her childhood is much happier than is the norm for characters in literary fiction. Her father, the chief medical officer of the hospital, trains his children in diversity. All of us are “lunatics”, he teaches them, in that “we are all affected by the moon”. “Evil,” he tells them, is no more than “a chemical malfunction in the brain”.
This is an excellent foundation for someone who, in later life, finds herself with a son whose “chemical malfunction” leads him to commit an inadvertent but terrible crime. The beach shack she purchases to be near him, and far from everyone else she knows, is as disorganised and disreputable as her child. But it gives her somewhere to review her life and re-imagine a future.
That future circles around the concept of the labyrinth. Much of the novel is a masterclass in types of these mazes and the meanings and feelings the various designs afford.
A way through
All this operates as a healing process following the agony of her son’s act, trial and imprisonment. She — or rather, her planned labyrinth — gradually draws the attention of other isolates who live in the same coastal community. Various people become closely connected to her and one, Jurko, happens to know about labyrinths and their construction.
The young man, “an illegal immigrant who has overstayed his visa”, is a stonemason (a master of that ancient art) and he gradually inserts himself into her home and her life to become her “surrogate son”.
Sand, he explains, is the best foundation for a labyrinth, and this captures Erica’s attention:
I am struck by the paradox here: sand so volatile in its essence and yet so firm a basis for the rigidity of concrete.
For the reader, this becomes the novel’s coda: though everything seems so unstable, it still affords a firm foundation for our difficult, drifting lives.
As the novel unfolds, Erica’s deepening relationships with her new neighbours, and shared responsibilities and understandings, form a sort of labyrinth that leads her to the point where she can declare: “The fugue is over.”
Since Aristotle, humans have pondered the role and function of fictional narratives. Now, there is general agreement the reading of fiction builds empathy, supports our capacity for uncertainty and ambiguity, and offers new perspectives on the world.
Perhaps it is writers reaching for this combination of emotion and reflection which leads to complaints literary fiction is unremittingly bleak. But even the saddest of stories, well told, can be leavened by captivating use of language, rich portraiture and, very often, veins of humour.
This is evident in each of the novels shortlisted for the 2021 Miles Franklin award. Here the destruction of the environment, there the abuse of refugees, and over there the despair occasioned by the everyday suffering of being human. Yet they each shimmer with energy, tenderness and threads of optimism — and even occasionally joy.
Danny, a young Tamil man, comes to Australia as one of the myriad international students who, pre-COVID, used to keep our economy afloat, but then drops out of what he terms this “racket” to live as an “illegal alien” with all the attendant uncertainties and anxieties.
Working as a cleaner for the rich and mostly white people of Sydney, he finds himself in possession of information about a murder, and is probably the only person who knows whodunnit. The novel tracks him through a long day where, with Hamlet-esque indecisiveness, he agonises about whether to tell the police (and expose himself to the likelihood of arrest and deportation) or to lie low (and allow a second murder to be committed).
Despite this, the novel is infused with a lightness of being and a sense of hope. Danny’s Sydney houses rats and predators, but also libraries providing sanctuary for “illegals”, his tolerant vegan Vietnamese girlfriend, his Japanese-Brazilian abseiling friend, and accommodating householders who pay him to clean their attractive apartments.
Often very funny, often deeply touching, Adiga manages to combine serious literary fiction with satire and critique. He also offers a clear-eyed portrait — or perhaps a sociology — of contemporary Australia, and of the holy grail of amnesty always floating just out of reach.
At the Edge of the Solid World by Daniel Davis Wood
In his second novel, Daniel Davis Wood weaves the complex stories of individuals and families with history and culture, space and time.
After a family tragedy, the first person narrator of At The Edge of the Solid World gradually fractures into shards of himself.
As the novel unfolds, he unfolds, as does time. His grief is overlaid with the grief of those caught up in a current Sydney massacre, as well as the ruined cultures museumed in the songs folklorist Francis J Child attempted to save from history.
The narrator obsessively reports on every conceivable small and global disaster, spreading out across history and culture, drenching him in a lineage of loss.
The ripple effects of all the events in this account of his present are tragic, but the tragedy is enfolded in love and acts of tenderness and memory. It’s not a comfortable read. But it is an extraordinary read.
Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos
We have probably all had lunch at a place like Lucky’s, a Greek-Australian franchise offering “home cooked” food with an acceptably mainstream menu, and where, behind the counter, a febrile life simmers away.
Andrew Pippos’ first book, Lucky’s, paints a dense and convoluted landscape spanning from the second world war through to the present.
The eponymous Lucky is a Greek-American with adequate skills on the clarinet, who impersonated Benny Goodman at a wartime concert in one chapter of a lifetime of bare competence.
Matching him is Emily, a young UK journalist who, in flight from a failed marriage, is trying to write a piece about Lucky and his doomed chain of restaurants.
Between the two people and the two periods of time there is a large cast of well-written characters and a smorgasbord of joys and catastrophes.
The title of the book is sauteed in irony, but what could have fallen into bathos is rescued by the character of Lucky, whose loyalty and hapless charm kept me reading through to the almost-optimistic end.
The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts
Madeleine Watts’ debut novel is set during the record-breaking Sydney summer of 2013, and a stage in the narrator’s life where “The open wilderness of adulthood stretched ahead like so much wasteland”.
In formal terms, it is a Bildungsroman — a coming of age novel — and, as expected of its genre, the narrator spends a fair bit of time in naïve narcissism, pursuing an emotionally unsatisfying affair she knows will end in heartbreak and engaging in self-destructive behaviours that alienate her friends. But there is considerably more to it than this.
The setting for much of the novel is her job at an emergency call centre, where shift after shift she surfs the tide of desperate callers from places no one knows about and for whom the emergency services will never arrive.
Read as a standard Bildungsroman, the book doesn’t deviate far from the conventions. But read as an allegory for a nation struggling to find a way into its future, Watts shifts the grounds of this genre and offers sustained narrative traction.
The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey
Amanda Lohrey has been recognised as a fine novelist since the late 1980s. In The Labyrinth, her eighth novel, her expertise, observant eye and ear, and sense of story are fully present.
Erica has undertaken a sea-change, moving from central Sydney to a coastal hamlet close to the prison where her son is incarcerated. She purchases a rather disreputable beachside shack with a garden large enough to contain a labyrinth. She is determined to build not just a labyrinth, but the right labyrinth: one that will deliver the promise of “reversible destiny”.
A labyrinth is a powerful trope, and here it drives not only the narrative and Erica herself, but also a range of possibilities of meaning for the various characters with whom her life becomes intertwined. Though she had intended to isolate herself, the forces of kindness capture her and, gradually, she connects with those around her.
With their help, she constructs a labyrinth that is, she says, “a challenge […] to the heart”, the place where “you let go”. In her own letting go she finds no magic solution to sadness, but rather the consolations — however temporary — of connectedness.
The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott
Speculative fiction doesn’t often appear on literary award shortlists, which means when they are selected they are worth our attention.
Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron (another second novel) is set in an ecodystopia — probably not far into the future, given the current state of the planet — under military rule, where the people are simply hoping to survive.
The novel is threaded through with a strong sense of myth: the assault by capitalist imperatives on communities living in harmony with nature; the magical uncontainable rain heron; the diminished land; the woman surviving in the mountains, waiting for some sort of salvation. So far, so standard dystopia.
But this book astounds me not just for the quite brilliant conception and rendition of the eponymous rain heron, but also because of the portraits it offers: of generosity, of tenderness, of a turning toward rather than away from others. And of a plot where the deaths are caused by clumsiness or carelessness, rather than malevolence.
In a desolate social and ecological landscape, the human networks of compassion make this novel a thing of rare beauty.
The winner of the 2021 Miles Franklin literary award will be announced at 4pm AEST today.
The 6th edition of The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is back. Founded in 2014, the prize recognises writing in African languages and encourages translation from, between and into African languages. Kiswahili is widely spoken across the east coast of Africa. This year’s prize also offers a special award designed to promote and popularise a Kiswahili vocabulary for technology and digital rights. We spoke to the prize founders – literary academic Lizzy Attree, also of Short Story Day Africa, and literature professor and celebrated author Mukoma Wa Ngugi – on the challenges of growing literature in African languages.
What’s the idea behind the special Nyabola prize?
Lizzy Attree: The Nyabola prize gives us the opportunity to work in a new area that is really exciting for us. Nanjala Nyabola, the Kenyan writer and activist, approached us with the idea and the funding to target vocabulary for technology and digital rights. This was particularly interesting to us for two reasons. Firstly, we have long wanted to offer a short story prize, but have stuck with longer works because of the opportunity it gives us to focus on Kiswahili literature as a fully mastered form. But we are aware that a short story prize is a good place to start for those who are only beginning to write. Secondly, Kiswahili is often considered to be steeped in archaic, or historically poetic technical words and forms. These must be updated to accommodate the modern language of science and technology. It has been an interesting adventure to find out which words can be adapted or amended to fit with modern digital and technological advancement.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi: There is also the idea that African languages are social languages, emotive and cannot carry science. Most definitely not true. All languages can convey the most complex ideas but we have to let them. There is something beautiful about African languages carrying science, fictionalised of course, into imagined futures.
Mukoma, you also write speculative fiction; what is its power?
Mukoma Wa Ngugi: At the height of dictatorship in Kenya under president Daniel arap Moi, when writers and intellectuals were being detained and exiled, and their books banned, it was the genre writers who kept the politics alive. In fact I dedicated my detective novel Nairobi Heat to two such Kenyan writers, David Mailu and Meja Mwangi. We inherited a hierarchy of what counts as serious literature from colonialism, the division between minor and major literatures. It is important for us to blur the lines between literary and genre fiction – they are both doing serious work but in different styles. And the same goes between written literature and orature (spoken literature). Orature is seen lesser-than but, as writers and scholars have argued, orature has its own discipline and aesthetics.
How has African language publishing changed since the prize began?
Lizzy Attree: Sadly I don’t think African language publishing has advanced very much in the last seven years or that there are enough academic studies focusing on this area. The demise of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa was part of the decline, or indicative of it. However, book festivals are growing, and we hope that in time this will lead to more awards and more publishing in African languages. Mukoma’s father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, is a pioneer in this area, and it’s been wonderful to see his novel shortlisted for the International Booker Prize recently. Although there are many other good examples of where changes are happening, considering the size of the continent and the number of languages, there is still a huge gap.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi:Jalada Journal is a good example of how attitudes to writing in African languages have changed for the better. In 2015 Jalada took a short story written by Ngugi in Gikuyu and self-translated into English and had it translated to close to 100 languages. This made it the most translated African short story. But the genius of their initiative was that most of the translations were between African languages. The Jalada example is important for two reasons – it shows that innovation can happen when African languages talk to each other. And that for the younger writers, African languages do not carry the same sense of inferiority – English is just another language. All in all I don’t think the Nyabola prize, for example, would have been possible 10 years ago. A lot has changed where it matters the most; the ideology around African languages is shifting.
Do awards work and why are there so few major literary prizes in Africa?
Lizzy Attree: I think awards certainly work in raising the profile of writers and their work, but it is difficult to find funding for these kinds of projects.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi: It is all about setting up a viable and thriving literary ecosystem for writing in African languages. Literary agents, publishers, readership, critics, literary prizes and so on. Prizes are just one aspect. We realised that from the onset so our winners, in addition to the monetary awards, have also been published by Mkuki na Nyota Press in Tanzania. We have been trying to get them translated into English but as Lizzy points out, funding is a huge problem. We were lucky to partner with Mabati Rolling Mills and the Safal Group. We have a de facto slogan: African philanthropy for African cultural development. But all the living parts of the African literary ecosystem have to be thriving. In this, we all have work to do.
Why is African language literature so important?
Lizzy Attree: It’s been clearly demonstrated that learning in one’s mother tongue brings huge advantages to students. And where else must we find ourselves reflected if not in our own literature, in our own languages?
Mukoma Wa Ngugi: You can think of language as the sum total of a people’s history and knowledge. We store history and knowledge in language. To speak only English is to be alienated from your past, present and future. It is a pain we should all feel deeply. In my book, The Rise of the African Novel: Language, Identity and Ownership, I give the example of how early writing in South African languages remains outside our literary tradition. I talk about how that leads to truncated imaginations. We write within literary traditions, but what happens to your imagination when you cannot access your literary tradition?
The shortlist will be announced in October/November 2021, with the winners announced in Dar es Salaam in December 2021.
Here are three evidence-based therapeutic applications of writing and three accompanying prompts.
1. Use writing to ground
Therapists advise a method known as grounding for people suffering from distressing thoughts. Grounding entails taking note of physical surroundings to calm the triggered body by rooting it in the present. The “5-4-3-2-1” technique asks you to note five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can feel, two you can smell and one you can taste.
The technique parallels a writing prompt for “re-embodiment” in the present, from poet and psychotherapist Ronna Bloom. Following the advice of Bloom and trauma therapists, use simple, focused writing to take poetic hold of the present by writing about an object from your immediate surroundings.
Prompt: Find something nearby that excites your senses, like a fruit from your kitchen. Take the object in your hands. Smell it. Rub it against your cheek. Beginning with “I hold” or “I smell,” or any words you like, write for eight minutes on what you have chosen.
2. Use writing to find ‘flow’
What does it mean to “live your best life”? Psychologist of optimal experience Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied where people were, and what they were doing, when they were living their best lives. Subjects reported living optimally while engaged in a fluid, creative state Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.”
Characterized by the ordering of thoughts in service of fluid creation, flow tends to result in an enjoyably focused, resilient state known as “psychic negentropy.” Csikszentmihalyi found those who experienced psychic negentropy regularly, including creative writers, tended to be happier people.
Prompt: For entry into flow, it is wise to select a prompt that promotes guided expansion. The ideal is to increase ease with which we enter flow and decrease distractions that make flow harder to maintain. One way to do this is to revisit a personal memory. Choose something mundane yet fresh, something you do often, with many vivid details that will keep your hand moving and thoughts engaged in the telling. Write until you feel finished.
3. Use writing as a safe play space
Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott stressed that play was crucial for child development. Developmental play occurs in a safe, bounded space. In play, children manipulate what Winnicott called “transitional objects” (usually toys, bottles or blankets).
As Winnicott noted, the space for developmental play opens for adults, too, where there is need of healing, often by way of artistic practice. For adults requiring self-understanding, transitional objects can be pen and paper, where writing is the location of bounded, safe, developmental play.
Prompt: Consider a playground for very young children with their caregivers, perhaps with a swing set and slide, within an open, grassy park. Though boundaries like a simple wooden fence surrounding the young children’s playground constitute limitations, these limitations are there to support their safety. In this bounded play space, a child explores, while their caregiver, at a slight distance, is engaged in what Winnicott described as the crucial caring act of creating a “holding” environment, or holding space, for a child — attending to and being present for them, while allowing their expression and exploration.
We can put boundaries in place for ourselves as we write, while attending to our emerging and vulnerable feelings, to ensure emotional safety in the space for developmental play.
Writing with compassionate limitation can be therapeutic and allow expansion in other directions. This means deliberately choosing to direct our focus, topics and energies.
For example, professor of psychology Laura King asked subjects to write about their “best possible future selves” and found these writers showed the same health improvement at six months as people who had written about their traumas did, minus the upset afterwards.
King prompted subjects as follows: “Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.” As King’s subjects did, write for 20 minutes per day over four consecutive days.
If none of the above engages you, write freely and intentionally, keeping in mind that an empowering writing experience will avoid rumination, sustain engagement and leave you with a sense you have spent time meaningfully. Writing-based wellness must meet you at your own points of interest and excitement. Writing that heals is writing that comes forth easily. Consider what topic renders writing therapeutic, for you.
As tree scientist, I am fascinated by the magnificent biology of trees. I also find it enthralling and encouraging that trees are being appreciated by writers around the world right now.
Three fresh books (chosen from a wider field of titles on the topic) exemplify how trees can be written about as more than just background or an incidental part of a landscape, but as integral to meaning.
My Forests: Travel with Trees by Janine Burke, The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and Tree Story, a collection curated by Charlotte Day and Brian Martin — are mixed in style and content. But all make clear the close relationships between people and trees and the vital importance of those connections.
It is not surprising that at a time of significant climate change, where natural ecosystems around the world are being devastated and after 18 months of a global pandemic, books on trees are proving popular.
There is an air of desperation in these three titles. Things are changing fast, trees and forests grow slowly, we are wasting time.
Books about trees are published every year. Some are beautifully illustrated with photos or hand-drawn images of special trees in large coffee table formats. Some, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, have trees and forests as characters. Tolkien told a fan that his magnificent Ents were “either souls sent to inhabit trees, or else were folk who slowly took the likeness of trees owing to their inborn love of trees”.
Tolkien’s writing, including a story collection called Tree and Leaf, reminds us of the differences between tree time and human time — we humans are hasty folk. This is something I dwell upon often.
The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton was one of the first books I can recall reading where a tree played a major role and it helped set me on a path of lifelong reading and interest in botany.
That childhood favourite connects to Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which draws together a disparate fictional band of tree protectors. After his book became a hit, Powers recommended 26 other titles for tree-loving readers.
This library of tree books has served a wide and varied readership well and sustained those of us who despair at the wholesale clearing of forests and trees in our cities and suburbs.
In most Australian cities we are losing trees and canopy cover at a rate of about 1-1.5% per year. I’m still saddened by the loss of a lemon scented gum (Corymbia citriodora) that grew at the city end of the Tullamarine Freeway in Melbourne. I miss its shade in summer but also the delicious scent that wafted through the car window at certain times of the year.
In October last year, protesters mourned a sacred 350-year-old Djab Wurrung Directions Tree, cut down along Victoria’s Western Highway.
There has been a growing disconnect between people and trees and vegetated spaces, particularly for those living in cities. Many people have become so focused on urban survival they have become distanced from the essential and intimate dependence that human beings have on plant life.
Earth as we know it, and the lifeforms it sustains, depend upon and have been shaped by plants and their evolution. Human beings can only survive on our planet because of the ecosystems made possible by plants and trees. If these systems are put in jeopardy because people fail to appreciate the importance of plants, then entire ecosystems are put in peril with profound consequences for humankind.
Climate change is giving us a glimpse of how these important relationships are affected by bushfires, stronger winds from unusual directions and more frequent storms with heavy rainfall that can lead of the loss of grand old trees that have stood as silent sentinels for decades and centuries.
All plants in an ecosystem are important to its function, but the large size and long lives of trees explain why they are often focused upon as representatives of their communities. Their size makes them obvious and contributes to the ambience of any landscape, but can also inspire a sense of awe and in some urban-dwellers, fear.
Their long life spans provide a sense of certainly and continuity in uncertain times of rapid change — their presence can link several human generations, when other connections have been lost. They also provide a tangible prospect, if they are left alone or are properly managed, for links to future generations. All of this can be very reassuring for people who feel vulnerable and oppressed by rapid change.
All three of the new books selected tend to anthropomorphise trees and aspects of their biology, attributing to them distinctly human qualities. Sometimes they are described by a mood, such as an upbeat growth in spring or by a willingness to share resources with other species. While this may be annoying to some scientists, it allows many people to relate or even identify more closely with trees, especially when there is complex biology and ecology involved.
Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling 2016 book The Hidden life of Trees, took readers on a voyage of discovery with a blend of science, philosophy and spiritualism.
Like that first book, his latest — The Heartbeat of Trees — can be enthralling and annoying almost in equal measure. But the author clearly relates the importance of using our senses when we are in forests to explore the complexity of tree biology. By doing so not only will we achieve a better understanding of trees, but also of ourselves and the importance of trees and vegetated places for human development, our physical and mental health and the sustainability of our societies. It will surely resonate strongly with readers after the pandemic lockdowns of the past year, which saw people flocking to parks, gardens and forests.
A personal and professional travelogue woven together by trees is the framework of My Forests: Travel with Trees, by Janine Burke. As an art historian Burke weaves her own experiences with trees with those depicted in paintings, ancient mythology and historic and literary texts.
It is a set of idiosyncratic connections that may not resonate with all readers, but the strong cultural links between trees and ancient human history are undeniable. The reader can learn a great deal about people but relatively little about trees themselves — they remain illusory, almost furtive.
Tree Story, curated by Charlotte Day and Brian Martin catalogues a recent exhibition at Monash University Museum of Art. It is an eclectic mix of style, content, form and media. Some of the images and text do not do justice to the works, but the book does provide a permanent and curated record of what was offered.
The book makes it clear that people see and connect with trees in different, varied and curious ways. While the works may look at the past, there are clear implications, messages and lessons for the present and importantly for the future. Indigenous voices and perspectives speak loudly, longingly and desperately. The works plead that we cannot go on treating trees in this way: for our own health and sustainable futures we must recognise that ultimately all earthly life is essentially one.
Strengthening the bond
The three books, in their own and different ways, challenge how we think about and interact with trees. They broaden the relationship that exists between trees and people and encourage an active and positive interaction. There is a unifying theme that healthy relationships will benefit both people and trees.
Authors and artists recount their personal stories of trees benefiting their own physical and mental well-being. Research shows that trees along streets and roadways have a traffic calming effect that results in slower speeds and more courteous driver behaviour. In a huge study of women’s health in the United States it was shown that green spaces (parks, gardens and trees) significantly correlated with many aspects of improved health.
Plants and trees are not passive participants in ecosystems. They actively contribute to the complexity, resilience and survival of these systems and while the environment affects and changes them, they also modify the environment. Shade from trees cools the understorey and soils, making it possible for a more diverse range of species to thrive. Shade on creeks and rivers helps native fish survive and breed.
These books highlight the complexity of the relationships that many of us have with trees – relationships that can bring change to both us and the trees.
Wohlleben asks that we use all our senses when we interact with trees and forests. There is more going on than meets the eye. Burke reminds us that culture and tradition influence our perception of trees and forests. The works exhibited in Tree Story help us to explore these influences and their meaning.
We are far from knowing all there is to know about plants, trees, forests and ecosystems. The scientific approach is but one method of questing for truth. The open-minded approaches explored in these books could stimulate new discoveries.
The books remind us of the pace of change being wrought on trees and forests by climate change and that the stakes, if we don’t reverse this decline, are very high.
Scientists should never dismiss what they don’t understand. Neither should readers. As climates change, the presence of trees and green space will be recognised as a priority. Trees will be a part of our futures no matter where we live because we cannot have economically viable, environmentally sustainable or liveable places without them.
There is a long tradition of female parliamentarians using memoirs to reshape the culture around them. Banks — whose book includes claims of bullying, sexism and harassment — is the latest to push for equality and understanding of what life is like for women in Canberra.
But there is something enduring about memoir. Sales figures aside, the political memoir can be a significant event. The inevitable round of media interviews, book tours and literary festivals can allow an author to stamp their broader ideas onto the public debate and shed light on the culture of our institutions.
They also have the advantage of usually being written when women have left parliament, and no longer need to place their party’s interests ahead of all others. Indeed, Banks tells us that her story is that of “an insider who’s now out”.
It started with Enid Lyons
In 1972, Dame Enid Lyons (the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and wife of former prime minister Joe Lyons) published Among the Carrion Crows.
In her memoir, she offered a compelling insight into how she dealt with the male-dominated environment of parliament house. She recalled feeling like a “risky political experiment”, as if the very “value of women in politics would be judged” by the virtue of her conduct. She joyfully described how her maiden speech had moved men to tears.
In that place of endless speaking … no one ever made men weep. Apparently I had done so.
She also recorded key moments when she had vigorously presented her views in the party room and the parliament. She asserted the right of women to stand — and more importantly, to be heard — in parliament.
Encouraging women, challenging men
Since Lyons, women have continued to use autobiographies to promote women’s participation in politics and challenge the masculine histories of political parties.
When the ALP celebrated its centenary in 1991, it was the male history that was celebrated. Senator Margaret Reynolds (Queensland’s first female senator) “decided that the record had to be corrected”.
Reynolds’ writings on Labor women occurred alongside the ALP’s moves toward affirmative action quotas in the early 1990s. As well as a memoir, she wrote a series of newsletters called Some of Them Sheilas, and a book about Labor’s women called The Last Bastion. In it, she recorded the experiences and achievements of ALP women over the past 100 years.
In her 1999 book, Catching the Waves, Labor’s first female cabinet minister Susan Ryan acknowledged there was “a lot of bad male behaviour in parliament”. But she argued this should not “dissuade women from seeking parliamentary careers”. Importantly, Ryan saw her autobiography as a collective story about the women’s movement and its “breakthrough into parliamentary politics” in the 1970s and 1980s.
While Labor women like Reynolds, Ryan and Cheryl Kernot were publishing their memoirs, few Liberal women put their stories on the public record. Former NSW Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski’s 2004 memoir, Chika, was billed as the story of a woman who
learnt to cope with some of the toughest and nastiest politics any female has ever encountered in Australia’s political history.
In 2007 Pauline Hanson published an autobiography called Untamed and Unashamed, telling journalists, “I wanted to set the record straight”. But these were exceptions to the rule.
Julia Gillard’s story
Following the sexism and misogyny that disfigured her prime ministership, Julia Gillard’s 2014 memoir My Story helped revitalise the national conversation about women and power. Hoping to help Australia “work patiently and carefully through” the question of gender and politics, Gillard promised to “describe how I lived it and felt it” as prime minister.
Importantly, she held not only her opponents but also the media to account for their gender bias. Critics like journalist Paul Kelly derided Gillard’s version of history as “nonsense”, but the success of her account suggests otherwise. My Story sold 72,000 copies in just three years.
In her 2020 book, Women and Leadership co-authored with former Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Gillard interviewed eight women leaders from around the world, further showing how gender continues to shape political lives.
The risks of writing
A political memoir can be fraught, however. After a decade in parliament, Democract-turned-Labor MP Cheryl Kernot published her memoir Speaking for Myself Again in 2002.
She had hoped it would argue the case for Australian women “participating fully” in politics to promote “their own values and interests and shift the underlying male agenda”.
But the release was quickly overshadowed by revelations of an extra-marital affair with Labor’s Gareth Evans (which were not in the book). Her book tour was halted amid the fallout. Kernot later despaired journalist Laurie Oakes — who broke the story — had managed to “sabotage people’s interest in the book”.
Others, such as Labor’s Ros Kelly, have told their stories in private or semi-private ways. Kelly’s autobiography was privately published as a gift to her granddaughter, but she also gives copies to women in politics, many of whom “have read it, and sent me really nice notes”.
Power in numbers
In the past five years, several women from across the political spectrum have published life stories.
In her memoir, An Activist Life, former Greens leader Christine Milne argued that women should perform feminist leadership rather than being “co-opted into being one of the boys”. In Finding My Place, Labor MP Anne Aly, showed women of non-Anglo, non-Christian backgrounds belong in parliament too. Independents Jacqui Lambie and Cathy McGowan used their memoirs to show female MPs can thrive without the backing of the major parties.
Most recently, former Labor MP Kate Ellis published Sex, Lies and Question Time, which includes reflections on the experiences of nearly a dozen other women in parliament.
For fifty years, Australia’s female politicians have used their memoirs to assert the equal rights of women in parliament, party rooms, and the media. Drawing on that lineage, Banks is the latest to help reveal and disrupt the sexism and misogyny in political life.