There’s a great moment in George Eliot’s 1861 classic Silas Marner, where a young woman bemoans how people with “neither ache nor pain” want to be “better than well”. Written more than a century before the rise of the “wellness industry” of exclusive gyms, self-help and endless supplements, the phrase is prophetic.
Now comes So you think you know what’s good for you?, a book promoted as the “ultimate health guide” from Australia’s highest profile doctor. A medical journalist with a global reputation, Dr Norman Swan has been a broadcaster with the ABC for almost 40 years.
Despite it’s smug title, and a few possible flaws we will get to later, the book has lots of welcome common sense and evidence-based tips for living healthier. And some surprises too, such as suggestions for how young queer people might best come out.
Perhaps this book’s greatest strength is its key message, often repeated, that with health, it’s better to focus on the bigger picture, the whole complex package, and not obsess too much on a few of the individual bits and pieces of the puzzle. Rise above the nutrients and think more about sharing a decent meal with loved ones, because, “social connectedness is the foundation of well-being.”
The wellness ‘bullshit’
One of the big myths busted early in the book is what Norman delicately calls the “bullshit” idea that wellness is some state of perpetual bliss we can all aspire to. “Wellness and well-being” he writes, “are intermittent phenomena”, appreciated because they stand out from the rest of our lives.
The odd bit of myth-busting aside, the book covers a lot of familiar ground. Sugar rots your teeth. Eating better, exercising more and drinking less booze will boost your chances of staying healthy longer. We’ve heard it before, but it doesn’t hurt to hear it again. And unsurprisingly, it’s convincing when it comes from this respected celebrity.
Just reading the book’s opening pages made me reach for a mandarin. By day two, I’d decided to get off the couch, stop reading so much George Eliot, and do some more vigorous exercise. By day three, our household was stocking up on extra garlic and discussing extra virgin olive oil around the dinner table with our seven year old.
Food, fads and fasting
The strongest section of the book is about food. Amid the analysis of different dietary fads, there’s some simple advice:
The more plants you eat as a proportion of your diet, the better.
The classic Mediterranean diet, with its olive oil and leafy greens, gets a very big tick. Vegan fasting, despite no strong evidence to support it, is deemed worth a go.
Additives and enhanced food are written off as more about marketing than nutrition. Vitamin and mineral supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry based on very little science. “Largely a con”, says Norman.
The elements of surprise
Despite an early promise in the book there’ll be no human interest stories, there are quite a few anecdotes about the author, which will no doubt please his fans. We learn that Norman almost never sleeps, loves a daily nap, hates almond lattes, is recovering from a salt-addiction and once consulted a dietician who suggested the reason he was hungry all the time was because he ate too much.
Much more seriously we hear stories from a grey Scottish childhood with a father who “hadn’t a clue about child rearing”, and see glimpses into a year-long episode of “stomach-churning anxiety” due to illness, separation, pain and loss.
One powerful story features the four-year old Norman, on a visit with his father to a Christmas carnival. Against his wishes the toddler was “plonked” alone on a fast-moving ride, and his resulting screams of terror were misread by his “gormless dad” as just being the normal fun of the fair.
He uses the anecdote to highlight the stress that can come from a loss of control. And that opens a great section on how society’s structures can undermine our sense of control on a mass scale, and how so much of our health is determined by government policies on housing, education and fairness.
A tragic example of how economics can determine health comes from recent estimates that high prices and low incomes mean three billion people can’t afford a healthy diet.
The bit about sex
One whole section is titled “The sex thing”, which like the rest of the book, contains a good dose of common-sense. There are musings on whether a rating system is needed for pornography, strong endorsement of the role of condoms, and caution about cosmetic genital surgery.
Particularly welcome was the celebration of the clitoris, whose role in the reality of sex is still stubbornly ignored by too much of the wider screen culture. “The vast majority of women do not orgasm with penetrative sex alone” writes Norman, because “the clitoris is usually the source of women’s orgasms.”
And there’s a mention too of the push to label women’s common sexual challenges as a medical condition of low desire. “Call me a cynic,” he writes, “but creating a name for a problem is a prerequisitie for the pharmaceutical industry to find a treatment.”
He’s dead right. My book Sex, Lies and Pharmaceuticals documented how an alliance of sex researchers and drug companies have repeatedly tried to create new categories of illness, in order to build billion-dollar markets. And in my book with Alan Cassels, Selling Sickness, we expose how this problem of medicalising ordinary life is widespread across the medical landscape.
Some non-fatal flaws
One weakness, for me, was the book’s structure. There are lots of very short bites, sometimes not so coherently arranged, and a feeling now and again that words were written very quickly. The section on potential health impacts of screens and devices was just seven pages, compared to other sections that ran for more than 70 pages.
Another minor concern is the referencing. There’s a mountain of references at the end, but no use of endnotes, so it’s sometimes hard to tell which statements arise from evidence, and which are Norman’s analysis.
A deeper concern is that parts of the section on “Living Younger Longer” might feed unhealthy obsessions with constantly measuring all those individual risk factors, such as weight, waste, blood pressure and cholesterol.
The “worried well” are already the target of unbalanced promotion disguised as journalism that urges us to test more and more frequently for the early signs of heart disease, dementia and cancer, without any mention of potential downsides, such as unnecessary diagnosis and treatments that may bring us more harm than good.
The book has the occasional poke at drug or food industry marketing, but it doesn’t go into much detail. You won’t read, for instance, that medicine’s evidence-base has been distorted through commercial funding and influence, or about global campaigns, such as The BMJ’s, to forge more independence from industry, and produce more trustworthy evidence.
Similarly, the book has the occasional enthusiastic plug for the value of medications – for depression, high blood pressure or high cholesterol – but there’s no mention of the huge threat to your health from overdiagnosis and the overuse of tests and treatments.
But let’s not quibble. The book champions the value of context, cautions against getting too distracted by tiny details, and concludes with a warning that we’re all at risk of “knowing more and more about less and less”.
And as Norman Swan reminds us, when it comes to health, going for “good enough” may ultimately be much healthier for us, than trying desperately to be “better than well.”
So you think you know what’s good for you? is published by Hachette Australia
Political memoirs in Australia often create splashy headlines and controversy. But we should not dismiss the publication of former Liberal MP Julia Banks’ book, Power Play, as just the latest in a genre full of scandals and secrets.
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.
The power of a memoir
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.
The efforts of a range of academics across Africa have produced a new anthology of articles about sport on the continent. It’s an important book because it’s a subject that’s been largely neglected.
Sports in Africa, Past and Present engages with the core themes that have emerged from a series of conferences. Chapters provide an array of sporting windows through which to view and understand key developments in Africans’ experiences with leisure and professional sporting activities.
The history of African sports is also a history of Africans’ reception and appropriation of an assortment of “modern sports” that European colonisers introduced. If Europeans colonised Africa, as the maxim goes, with a gun in one hand and the Bible in the other, they were also equipped with soccer, rugby and cricket balls.
Notwithstanding the intentions of the colonial powers, historians of African sports have established that the indigenous practitioners were hardly passive consumers. They contested various aspects and fashioned new meanings of these sports.
Various chapters address the roles that sport played during and after decolonisation. It helped shape local and national identities in newly independent African states. They also look at the ways in which individuals, communities and governments have used sports in contemporary Africa for social and political ends.
Covering a continent
One of the themes in the book is the impact of colonisation, and how African players responded to various restrictions on their participation.
Africans were typically banned from white settlers’ sports clubs and associations. They often responded by forming teams and leagues of their own. This helped foster the development of distinct identities. In certain cases, these autonomous efforts at sporting organisations even simulated institution building in an imagined post-colonial state.
Trishula Patel’s chapter on cricket in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), for example, examines how the game helped reinforce various identities of the resident Indian community. Members struggled to negotiate racial discrimination at the hands of the white settler regime. Mark Fredericks demonstrates how the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the attendant unification of rugby and other sports leagues, signalled the death knell for community sports. In practice this meant the end of mass-based sports in black communities.
David Drengk’s chapter on surfing along the then Transkei Wild Coast and Todd Leedy’s chapter on the history of bicycle racing complicate ideas of interracial interactions during the apartheid era. Meaningful interactions could and did occur between black and white South Africans, or at least basic tolerance and respect.
The Nigeria women’s national soccer team has faced gender discrimination in a deeply patriarchal society. Chuka Onwumechili and Jasmin M. Goodman set out how players have used a series of sports-related strategies to push back against a range of sexist structures and entities. These include the Nigerian Football Federation.
Solomon Waliaula’s chapter offers significant insight into the pay-to-watch football kiosks that are ubiquitous throughout the continent, though his focus is on Kenya. He refutes the notion that because participants pay to watch European soccer, western culture dictates the dynamics in these settings. Instead, he argues, these spaces function based on local realities, cultural norms and social relations.
Christian Ungruhe and Sine Agergaard consider the acute challenges that West African football migrants face in Europe when their playing careers end.
Going back in time, Francois Cleophas reconstructs the experiences of Milo Pillay, a South African-born ethnic Indian physical culturalist. His weightlifting story illustrates the racial challenges that athletes faced, and at times surmounted, during the apartheid era.
Michelle Sikes uses the example of elite sprinter Seraphino Antao to highlight the challenges and opportunities that sports generated in the final years of British colonial control in Kenya and early independence. In an attempt to cultivate a common identity and purpose, leaders opportunistically trumpeted Antao’s successes. Politicians throughout the continent similarly used sports to build national unity in the aftermath of imperial overrule.
Marizanne Grundlingh examines the museum associated with South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon. In particular, she considers the ways that the race is remembered through gift-giving. Former participants donate various items for display, adding to the emerging subfield of sports as heritage.
Positive change through (studying) sports
Research on sports in Africa has gained considerable traction. But, like books such as Sports in Africa, the introduction of this topic into the classroom has lagged behind.
Three chapters address course design, approaches and learning outcomes. They also consider how African sports content can hone students’ critical analysis capabilities, digital research methods and intercultural learning skills.
Todd Cleveland draws on his experiences teaching the history of sports in Africa to offer lessons and insights. Matt Carotenuto’s chapter brings the reader into the world of a liberal arts institution. He offers advice based on his experiences teaching courses in African athletes and global sport.
Peter Alegi’s chapter looks at his experiences teaching an undergraduate seminar that examines the intertwined relationships between sports, race and power in South Africa.
We hope that the book can help precipitate positive change in the classroom and on the continent. And that it can enable practitioners, supporters and observers to better understand the lifeworlds in which sports are played and take on meaning.
In the third decade of the new millennium, despite many publishers still seeing black women’s writing as having a limited market, readers have far more access than before to publications by writers from the global South. In particular, the perspectives of black women are certainly more visible in the public domain.
Yet gaps and erasures – based on intellectual authority, financial resources and visibility in the knowledge commons – mean that it’s still easier for work by black, postcolonial and decolonial feminists from global centres to secure publication and wide distribution.
As a result, the growing audience of radical young readers grappling with questions about race, gender, sexuality and freedom in global peripheries often have to turn to critical writing outside their national contexts, which inflect the topics they want to explore. Even for many restless and radical readers in the global North, much remains silenced and absent.
In the new book Surfacing: On Being Black and Feminist in South Africa, South African author Zukiswa Wanner has contributed a piece titled Do I Make You Uncomfortable? about writing in a white publishing industry.
It reminds us that black women writers in South Africa have distinct experiences of being stereotyped. Wanner sums this up in her confrontation with one reviewer who described her work as “chick lit”.
And if black women are the majority in South Africa and I am therefore the standard, shouldn’t it just be called a good book? And I was chick lit versus what? Could she point out to me the male authors in South Africa whose books she’d referred to as ‘cock lit’? Take (JM) Coetzee, with his women characters who aren’t well-rounded and don’t seem to have any agency; was he cock lit?
Undocumented and innovative
Surfacing traces a path within black South African feminist thought in 20 dazzling chapters. The collection shows how radical black South African women have been part of several traditions of undocumented intellectual and artistic legacies. In the book Mary Hames recalls, for example, the radical spaces outside conventional classrooms in which she studied banned material during the anti-apartheid struggle.
Our aim as editors was to show how writers in the academy, fiction-writing, journalism and the art world are grappling innovatively with essential topics. Like the politics of self, the complexities of sexual freedoms and identities beyond the blunt frameworks of human rights models. And how to think about “knowledge” more completely and adventurously.
The rich descriptions and interpretations of local realities in Surfacing refine the categories of transnational and black feminism. They bring the breadth of black feminist engagement in the south of the continent into fuller view.
Sara Baartman and Winnie Mandela
The book is acutely aware of the contrast between the absence of acknowledgement of most black South African women writers and the way certain women, like Khoi historical figure Sara Baartman and activist and politician Winnie Mandela, have been made into global icons. It therefore starts with reflections on them.
Sara Baartman has been exhaustively examined in the north and Winnie Mandela has been the subject of numerous biographical, fictional and non-fictional projects by white scholars.
Intervening into this legacy, author Sisonke Msimang writes an emphatically self-reflexive study which reframes Winnie Mandela. Yet in doing so her interest “was never about ‘cleaning up’ her image or revising facts. It was about recognising that the facts about her required contextualisation.”
Most publications by black South African women are seen as testimonial or fictional. But the contributors of Surfacing seek both to contribute to and to interpret existing bodies of knowledge. In addition, the collection will undoubtedly be remembered for its enthralling writing.
Many chapters take the elastic form of the personal essay. For example, academic and poet Danai S. Mupotsa draws on poetry to talk about experiences of both intimate and public scale. Academic and author Pumla Dineo Gqola pens a playfully serious letter to the South African artist Gabrielle Goliath. And photographer and curator Ingrid Masondo collaboratively authors an essay with the photographers about whom she writes.
In other pieces, academic and author Barbara Boswell recounts her fascinating exchanges with feminist student activists during the #RhodesMustFall protests in her essay about the meanings of pioneering feminist author Miriam Tlali for the present. Academic Grace Musila’s delightful My Two Husbands unfurls the experience of being a brilliant student whose intellectual accomplishment was seen by some men as undermining theirs. Yet within her family her education constituted a cherished and defining achievement.
Several chapters in the collection trace the intersections of religion and feminist thinking in South Africa. Academics Sa’diyya Shaikh and Fatima Seedat offer vivid reflections as Muslim feminists on the costs of feminist neglect of the gender of divinity. Dancer, choreographer and academic jackï job’s striking memoir traces a shift from Christian expectations of how to be a “lady” to finding a language in dance for becoming “more than just this body”. And scholar and activist gertrude fester-wicomb recounts her experience as a Christian lesbian anti-apartheid activist of the constrained spaces for queerness during the 1980s.
How to recover histories in the face of reticence is evocatively described by essayist and novelist Panashe Chigumadzi. Through patient listening, she discovers how to hear the language of her grandmother’s silences. In The Music of My Orgasm, anthologist, essayist and poet Makhosazana Xaba movingly testifies to the heritage of feminism she received from her grandfather and her mother. She describes how she learned to cultivate the pleasures of her own body as a force of radical sexual and political liberation.
In their tender relationship to the land on which they grow organic food and medicine, historian and farmer Yvette Abrahams and sociologist and activist Patricia McFadden’s chapters map a visionary future of sharing and abundance.
Why these writings matter
Throughout the book, it is therefore made clear that foregrounding the positionality of the writer – the social and political contexts that shape their identities – can deepen what is being said.
Who the author is and what perspective she speaks from are in fact integral to her view of the world.
Contrary to advocates of “universality” and “detachment”, this stance seeks to strengthen growing efforts to “surface” the rich diversity of ways of seeing and understanding our world.
Surfacing: On Being Black and Feminist in South Africa is available from Wits University Press