As readers and followers of this Blog will know, I have been an avid reader of the Patrick O’Brian novels in the Aubrey/Maturin series. So when I came across this article concerning the unknown poetry of Patrick O’Brian it caught my attention. Next year, probably in March 2019, this collection of Patrick O’Brian poetry will be published as ‘The Uncertain Land and Other Poems.’
Most memoirs are soon forgotten.
A rare exception is Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” which was published in 1968. It spoke to the day’s pressing issues – poverty, race and civil rights – with an urgent timeliness.
Fifty years later, the book still commands a wide readership. Read each year by thousands of high school and college students, it remains a Random House backlist best-seller – a title that continues to sell with little to no marketing.
As I research Anne Moody’s life for my upcoming biography, I often wonder what her memoir’s continued popularity means. Does it signal dramatic progress on race relations in the U.S. – or does it instead show us that, as former Sen. Ted Kennedy wrote in 1969, “If things are somewhat different, then they are not different enough.”
Till’s death opens Moody’s eyes
Written when Moody was 28 years old, “Coming of Age” is a gripping story. In spare, direct prose, she takes readers into the world of African-American sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South. As a child, she chopped and picked cotton, cleaned houses for white people, and wondered why whites had better everything – better bathrooms, better schools and better seats in the movie theater.
That mystery remained unsolved when, in 1955, Moody learned that white men had killed a black boy her age just a few hours’ drive north. The killing felt personal.
“Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil,” she wrote. “But now there was … the fear of being killed just because I was black.”
Closer to home, whites ran her cousin out of town, brutally beat a classmate, and burned an entire family alive in their home. Amid such horrors, Moody feared a nervous breakdown.
But she resolved to resist.
In 1963, Moody became infamous in Mississippi after she challenged racial segregation in what would be the era’s most violent lunch-counter sit-in. At the Woolworth’s in Jackson, Mississippi, white men shoved Moody off her stool, dragged her across the floor by her hair and, when she crawled back, smeared her with ketchup, sugar and mustard.
Photographer Fred Blackwell captured a now-iconic image of this day, with Moody seated in the middle.
In the early 1960s, Moody worked tirelessly as an organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality in Canton, Mississippi. But after facing daily death threats, she fled to the North, where she moved from city to city, raising money for the movement.
At each stop, she described what it was like to come of age, as a black woman, in Mississippi. At one, she shared a stage with baseball great Jackie Robinson, who urged her to write down her story.
So she did.
After “Coming of Age in Mississippi” was published, the response was split.
Some readers viewed the book as – in the words of one reviewer for The New Republic – a “measure of how far we have come.” To them, the worst of racism was over, and Moody’s account served as a stark reminder of how bad things once were.
Others, however, read Moody’s experiences of racism as simply one chapter in a current and ongoing struggle – “the sickening story of the way it still is for thousands who are black in the American South,” as Robert Colby Nelson wrote for The Christian Science Monitor.
Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy read it both ways.
He called the memoir “a history of our time, seen from the bottom up, through the eyes of someone who decided for herself that things had to be changed.” Still, he regretted that the book did not mention recent advances, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enabled the election of several black public officials in Moody’s own hometown.
Meanwhile, for decades, Southern media outlets and public institutions shunned “Coming of Age in Mississippi” and Anne Moody herself. Hostile whites in Moody’s hometown of Centreville, Mississippi even threatened to kill her if she ever returned.
How much has really changed?
By contrast, today, “Coming of Age” shows up on high school and college reading lists throughout the South, and Anne Moody appears among 21 authors pictured on the Mississippi Literary Map. Her crumbling childhood home sits on the recently renamed Anne Moody Street and Anne Moody Memorial Highway, which now connects Centreville and Woodville, the town where she graduated from high school.
In Moody’s day, local public officials were all white. Now they more closely reflect the county’s 75 percent black population.
In 1963, Moody mourned the assassination of her beloved colleague, Medgar Evers, president of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and watched in horror as local whites refused to convict his murderer. Thirty years later, Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted of homocide and imprisoned for life. Today, visitors who fly into the Mississippi state capital, land at Jackson-Evers International Airport.
These shifts make “Coming of Age” seem, to many readers, an inspiring account of survival, resistance and victory.
But to others, the book is anything but a triumphalist story. Instead, its lessons are grim: In retrospect, civil rights victories seem superficial, while the brutal poverty and racism Moody described endures.
Compared to whites, black people in the U.S. are more than twice as likely to die in infancy, three times more likely to be poor, three times more likely to be killed by police, five times more likely to be imprisoned and seven times more likely to be murdered. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that emboldened states around the country to create new restrictions that prevent black citizens from voting.
Anne Moody was one of the lucky ones. She graduated from college, moved north and published a best-selling memoir.
But despite the accolades, television appearances, radio interviews and speaking engagements, she could never really escape Jim Crow Mississippi. It had deprived her of her family and a place to truly call home.
“Coming of Age” ends with Moody listening to civil rights workers sing the anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
“I wonder,” she wrote. “I really wonder.”
Fifty years later, many of us are still wondering.
Leigh Ann Wheeler, Professor of History, Binghamton University, State University of New York
The link below is to a book review of ‘Erebus – The Story of a Ship,’ by Michael Palin.
The links below are to reviews of ‘Thomas Cromwell – A Life,’ by Diarmaid MacCulloch.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that explores a number of books on Donald Trump as president of the USA.
The link below is to a book review of ‘Fear – trump in the White House,’ by Bob Woodward.
Over the past three decades the Miles Franklin shortlists have contained a healthy serve of history, from the poised historical fiction of authors such as David Malouf and Roger McDonald, to the past-in-present fabulations of Alexis Wright and Richard Flanagan. Another is Kim Scott, twice winner of the award, and part of the current shortlist with his most recent novel Taboo.
Scott’s literary output over the past two decades powerfully immerses and reimmerses itself in the same regional terrain of Western Australia’s southern coastal region – the traditional home of the Wirlomen Nyoongar people. Even more specifically, much of his work circles around one event, the Kukanerup Massacre.
This scene of traumatic horror, in which 30-40 Aboriginal men, women and children were killed, was a series of reprisal killings for the death of settler John Dunn in the 1880s. The massacre is vividly rendered in Scott’s Benang (1998). The blood of hanged Nyoongar bodies slowly drips into the ground and the land itself bleeds in empathetic response to inexpressible torment.
In Kayang and Me (a 2012 memoir co-written with Scott’s Aunty Hazel Brown) and more recently, Taboo, the massacre reappears, as if it is uncontainable, too complicated, traumatic, and politically vexed for any one story. Even more problematic, even for a storyteller of Scott’s calibre, is how to tell a story that the victim’s descendents may not necessarily want told. To speak of the massacre is the titular taboo, a cultural ban that has lasted over a century.
Since 2014, Australia has compulsively memorialised its national war history with televised memorial services from monuments in Gallipolli, Posierre and, this year, Villers-Bretonneux. In the coming weeks there will be events recognising The Battle of Mont St Quentin, breaking the Hindenburg Line and then, eventually, the armistice centenary on November 11.
Why do we want to recognise some events and “bury”, literally and metaphorically, others? Simply put, military histories – offensive and defensive positions, battles won and lost – are nationally palatable. Without wishing to downplay the very real suffering of soldiers, widows and orphaned children, some of Australia’s more respected thinkers agree that, a century on, we are now collectively “toploaded” with a degree of historical detail that makes remembering an old war paradoxically comforting.
There are so many other events we should also remember. While much colonial violence is woefully under-memorialised, Scott’s work, and particularly Taboo, shows us a way forward.
The plot of Scott’s Taboo has close ties to actual memorial events surrounding the Kukanerup massacre. In 2015, a sculpture and walk were officially opened near Ravensthorpe on Western Australia’s southern coast. Rather than marking a grave, the memorial references the wings of a wedge-tailed eagle and mallee-fowl. Likewise, the memorial walk uses natural features and details of the place, geography, animals and birds, people and the stories that tie people and place together.
The memorial was the result of almost a decade in careful planning, and is evidence of a positive coming together of the Ravensthorpe farming communities and the Nyoongar people of the south coast, many of whom have been separated from this vital part of their ancestral country for many decades. Yet in some ways, the process of memorialisation that came before the monument was even more important.
In this way, Scott’s novel Taboo is an essential companion to the Kukenarup memorial. The book follows divided communities as they come together around the memorial, and the pain and angst of recognising a past palpably present. Many of these communities are ravaged with drug use, criminality, violence and other effects of intergenerational trauma that trouble Indigenous communities in settler states across the globe.
Scott’s novel is a poetic rendition of the complexities of remembering. Storytelling – shifting, engaged and participatory – is vital to this process. In Taboo, this is symbolised by a singing or “yarning” skeleton, revealed as soft river sands subside and with a story to tell. It’s a paradoxically heartening symbol compared to the blood-soaked traumascape of Scott’s earlier version of the massacre in Benang.
A curl of sand, or ash, in a twisting gust of wind reveal stories that exist to be told. Their time may at last be here.
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Jo Jones is the author of Falling Backwards: Australian Historical Fiction and The History Wars, published August 2018.
It is a matter of wonder that Behrouz Boochani was able to write No Friend but the Mountains at all. He did so while in Manus prison, using text messages in Farsi on smuggled mobile phones. Egyptian and Australian academic Omid Tofighian worked closely with Boochani to translate the text into English. In a detailed introduction to the book, Tofighian explains that Boochani’s writing contributes to a Kurdish literary tradition. He describes his style as “horror surrealism”.
This is not how I experienced the book. Although the imagery Boochani shares is horrific, and the brutality of the prison environment is almost beyond belief, Boochani is bearing witness to a system of detention that is part of contemporary Australian policy, and to which he is an on-going victim. This is no piece of imagination.
For me, the book invokes Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for its use of insanity and humour to explore the brutality of authority, and Shahram Khosravi’s ‘Illegal’ Traveller for its meditation on state techniques for exclusion through the eyes of the excluded.
The book begins with Boochani boarding a boat somewhere on Java, hoping to reach Australia. In elegant prose, he brings to life the refugee journey through detailed observations of his fellow travellers. He describes a rapid collapse of order:
Men lie in the arms of another’s wife, children lie on the bellies of strangers. It seems they have all forgotten … the energy spent establishing a gender-based order.
A storm destroys the boat with waves the size of mountains that transport him back to the mountains in his native land.
Where is this place? Why is my mother dancing?
After being rescued, a short interlude on Christmas Island begins the clinical process of dehumanising the asylum seekers. They are issued flip-flops and ill-fitting clothes, regularly strip-searched, exposed to CCTV in toilets, moved from cage to cage through layers of bureaucracy, and finally escorted (or carried) by two guards per prisoner to an plane bound for Manus Island.
From this moment, the sense of a journey ends, and the book is a meditation on survival in a prison system intent on destroying the prisoners’ will.
Australians accept detention on Nauru and Manus as a “necessary evil” to prevent an uncontrollable flow of asylum seekers to Australia by boat. Boochani dissects this necessary evil. He sits us on a white plastic chair, our feet on the wire border fence, overlooking the jungle.
There is no silence. Only the constant grind of an old tractor generator, the whirr of fans, the noise of hundreds of prisoners crammed into a space the size of a football field, the static of the guards’ walkie-talkies signalling an incident.
Boochani takes us on a sensory tour of the Manus prison. The smells – body odour and bad breath, rotting vegetation, diesel and excrement. The rubbing against one another in the tight spaces – flesh on hairy, sweaty flesh.
The uniforms are reminiscent of dystopian regimes – nurses in orange carrying boxes of yellow pills, local guards in purple, medical staff in white, and Australian federal police in flak jackets with shields and black gloves with metal spikes.
The heat is oppressive. The bottled water so warm it does not quench one’s thirst. The only relief is a huge shade tree in the middle of the complex.
We learn of the daily routine, the constant queuing for meals, for the toilet, for cigarettes, for the telephone. Through a detailed analysis of how these queues operate, we begin to understand the way institutional power breaks the spirit of the prisoners by pitting one against another, and using an unbending authority to remove all human compassion.
In one incident, a man cannot swap his place in the telephone queue to speak to his dying father because the regulations make no provision for it. An appeal to a higher authority brings out the Boss, backed by 12 police officers. The Boss places his hand on the shoulder of The Man with the Dying Father (as Boochani calls him) and calmly explains that the rules are the rules.
The queues mean that stronger prisoners eat well, and weaker ones starve. Bouchani marvels at the fortitude of The Cow, a brick of a man, who is prepared to sit in the heat of the sun for hours to ensure his place at the front of the meal queue.
In the first few months of detention, there is still a sense of resistance. Maysan the Whore entertains prisoners most nights with wild dancing in innovative costumes of bed sheets, “pretending to be happy as a form of revenge”. But eventually Maysan begins to deteriorate. “We must find another way to cope with exile”, Boochani laments.
Boochani shares his own weakness, anger, frustration and despair. He does not romanticise these feelings. He simply observes.
Periodically, he tries to make sense of his experience, musing on the strategies of oppression. He describes Manus prison as a Kyriarchal system, a system of total psychological control.
The generator, which Boochani calls Mr Generator, breaks down periodically, leaving rooms unbearably hot and filled with mosquitoes. Just when the tension is unbearable, the generator resumes.
Games are not allowed. When prisoners create a makeshift backgammon board on a table using bottle lids, it is destroyed.
How can it be that soccer balls are prohibited, but cigarettes are always available?
Milk is offered as a special treat. The allocation is always half a cup. If a cup is overfilled, even slightly, it is removed and binned. Why not just redistribute the milk? The lack of logic “confines the mind of the prisoner”, Boochani writes, “leaving him just trying to cope”.
The toilets flow with excrement. They are a place for sex. A place to cut wrists with a razor. Despite risk of punishment, people prefer to piss behind bushes after dark.
The sights and sounds outside the walls are important for retaining hope and sanity – the sound of the ocean just behind a thin strip of forest, the coconut trees, the chauka birds and crickets, the sunsets and phases of the moon, the white flowers along the sewage line.
The prisoner’s imagination is always occupied with the world beyond the fences.
Poetic streams of consciousness intersperse the narrative, and Boochani is occasionally transported back to the Kurdistan of his childhood. At these moments, the reader is with Boochani at the fence as he lets his mind run free, interpreting the confusion of his existence in this place of torture. These interludes make the book more intensely personal without descending into romanticism or self-pity.
The book ends with the description of a riot in the prison. The full brutality of authority is unleashed in response. We learn that The Gentle Giant, Reza Barati, has been killed.
No Friend but the Mountains reveals that Manus prison is designed to break the will of refugees so they see no option but to return home. It leaves no doubt that any prisoner who chooses to repatriate has been driven to do so through the brutality of the prison system, in clear breach of Australia’s non-refoulement obligation under the UNHCR’s 1951 Refugee Convention.
Every Australian should read this book and marvel at the extent of our brutality, the human cost of a “necessary evil”.
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No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison is available in bookstores and online.