Laura Elizabeth Woollett is the author of The Love of a Bad Man (Scribe, 2016) and Beautiful Revolutionary (Scribe, 2018). She was the City of Melbourne’s 2020 Boyd Garret writer-in-residence and is a 2020–22 Marten Bequest Scholar for Prose. The Newcomer (Scribe, 2021) is her latest novel.
Life as Art: The biographical writing of Hazel Rowley by Della Rowley and Lynn Buchanan
The biographer Hazel Rowley enjoyed the fact that her green card – permitting her to work in America – classified her as an ‘Alien of exceptional ability’. This is close to perfect: her own biography in a few words. If not exactly an alien, she was usefully and often shrewdly awry in a variety of situations: in the academic world of the 1990s, in tense Parisian literary circles, and in the fraught environment of American race relations. It helped that she was Australian, and a relative outsider. The people she sought information from were less likely to categorise her and more inclined to talk. Her books – the major biographies of Christina Stead (1993) and Richard Wright (2001), Tête-à-tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (2005), and Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage (2010) – are certainly evidence of exceptional ability, as well as obsession and tenacity.
One interpretation of the facts is that Jean-Michel Houvrée produced his most arresting art only after he had died. Born in 1694 in Ariège-sur-Mentouin, a village a few kilometres north of Carcassone, to a moderately prosperous inn-owner and his wife, he was brought up a Catholic but embraced Jansenism in his early twenties. He was educated at the local village school until the age of fourteen: an indifferent scholar in the classroom, he was an avid student of the natural world. He was a good boy, obedient to his parents, kind to his friends, open to the loving grace of God. He had big feet, thick black hair, dark brown eyes, a shy smile. Any free time he had after assisting his father in the inn, he would wander the sun-baked lanes and fields carrying cheese and home-baked bread in his bag, beneath a sky colour-washed fresh each day by his Creator.
The convict Thomas Brooks was transported to Sydney in 1818. He had been sentenced to seven years but would serve twenty-seven, with stints in some of Australia’s most brutal penal settlements. His life became a cycle of escape attempts, recapture, and punishment. Each grab for freedom made his chains heavier, the floggings ever more severe. Eventually the penal system broke him, his spirit and will to escape crushed. When Brooks was finally released, he went bush, content to live in a humpy, drink, and ponder his past. He wondered how Britain could see fit to abolish slavery and yet maintain the convict system. ‘For our slavery there was no balm. Those who believed in the freedom of men had cast us out; and those who were incapable of reflection must have seen the impassable gulph between the stains of our bondage and the free position of honest liberty.’
Animal by Lisa Taddeo
In the prologue to her first book, Three Women (2019), a work of non-fiction exploring the structures and expressions of desire, Lisa Taddeo writes that she had not initially intended to focus on women. ‘I thought I’d be drawn to the stories of men. Their yearnings. The way they could overturn an empire for a girl on bended knee.’ It was not until she began interviewing her subjects that she noticed that, while the stories of men all seemed to adhere to the same pattern, women’s stories were tantalisingly oblique; when a woman spoke of desiring a man, it was almost never (or never just) the man himself that she wanted. At first, the question that Three Women poses is: Why do these women desire the men that they do? But the further Taddeo delves inside the lives of her case studies (Maggie, the abused teenager; Lina, the woman in a loveless marriage; Sloane, the pariah of her community), the more the question becomes: Why, after everything that men have done to them, do women continue to desire men at all?
She’d offered to lay the table (‘Oh no’) or make a salad (‘It’s basically out of a bag’). What she could do, said Amy, was track down That Child, ‘somewhere down the garden. It’s terribly overgrown.’ Borrow my boots if you like, she called at Elizabeth’s departing back. The child, when found, was in a dead apple tree, not dangerously high, but in a controlled dangling.
Smuggled: An illegal history of journeys to Australia by Ruth Balint and Julie Kalman
Professors Ruth Balint and Julie Kalman are descended from Jews impacted by the Holocaust. No surprise then that in the introductory sentences of this work they remind us that the first people smuggler was probably Moses. Throughout the Jewish year, we study this colossus, who may or may not have existed, as he leads the Hebrews out of Pharaoh’s bondage into the desert toward a promised land. For much of the past two thousand years, Jews have relied on people smugglers as they were shunted from country to country. In Smuggled: An illegal history of journeys to Australia, Balint and Kalman detach the people smuggler from the politicised, malign tropes surrounding this activity and present firsthand accounts from some of those who were smuggled and from the smugglers themselves.
The First Time I Thought I Was Dying by Sarah Walker
In The First Time I Thought I Was Dying, the photographer–artist Sarah Walker brings into focus ideas about anxiety, control, bodily functions, and the uses of breached boundaries. The essays of this book are personal, and readers of confessional non-fiction will delight in their tone: equal parts jocose and sincere.
Let’s start with a portrait. The year is 1993. The book is My Kind of People. Its author is Wayne Coolwell, a journalist. Who are Coolwell’s kind of people? Ernie Dingo, for one. Sandra Eades. Noel Pearson. Archie Roach. And there, sandwiched between opera singer Maroochy Barambah and dancer Linda Bonson is Stan Grant, aged thirty. Circa 1993, Grant is a breakthrough television presenter and journalist whose mother remembers him coming home to read the newspaper while the other kids went to play footy. ‘[T]here was a maturity and a sense of order about him,’ Coolwell writes. The order belies his parents’ life of ‘tin humpies, dirt floors, and usually only the one bed for all the kids in the family’.
Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?: The Dark Emu debate by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe
For anyone who has spent substantial time recording Aboriginal cultural traditions in remote areas of Australia with its most senior living knowledge holders, bestselling writer Bruce Pascoe’s view that Aboriginal people were agriculturalists has never rung true. Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate – co-authored by veteran Australian anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe – has already been welcomed by Aboriginal academics Hannah McGlade and Victoria Grieve-Williams, who reject Dark Emu’s hypothesis that their ancestors were farmers (like Pascoe himself).
Racism: Stories on fear, hate and bigotry edited by Winnie Dunn, Stephen Pham, and Phoebe Grainer
Sweatshop, based in Western Sydney, is a writing and literacy organisation that mentors emerging writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Racism, their ninth anthology, brings together all thirty-nine writers involved in their three programs – the Sweatshop Writers Group, Sweatshop Women Collective, and Sweatshop Schools Initiative.
As the March and April evenings grew hotter, the streets of East Beirut were as empty as our calendars. The grumble of traffic had disappeared. Without the usual smokescreen, the nearby mountains and coastline were visible for weeks. Parks are scarce in Beirut and gardens are private, but this spring, vines and bougainvillea were clambering over the high walls and no one was trimming them. It was possible to take solitary walks and hear birdsong.